This week saw confirmation that, for the first time, ebook revenues in the UK have fallen and physical book revenues have risen in their stead. This has led to some media coverage questioning if we have reached "peak digital" in terms of ebook sales and if we will now see a steeper drop, or if a new status quo will emerge between the two formats.
Revenue sales last year of ebooks fell from £563 million to £554 million, whilst physical book sales rose from £2.74 billion to £2.76 billion. This came at the same time that Waterstones (the UK's biggest book chain) stopped selling Kindles and turned the shelf space back over to books, which it credited with a healthy 5% rise in sales. This also came at the same time that Amazon opened its first physical bookshop in the United States (to the bewilderment of some market analysts) and Sony dropped out of the e-reader market.
The reasons for the apparent switch may be topical: the explosion of adult colouring books in the past year may have accounted for a small part of the move. There is also the possibility that there has been an e-market shift away from traditionally-published novels to self-published titles, which cost far less. The UK market is particularly affected by an issue where e-books are charged 20% extra in VAT (sales tax) but paper books are not. Given that physical production costs of paper books are at around 13% of the cover price, this puts ebooks in the UK in the ludicrous position of being more expensive than paper books. The publishers have absorbed some of these costs to try to get ebooks out at prices approaching parity with the paper versions, but in many cases the difference is negligible.
Another cited reason has been that consumers seem increasingly reluctant to carry multiple digital devices around with them, and reading on a mobile phone does not offer as good an experience as a dedicated e-reader, as phones have smaller screens, shorter battery lives and no e-ink capability. This may also be linked to rising audiobook sales, which have doubled in the UK in the last five years (and rose 29% last year alone).
Whatever the reason, it appears that the occasionally-rumoured death of the physical book has been exaggerated, and the two formats look set to coexist peacefully for some time to come.