New chapter? UK print book sales fall while audiobooks surge 43%

Publishers hit by surprise 5.4% fall in 2018 – but warn against proclaiming terminal decline

UK book sales fell for the first time in five years in 2018, despite the success of bestsellers such as Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming.

The UK publishing industry was hit by a surprise fall of £168m (5.4%) in sales of physical books last year, ending a period of growth stretching back to at least 2014.

Sales fell from £3.11bn in 2017 to £2.95bn last year, according to the latest figures from the Publishers Association, which published its annual yearbook on Wednesday.

Graphic

Audiobook sales surged 43% to £69m last year, with Amazon’s Audible service dominating sales. However, Stephen Lotinga, the chief executive of the Publishers Association, said this was not the sole reason for the decline in print sales.

“One of the biggest changes has been the increase in audiobook sales,” said Lotinga. “There is some substitution away from print, audio has surged, but there was also always going to be a point where print sales couldn’t continue rising every year.”

Some of the biggest hits last year included Michelle Obama’s Becoming, published in print and as an audiobook, which is on its way to becoming the most successful memoir in modern publishing history.

Other big sellers included Joe Wicks’s The Fat-Loss Plan: 100 Quick and Easy Recipes with Workouts, Michael Wolff’s White House exposé Fire and Fury and John Grisham’s The Rooster Bar.

Lotinga said the rise in the popularity of podcasts, with the music streaming giant Spotify spending up to $500m this year buying podcast companies to tap the boom, was indirectly helping the book market.

“We think that podcasting is helping to drive a resurgence in audio in general, including books,” he said. “Publishers are investing a huge amount in building [recording] studios and securing the services of top quality actors to voice the books. We think the whole audio scene is showing huge opportunity.”

However, he warned against pronouncing the beginning of a terminal decline in physical book sales in the same way the music industry has experienced with the move from CD to streaming in the last decade.

Sales of printed books still accounted for over 80% of the combined print and digital UK book market of £3.6bn last year.

Overall, the digital book market, which as well as audiobooks includes ebook sales and subscriptions to services such as Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, rose 4.6% to £653m.

“I’m not concerned that this could be a watershed moment for the printed book, we are not there yet,” said Lotinga. “We have not seen a huge shift into subscription services, piracy is low, people still love physical books. It is a trend halt, sales are still up 8% over the last five years.”

Consumer ebook sales continued their slow decline, down 2% to £251m. Sales have fallen 20% since 2014 as rising competition for screen time from services such as Netflix, Facebook and YouTube continues to eat away at the popularity of ebooks and ereaders.

Total sales of UK-published books domestically and overseas, including income from print and digital journals, academic and reference books, rose 2% to £6bn last year.

Contributor

Mark Sweney

The GuardianTramp

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