The hardback novel: surprisingly resilient. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
It’s not a surprise that ebooks are booming, nor that mass-market paperbacks are suffering. What’s fascinating is how well hardback books are still selling.
By Peter Preston
Can it be good news or bad news that the six Booker prize contenders have already sold a record 37,500 copies, some 127% more than 2010’s chosen sextet managed last year? Bad news, sniff some, because high-minded quality ought to come first. Good news, say bookstore owners, beaming all the way to the bank and getting ready for a Jamie Oliver Christmas bonanza. But maybe the crispest conclusion is simply that this is fascinating news. Because the last time I looked, traditional books, involving words printed on paper, were supposed to be dying as the tornado of digital destruction swept on.
Monstrous gloom is still easy to find, sure enough. Take the latest book sales revenue statistics – for June – from the Association of American Publishers. They show adult paperback cash sliding by an eye-watering 63.8% in 12 months, nearly $85m gone missing. And hardcover sales are down 25.4%, too, while ebooks, via Kindle, iPad and Nook, boom away, up 167% for the month, a $50m rise.
Yet even America, in the teeth of the economic storm, can find some comfort in the relative resilience of many hardback categories, as well as books for children. And while the tablet surge may not quite be covering the losses on printed pages yet, it’s still buoyant enough to allow cannier differential pricing. Factor in the happy thought that ebooks don’t sit around in warehouses waiting for pulping, that demand and supply are cost-effectively matched, and there are some new reasons for a cautious grin.
And Britain? Here, too, the Kindle is surging forward: sales up 20% last year, and this year Amazon.co.uk says it is selling 242 ebooks for every 100 hardcovers. Enter last week, on the US horizon, the new all-singing and dancing Kindle Fire plus two updated ebook versions, priced ever more competitively. The worldwide rate of change is fast, fast, fast.
Yet observe that, according to the Publishers Association, UK book sales were only 7.5% down for the first three months of 2011, and only 4.9% down in revenue terms. Moreover (a consistent, significant theme) hardbacks aren’t suffering nearly as much as paperbacks.