Books

Books Stubbornly Refused to Be Disrupted, and It Worked

New sales figures vindicate the stubbornness of the book world in the face of the ebook revolution.

Stacked against tech trends.

Photographer: olaser/Getty Images

If the media industry needed proof that it moved too quickly to devalue its print products on the way to chasing digital audiences, the book industry has been making a convincing case in the last few years. 

The rise of print book sales and decline in ebooks in 2015 was no accident. Last year, the trend continued, and self-publishing in electronic form no longer seemed as good a bet as in previous years. In 2016, the unit sales of printed books in the U.S. increased by 3.3 percent. That's not unusual, except this year, the publishing industry didn't produce any runaway bestsellers like 2015's "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins, and only a handful of books, mostly from previous years, sold more than 1 million copies.

The industry made up that deficiency by selling more nonfiction books. That's an indication of book publishers' overall health: They are flexible and versatile.

True Stories Sell

U.S. book sales by category, units

Source: Nielsen Bookscan

In dollar terms, hardback and paperback books were both headed for solid growth in the first eight months of last year, while ebooks appeared destined for an even bigger decline than the 14-percent drop registered in 2015, according to the most recent data released by the Association of American Publishers. 

Back to Good Old Paper

Year-on-year change in U.S. sales of different book formats, January through August, 2016, percent

Source: Association of American Publishers

If traditional book publishers accepted that the digital revolution meant a total overhaul of their business -- the way the music and media industries have largely done -- they would be locked in the same race to the bottom that those two industries have faced. The ease of digital self-publishing and readers' sense that digital books should be cheaper than paper ones have resulted in growing unit sales but falling revenues -- much like the audiences of major news media have snowballed since the turn of the century without a concurrent growth in revenue. On the digital side of book publishing, this "death spiral" is not only evident in the U.S. but also in more traditional markets, such as Germany

Book publishers also learned to be cutthroat competitors, as stand-alone authors are beginning to find out. Publishers can try to prop up ebook prices by driving a hard bargain with electronic retailers, primarily Amazon. And they may have also succeeded in pushing the digital retail giant to shift the attention of its users from from self-published books to those produced by professional publishers.

They cannot, however, explain to readers why an ebook -- which is clearly cheaper to produce and, let's face it, not as pleasant to read -- should cost about as much as a paper one. 

Even in the U.S., the most mature ebook market in the world, printed books are far more popular than ebooks. Last fall, Pew Research found that 65 percent of Americans had read a paper book in the previous 12 months, while only 28 percent read an ebook. The popularity of both formats has been steady since 2014, thanks to older consumers who refuse to leave print behind and younger consumers who seek a more analog lifestyle. Reading a paper book -- or listening to vinyl records, whose remarkable comeback continued last year -- is a statement, a human being's answer to being increasingly surrounded, and now even threatened, by machines.

Book publishers have kept their paper-based operations and helped their physical distribution networks to stay alive by charging low wholesale prices. They have also maintained a time gap between the paper and digital releases of important books. People seeking a traditional experience have always been able to find it, and they were rewarded for it by being the first to read the industry's best offerings. The printed book ecosystem survived the tech revolution, and it no longer appears to be in danger from it. 

Much of the news business fell victim to the tech hype that it helped create. News publishers got sucked into the death spiral and tricked into offering their product free of charge, something they are still in the painful process of overcoming. They bought into the idea that anyone could produce what their customers were paying for when they should have held out the way book publishers did. After all, self-published authors haven't killed off Random House and other big industry players, and bloggers and free websites wouldn't have killed old media companies. Publishers just needed to more persistent and inventive about selling them.

Of course, the news media had an advertising revenue dependence that cheaper digital ads couldn't feed. Book publishers didn't have that problem. But it's the media's own fault for not trusting readers to pay for good content. Now, the best of them are correcting this mistake.

And, amazingly, some media outlets did hold out.

In the last couple of days, the French press has been feeding on a scandal involving center-right presidential candidate Francois Fillon, who apparently paid out about 500,000 euros ($534,000) in salary to his wife while he was a legislator. French parliament members are allowed to hire their family members, but the satirical and investigative publication that broke the story, Le Canard Enchaine, also reported that Fillon's wife Penelope had not done anything to earn the payments. There is now an official investigation into the arrangement.

The Fillon story is not on Le Canard Enchaine's website. In fact, there's nothing much on it at all, apart from a brief message to the readers who would like to read the publication online. "Our trade is to inform and entertain our readers using newsprint and ink," it goes. "It's a beautiful trade that's enough to occupy our team."

It's a beautiful sentiment, and, as developments on the book market show, an exceedingly modern one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

(Corrects author of "The Girl on the Train" in second paragraph of article published Jan. 26.)

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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