Books bite back: eBooks in decline

Traditionalists rejoice; the physical book is back! If Christmas sales figures are anything to go by, inky, papery sheets are reclaiming their title as Britain’s favourite platform for reading. Of course this can only happen at the Kindle’s expense; according to James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, the Kindle “has disappeared to all intents and purposes,” with sales figures for the electronic device plummeting “off the edge of a cliff” in the last few months. And whilst it can be said that the increase in books sales is only slight, at 5 per cent over December, the modest growth is a stark contrast to the “savage” declines experienced earlier last year.

However, promising as this may seem for some, do the figures prove a genuine resurgence in physical books? Daunt points out that the climb has come on the back of some terrible years for booksellers, not just with the rise of electronic reading but also with the drift away from high street stores in favour of online retailers. It is worth noting, regardless, that last year’s sales decline of 1.6 per cent was much more modest than in previous years.

A new report released by the British Library also points towards the existence of a paper resurgence. With visitor numbers increasing by as much as 10 per cent in the last twelve months, it claims that the increasing reality of digital and screen-based knowledge has led a greater value and affection for physical artefacts.

“The more screen-based our lives, it seems, the greater the perceived value of real human encounters and physical artefacts: activity in each realm breeds interest in the other,” it said.
Despite a widespread perception that the great public library is a concept doomed by technological progress, Roy Keating, the British Library’s chief executive, believes the contrary. He claims that there is no contradiction between the rise of iPhones, tablets, social media and traditional books, adding that libraries would learn to adapt to the times to encompass new patterns and values. From November 2013 to October 2014, 1, 612, 461 visitors walked through the doors of the British Library to access its archives and collections.

“At a time when the provision of knowledge and culture is increasingly digital and screen-based, the value and importance of high quality physical spaces and experiences is growing, not diminishing.”

Despite the good news, it’s too early to laud the death of the eBook just yet. Sales for electronic books are slowing, but they are still growing. There were 64 million eBook purchases made between January and September 2014, up from 57 million the previous year. A likely explanation for the fall in Kindle sales can also be attributed to their non-replaceable nature. Short of dropping one in a bath, the device is long-lasting and renewable.

The more likely scenario is that the books market is going to reach an equilibrium, with a place both for eBooks and their physical manifestations. In short, the e-book has not killed off the physical book just yet, and a full return to a traditional platform is unlikely too.

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