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More Signs Point to Ebooks' Decline in the UK

Digital book reading dwindling as desire for screen-free time grows

July 13, 2017 | Media & Entertainment

UK book business monitor Mintel has predicted annual ebook sales in the UK will fall for the first time, with a forecast calling for a 1% decline in revenues in 2017 to £337 million ($454.9 million). By comparison, the researcher expects sales of physical books in the UK to rise 6% over 2016 to £1.7 billion ($2.29 billion).

In all, combined physical and ebook sales are forecast to grow 4% in 2017 to £2.02 billion ($2.73 billion).

Mintel’s prediction isn’t the first to posit that ebooks’ heyday has passed. In April, UK trade group ebook sales fell 3% in 2016 amid a record-setting sales year for the UK’s book business overall.

The sales decline comes as UK usage of dedicated ereaders continues to slow. eMarketer’s most recent forecast of regular usage of those devices predicts that UK growth in monthly-or-better usage would fall below 5% this year and slow further through 2020.

UK Ereader Users and Penetration, 2014-2020 (millions, % change and % of population)

With ebooks’ years of explosive growth apparently past, declining sales point to the format settling into a niche among book buyers. According to Mintel’s research, the format’s appeal is for providing what it calls “disposable content,” whereas paper books are favored for titles readers are most attracted to.

In April polling of adults in the UK who had purchased books, ebooks or audiobooks in the past year, Mintel found 80% of respondents prefer to buy print versions of books they’re very interested in.

“The strong preference people have to own print versions of the books they are most interested in solidifies the notion that ebooks are principally bought for more ‘disposable’ content,” said Rebecca McGrath, Mintel’s senior analyst. “If ebooks are viewed as disposable or less valuable, then it limits the growth we can expect from the market. Ebook publishers have to convince the most interested readers of the value of owning digital versions rather than print.”

“Enhanced” ebooks—titles that include extra content, audio or graphics—could be the key to reviving the format’s fortunes. In Mintel’s study, nearly a quarter of respondents (23%) said they would be interested in buying ebooks with content that went beyond a mere digitization of the paper version’s text.

However, content may not be the only barrier ebooks are bumping up against. Ebooks could be seen as an early victim of UK consumers’ ever-expanding amount of screen time.

According to eMarketer’s latest forecast of UK adults’ media consumption habits, nearly half of their daily media time will be devoted to digital media in 2017, so the idea that screen fatigue would first hurt a digital format like ebooks that has an easily replaceable nondigital alternative isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

Share of Time Spent per Day with Major Media by Adults in France, Germany and the UK*, 2017 (% of total)

“In such a connected world, many people increasingly value time when they can get away from screens,” McGrath said. “When it comes to print readers, many value the chance to enjoy some digital-free time at home. As lives and homes becomes even more connected and digitally focused, the rare moments one can ‘switch off’ will likely become even more highly regarded, helping further cement the importance of print books in people’s lives.”

The correlation is debatable, but ebooks’ slip also comes as consumption of audiobooks—a digital but screen-free experience—is on the rise.

According to Nielsen research released by The Publishers Association, the number of people in the UK who listened to an audiobook in 2016 on any format, including nondigital ones, was up 3% compared with 2014. Moreover, the number of people buying or consuming audiobooks via digital downloading or streaming rose 12%.

Audiobook fans are also upping the frequency of their listing. Q1 2017 Nielsen polling of UK internet users ages 13 to 84 found that, among those who had bought a book in the month before the study, the proportion who listened to audiobooks of any format at least weekly had risen to 15%, vs. 12% in 2012.

—Cliff Annicelli

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