Apparent Rise in Print Book Sales is More a Trick than a Triumph

On December 21, book traditionalists celebrated an apparent increase in this year’s sales of printed books. But the 2% rise in sales reported by Nielsen BookScan – which constitutes a major success in the foundering book industry – unfortunately has more to do with adult coloring books and ebook price negotiations than it does with a return to loyalty to the (physically) printed word.

For the book traditionalist, such a rise in sales ideally indicates the return of good literacy and common sense. Folks have seen the error of their digital ways; they miss The Book and they want it back. But from a content perspective, the numbers are misleading: Nielsen’s statistics represent about 85% of the print market, which includes everything from adult coloring books to self-published memoirs by YouTube stars soaking up their 15 minutes of fame. In fact, without the skyrocketing trend of adult coloring books (which, according to Amazon, accounted for 5 of the 10 best-selling books in the United States this year), we might not have seen an increase in print sales at all. Is the book really back?

Perhaps more difficult to quantify is the effect rising ebook prices have had on the sale of printed books. Years ago, Amazon leveraged its ability to set its own prices by selling ebooks for a fraction of the price of their print counterparts. This increased sales both for Amazon ebooks and for their proprietary e-reading device, the Kindle. Publishers, on the other hand, fought for the right to set ebook prices themselves – even going so far as to engage in what the U.S. Justice Department deemed illegal collusion with Apple in order to coerce Amazon into allowing them to employ “agency pricing.” Ultimately, and despite the publishers’ collusion with Apple, Amazon capitulated – causing an immediate increase in ebook prices and a correlating drop in ebook sales. Essentially, Nielsen’s 2015 numbers make print look good only because e- is doing badly.

In this way, the “war” between print and digital appears to be auto-referential. Desperate and afraid of losing control of their digital content, publishers colluded with one distributor to force another to bend to their will. They punished ebooks in order to boost print sales, but ultimately only created the illusion of success.

Where does this leave us? Perhaps if publishers were to focus less on the print/digital divide and more on the content itself, we would see both more innovative and more successful publishing products and initiatives. Modern technology grants publishers the opportunity to enhance their offerings to something beyond the printed word; but it’s up to the publishers themselves to make the leap – practically and theoretically – from selling stories to selling experiences.

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