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When Waterstones announced a profit for 2016—a first for the UK retailer since the 2008 financial crisis—some commenters saw it as sign of declining interest in ebooks and ereaders.
But digital books continue to attract readers in the UK. Although the number of ebook readers isn’t growing at a torrid pace, it’s still growing, and ereader users make up about a quarter of the UK population.
eMarketer estimates that the number of ereader users in the UK rose by nearly 8% in 2014 and 2015. Growth slowed to 5% last year and will log a similar gain in 2017. Looking ahead, increases in the ereader audience will be modest.
In October 2015, Waterstones announced plans to stop selling Amazon’s Kindle ereaders in the majority of its more than 200 shops—a decision attributed to falling demand for those devices.
But Waterstones CEO James Daunt concedes that digital reading has found its niche. “I don’t think readers are going off digital reading,” he told The Guardian when discussing the retailer’s fiscal 2016 financial results earlier this month. “It’s being used in a more indulgent way—when traveling—or if you are old and need a big font. But there are lots of studies which have found that reading a physical book is a very different experience. You remember it much more. It resides with you more than an ebook.”
Sales of digital books have slowed in the UK. According to the latest available data from The Publishers Association, UK revenues from digital book sales fell 7% in H1 2016 to £182 million ($245.6 million). By comparison, physical book sales increased by 1% to £898 million ($1.21 billion).
It’s too soon to tell, but 2017 may be off to a better start for ebooks. When Webloyalty and Conlumino asked UK internet users in October 2016 about the types of digital or virtual Christmas gifts they planned to purchase for the coming holidays, gift cards for ebook purchases ranked third on the list.
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