Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2015 Issue

The Inevitable Transition from Paper to Electronic Books May Not Be So Inevitable After All

Trends in books sales, courtesy of Association of American Publishers.

Recently released data from book and publisher organizations in the U.S. and Canada reveal some surprising results. The inevitable transition from print and paper to electronic impulses and e-readers may not be quite so inevitable after all. The rapid transition of a few years ago seems to have stalled. There may even be some slight backtracking, though essentially it appears the shift has flat-lined.

 

Normally, considerations involving new books are not topics for a website devoted to rare and antiquarian books. However, to those concerned about where the next generation of collectors will arise, sales of new books do matter. Many collectors collect that which they know, and especially that which they knew in their youth. Those raised reading digital imprints on the screens of Kindles and iPhones are less than ideal prospects for book collecting later. If you didn't like printed books when you were young, why would you want to collect them when you are older?

 

According to figures recently released by the Association of American Publishers, eBook sales for the first half of 2015, compared to the same period a year earlier, were down by 10.3%. We would caution against reading too much into this number. It doesn't mean eBooks are about to disappear. There has been some up and down over the past few years in the category. Last year, for whatever reason, there was a huge spike in children's and young adults' books pushing up eBook numbers. Much of that increase was given back this year. There was also a dip of 11% in the sale of hardcover books this year. However, what we do notice is that, after several years of rapid growth, the sales of eBooks essentially have become flat. The same is true of hardcover books.

 

On the other hand, sales grew substantially in the category of mass market and paperback books. Paperback sales were up by 12.5% over last year. This number was particularly notable as sales of paperbacks had been steadily declining for years. This was a clear reversal of direction. What we may be seeing here is something of a return to the paper format by those seeking a book convenient for reading. Despite the advent of electronic books, many people have continued to prefer books that can be handled, their pages opened. What we have not seen before is a sign that perhaps some who moved to an electronic format in the past, or are new/younger readers, also may prefer reading paper books.

 

Results from Canada were similar, although spikes were more flattened out in that market. Comparing 2015 to 2013, Booknet Canada (a non-profit organization designed to help the book trade) found a very slight decrease in eBooks' market share. It went from a hair over 17% of book sales to a hair under. Paperbacks saw a similar slight decline, while it was hardcovers that saw a small increase in market share. The Canadian study also looked at library visitors. They found 11% of library visitors in 2015 borrowed an eBook, down from 12% in 2012. The percent of visitors borrowing a printed book remained steady at 74%. Again, it showed the printed format at least holding its own.

 

Interestingly, while the Canadian study saw an even to slight increase in the percentage of physical books being sold, it still found a large increase in the percentage of them being purchased electronically. It reported online sales have "increased drastically since 2013." The percentage of books purchased online rose from 29% to 45% in just two years. Chain stores, discount stores, and book stores, the three biggest other selling venues, all saw their shares of sales decline.

 

Recently reported sales figures from two major publishers seem to confirm the softness in eBook sales. HarperCollins reported a decline in digital sales in the third quarter of 2015 vs. the same quarter last year of 11.8%. The figure for Simon & Schuster was 10.7%. Digital sales include audio books, but their sales appear to be holding up well. The CEO of Simon & Schuster pointed out that there are other factors present, such as a change in the product offered year to year. They aren't too concerned about the decline, at least not yet.

 

Again, it is too early to draw any drastic conclusions. Trends may have stalled, rather than been broken. Still, for those who love books, and by this we mean bound paper, physical objects, it is a gratifying development. Conventional wisdom about the death of books may be greatly exaggerated. Another generation may yet choose to fill its bookshelves with books, rather than broken old Kindles, Nooks, and iPhones.

 

Rare Book Monthly

  • Sotheby’s, July 11: Galileo, Document annotated and signed by Galileo, dated Padua, 1595. £500,000 to £700,000.
  • Bonhams, July 15-25: THE AUTOGRAPH COLLECTION OF ISRAEL WITKOWER. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: GEORGE WASHINGTON SIGNED DISCHARGE. June 9, 1783. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: "Shhhhh!" A DAVID SHANNON ILLUSTRATION FROM DAVID GETS IN TROUBLE. $2,500 - $3,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: PICASSO, PABLO. Le Carmen des Carmen. Paris, 1964. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: RARE AUTOGRAPH OF AMERICAN NAVAL HERO CAPTAIN JAMES MUGFORD. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: KARA WALKER SILHOUETTES FOR TONI MORRISON'S FIVE POEMS. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FIRST APPEARANCE OF PINOCCHIO IN ENGLISH. COLLODI, CARLO.New York, 1892. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: BONAPARTE, JOSEPHINE. Autograph Note (unsigned) in French. $1,000 - $1,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FROST ON MATTHEW ARNOLD.Autograph Letter Signed to Adams, July 27, 1934. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: ELIAS BOUDINOT'S COPY OF BARLOW'S COLUMBIAN EPIC. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A SIGNED HART CRANE BROOKLYN BRIDGE POSTCARD TO EDWARD DAHLBERG. $600 - $800
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A STOCK CERTIFICATE SIGNED BY THE "QUEEN OF WALL STREET," HETTY GREEN. $700 - $900
  • Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: U.S. / European Shipping Archive 1800-1814. The Widow Bermingham & Sons Collection. €7,000 to €10,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Bunreacht na hÉireann. Constitution of Ireland. An important copy of the First Printing of De Valera’s new Constitution, approved in 1938. Signed by the Constitution Cabinet. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: A Rare Complete Run of the Cuala Press Broadsides. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Grose (Francis). The Antiquities of Ireland, 2vols. folio London (for S. Hooper) 1791. Magnificent Hand-Coloured Copy - Only 25 Copies. €3,000 to €5,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Cantillon (Richard). Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General, Traduit de l'Anglois, Sm. 8vo London (Fletcher Gyles) 1756. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Gregory, (Lady Augusta). Spreading the News: The Rising of the Moon: The Poorhouse (with Douglas Hyde). Being Vol. IX of the Abbey Theatre Series. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Lavery (Lady Hazel). A moving series of three A.L.S. and a Telegram to Gen. Eoin O'Duffy, July-August 1927, expressing her grief at the death of Kevin O'Higgins. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Dampier (Wm.) Nouveau Voyage Autour du Monde, ou l'on descrit en particulier l'Isthme de l'Amerique…, 2 vols. in one, Amsterdam, 1698. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Howell (James). Instructions for Forreine Travel Shewing by what Cours, and in what Compasse of Time…, London, 1642. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Rowling (J.K.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 8vo, L. (Bloomsbury) 1999, First Edn., First Printing of Deluxe Collectors Edn. Signed. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: James (Wm.) A Full and Correct Account of the Military Occurrences of The Late War Between Great Britain and The United States of America. 2 vols. Lond. 1818. €650 to €900.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: The Laws of the United States, Published by Authority, 3 vols. Philadelphia (Richard Folwell) 1796. €600 to €800.

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