Home > Book trade > Book Trade; eBook sales v. Hardbacks – Hype or Tipping Point?

Book Trade; eBook sales v. Hardbacks – Hype or Tipping Point?

Update; Friday 23rd July – Further facts emerged today concerning the sales performance of eBooks.  The Bookseller.com reports that June saw further Kindle eBook sales growth with the ratio rising to 180 eBooks for every 100 Hardbacks sold in that month.  Authoritative figures from the UK’s largest publishing house, Hachette UK, stated that ‘digital formats’ now represent 8% of their sales by volume – this is five times higher than in 2009. Clearly, the gap is closing fast.

Nielsen figures (for Jan to Mar 2010) show that hardbacks are just over 20% of the UK market (by volume).

The Bookseller.com goes on to say that the first mass market author to exceed 1 million eBook sales is James Patterson with 1.14m in total.  Most publishers in the UK seem to be seeing fairly rapid growth in their eBook sales.  

Nielsen also announced today that they would launch a UK eBook sales chart ‘within a matter of months’, another sure sign of a rapidly changing marketplace.

Perhaps the jury is still out but it would be a brave person who suggests that this is all going to die away and come to nothing. We shall see!

 See www.thebookseller.com/news/124094-uk-e-books-grow-to-amazonian-stature.html


July 20th – according to a report on The Bookseller.com today (see http://www.thebookseller.com/news/123655-amazon-sells-more-kindle-books-than-hardback.html), Amazon are now selling more Kindle eBooks than physical Hardbacks. In the three month period – April to June 2010 – for every 100 hardbacks sold online, 143 Kindle eBooks were downloaded.

This was picked up in an excellent piece on BBC Radio 4 tonight and the question posed to a couple of guests, ‘Do these sales figures represent a tipping point and does this mean the demise of the case-bound book’?

There followed a mixed but measured response. Two points stood out in my mind; first, that the physical book really can be an ‘escape’ for people who spend all day, every day on a screen and therefore do not want to have to read on-screen in their leisure time. Secondly, earlier parallels were noted with radio v. television and cinema v. video.  The newer technologies represented a threat to the old but in both these cases, radio and the cinema have survived and indeed are thriving.

However, the argument breaks down when you compare CD’s and downloadable music. In this case, online music is clearly winning against the physical CD. I buy much of my music online and just occasionally I will buy an actual CD.  I enjoy reading the inside cover notes and admiring the photographs and the design but that still is not enough to prevent me from buying my music online.


I was lent this lovely casebound book at the weekend and I truly appreciate the physical ‘feel’ of a beautiful book. I’m just not sure, that at this stage, I’m quite ready to give up that pleasure to buy online and read on-screen. On the other hand, do I really want to ‘lug’ all 600 hardback pages onto a plane when it can reside so easily on an eReader?

So does this latest report from Amazon represent simple marketing hype or is this really the tipping point in the seemingly inexorable rise of the eBook?


  1. July 20, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    Marketing hype all the way!
    Although ebooks are more convenient you just don’t get that sense of accomplishment when you have finished them… and you have no physical medal to sit proudly on your shelf to prove you have plodded through a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky!- We all know buying books is really about association and trying to look more intellectual than your mates and sadly ebooks just don’t give you that public display of narcissistic genius for others to envy!

    Liking your blog Eddie, makes for good reading!
    Hope you are well


  2. July 20, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    Discuss. Indeed. As I said on your earlier facebook note: Where are they all, that’s what I want to know? I’m a regular on the tube and trains — and I’ve yet to see anyone with a Kindle. I’ve seen a couple of iPads in the wild; but the vast majority of people I see reading are still using print books, mags & papers. Plenty of people with phones, and whilst you can never be sure what someone’s doing on their phone, the impression I get is most seem to be surfing, twittering or watching videos rather than reading ebooks…

    I think it will be worth talking about when ebook sales exceed pbs, but exceeding hbs? No big deal: apart from reference and gift books, hb sales are a rarity anyway in my experience…

  3. Steve Mitchell
    July 21, 2010 at 6:36 am

    It doesn’t surprise me that ebooks sales are now outstripping hardbacks.

    Until recently I thought the same as many other folk, that this e-reading marlarky is overhyped, there aren’t that many e-readers out there, people will still love paper books and we’ll all get to a happy place where most people still read traditional books, which live happily alongside the small, but much talked about e-books.

    Then I bought an iPad.

    Havin used it for a few weeks, I think the changes that this type of technology bring are far more fundamental then we booksellers/publishers have really understood. This new technology does change the way people can engage, experience and relate to the text. It moves the act of reading from an an individual pastime to part of social networking. Using an e-reader isn’t like using a work PC, it feels very different, it is enjoyable.

    I think the biggest tipping point will come, not when ebooks outstrip paperbacks, but when enough business moves digitally to make the business model of traditional bookselling and publishing unviable.

    So can traditional booksellers/publishers live with this? I think they can, but they have to be exceptional at what they do, be extremely clear about who they are, what their specialism is, who their customer is, (now and in the future), and to engage with the new world.

    This is scary and exciting, Phil is right, is not fully here….yet, but it is coming.

    • July 24, 2010 at 6:52 am

      “Then I bought an iPad” — powerful words, Steve! I have yet to succumb but no doubt about it, I will … as Mr Jobs himself said, “It’s not about the features – it’s about the experience. You just have to try it to see what I mean.” … and I’ve tried it, when I had to take my once svelte-seeming but now unbearably-chunky MacBook in for a repair job.

      It’s like women priests: I’ve come across so many people, Bishops included, who were anti-women in the priesthood, then they met one, worked with one. Experience changes everything.

  4. July 24, 2010 at 12:56 am

    I’m still of the opinion (and remember I am a devoted ebook reader of many many years, and yes I know that just makes me freakishly weird bookseller 😉 that there’s still a lot of hype going on here.

    I laugh a little because I’ve been a bookseller for xmount of years and in all that time people have been talking of the decline and fall of Hardbacks and yet they are still selling and with us – now that’s not to say that ebooks aren’t a real issue – they are, of course they are, a very real issue – 8% of the market by volume is nothing to sneeze at, and still growing yet.

    That’s why I was glad to see in the US at ICRS that they were discussing how the indies can get in on the ebook – business http://www.christianretailing.com/index.php/newsletter/latest-etailing/21707-platform-sought-for-delivering-e-books

    Now me, I still want ebook zones like wi-fi zones, so my customers can wander into my store on their lunch hour or whenever and browse the books and then download them from the I-ether and I get a share of that sale :0) but, oh yes, I’ll need the zone to be a bit wider than just my shop as I imagine most of the sales will happen just outside the door given as many customers would probably get a bit embarrased about downloading while in shop even if it was allowed and advertised, especially some of the ones who already try to obscure the fact they are scribbling down or desperately trying to memorise the isbn or Cat.No. or title of the book/music they are perusing to go buy on amazon or kingsway later. it’s done so furtively though it looks more suspicious than a shoplifter does! so these days I just smile at them go up to them with one of the business cards with our A’shop addy on and say here you go pop the number on the back of this and please make your purchase via our a-shop so we can get a 5% browsing commission and this way you can support your local shop to make sure were here to help inform your buying decisions. I then wink at them and say hey I understand, I’m human and in need of every penny too and point to the signs I put up saying though I would prefer they purchased directly from me I understand the allure or always cheap Amazon so ask me if I can match the price or alternatively please order from our A-shop.

    However I apologise here as I realise I’ve digressed from the real discussion so moving back on track…

    Books will always have a place, we talk a lot up of mp3 and digital music sales but there’s still a very large HMV in town and WHSmith and me still sell cd’s.
    Yes the market is much smaller than it was but it’s certainly not gone.
    In fact just under 80% of all Album sales are still CD format! However the truth is that album sales have decreased by 50% since 2000, and that is largely because of a changing culture of music listening, but even with all forms of retail music purchases accounted for digital downloads still only account for 40% of sales. People do have a desire for tangible things and until that really goes there’s always going to be a need for non-digital product.

    This I think will hold true for ebooks and books too.
    I do think it likely to be that real papertype non digital books will remain the major style of reading choice for the majority of readers for a good while to come.

    However as Steve says this still means we have to deal with the future now, and it’s not just because of ebooks, its because of method of purchase choice and competition from big hitter price undercutters like Amazon, Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s etc. These all make being an indie or small chain bookshop much much harder.

    So yes I think we have to start dealing now, adapting now, we have to work on what we really want to be, who we really want to be and how do we do that. But we have to be rational and sane about it, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ as the MOI poster said!
    By that I don’t mean ignore or devalue the problem, but I don’t mean to react to the hype with blind panic and knee jerk reactions either and talk as if our ‘Freedom is in Peril’ as the other MOI poster said.

    I’m hoping and working on the theory that the advice of the third MOI poster is most suitable here (and I think perhaps Steve is too from what he’s said 😉
    ‘Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory’.

    So I’m looking to the future believing my place is there but knowing I’ve work to do and hoping that the UK publishers will want to be there with me and rather like the Americans at ICRS will be looking at how they can help me breach the ebook divide as the time comes, or better yet how all the potential digital producers I trade with can help me breach the digital divide so together we can build the best possible way to market, preferably one that’s not totally driven by the ecomm and supermarket major monopolies if at all possible, because I do want to be where it’s happening, I want to be able to sell books – even if they don’t have pages and take up space on my shelves – however I don’t want to be a ‘virtual’ bookseller, I want to be part of my community and a very real bookseller in all ways and at all times.

    Thanks Eddie for as ever raising the good questions and getting the good talks going :0)

    • July 24, 2010 at 7:05 am

      One big difference between the book and music market that I’ve yet to see discussed anywhere is that question of physicality: music has always needed a player to go with it. CDs, tapes, even the old vinyl, have always been dead objects until you plug them in to something else — so the move to digital is a natural progression. Music has never been about the physical objects (unless we’re talking live bands & orchestras, of course) — but books? It’s another world… but it’s a changing world: once I thought I’d never trust an e-reader because its battery’s gonna die on me half way through a book … now I’ve got a solar charger for my phone and I’m suddenly set free from dependence on mains electricity or shops to sell me a new battery…

      How long before we’ll see iPads etc with built-in solar panels to charge/power them on the go? This technology’s only going to get more sophisticated with lower and lower energy consumption requirements and given Apple’s ability to design dream machines, they’ll be hardly noticeable … maybe somehow even built into the screen itself?

  5. Ian Matthews
    July 24, 2010 at 7:49 am

    I would suggest that ebooks works for certain books and not for others. Many universities (as you would know Phil) are looking at reducing the number of physical books they purchase for their libraries and are exploring networked ebooks and readers for students. In the US this is getting more and more popular, with Kindles or Sony Readers being included in the induction packs Freshers get (although the US college fees make this more feasible!). I hear the OU are thinking about supplying formatted public-domain books for their literature courses as an alternative to expensive reading lists. Reference, lighter non-fiction, ‘disposable’ fiction etc are all good candidates for ebooks – I have purchased guides to iWork and WordPress as ebooks and found they work perfectly.

    The other fascinating move is this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jul/23/authors-amazon-deal-publishing. Super literary agent Andrew Wylie has taken some authors direct to Amazon to publish as ebooks, bypassing publisher and other retailers completely. It may have been partly a negotiating tactic, but it will become increasingly feasible for agents to act as brokers (and even for authors to – *gasp* – take control of their own content and direct access to their readers) with big retailers directly. I can imagine a time when I am investing in the editing, typesetting and ebook creation, and supplying it to Amazon, Eden, WH Smiths, Waterstones, Wesley Owen (Steve – ??) etc directly, and splitting the income with the author – who can retain full rights.

    If I was a retailer such as Steve Mitchell I would be thinking about a ‘Wesley Owen’ app that can supply Christian product direct to a device – video, audio, books etc. That would reinforce the brand and create an inbuilt loyalty.

  6. DominicM
    July 24, 2010 at 7:52 am

    Ebooks are deffo here to stay, take my christian Library in “real” books I have maybe 100, approx 30 feet of shelving if they were laid out.

    my Christian electronic books (3500), if real, would be several hundred feet. that works for me living in a 1 bed flat. On top of that I can find exact quotes within seconds and it all fits in the space of an large print bible, and is portable.

    I will concede that the reading experience isnt the same, there is something about the experience of reading a real book, but my netbook does a fair job.

    that said, the real danger is information overload you do a search and you get 5000 hits, are you likely to read them all, and the vital one may be buried…

  7. mel
    July 24, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    LOl – Ian,

    There’s an app for that!
    and of course Barnes and Noble and Borders in the US both have apps that work like that, so the technology is there already.

    However, why limit it to Steve and WO, all christian retailers should do it – time, talent and cost allowing of course, I’d love an app!

    Ohh and Phil, here’s an app idea for you – http://www.apple.com/webapps/searchtools/christianoutreachcentredirectory.html

    However I’m hoping that here in the UK we can do something like they are discussing in the US where,

    ‘Publishing and retail leaders are working on an industry-wide platform for delivering e-books to Christian stores, to help them compete in the growing digital market.

    An industry task force being facilitated by CBA includes representatives of leading stores and marketing groups, publishers and point-of-sale service providers.’ http://bit.ly/basY1F

    Perhaps we can work on the App’s at the same time :0)

    • July 24, 2010 at 1:13 pm

      Thanks Mel – a UKCBD app is something that’s been tickling away at the back of my mind for a while now … maybe I should give up blogging for a while* and get onto it … hmmm…

      *unlikely: I’m enjoying it too much…

  1. December 17, 2010 at 9:39 pm
  2. January 15, 2011 at 11:27 am
  3. March 3, 2011 at 10:11 pm

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