Do people still read books, especially in these changing and fast-paced times? With the rise of digital units, are physical copies still selling? Or is everybody just listening to audiobooks instead?
The publishing industry has been literature’s primary driving force since Gutenberg created the printing press in 1440. Reading and writing wouldn’t be as prominent without the growth and development of publishing. Sharing stories wouldn’t be as global and diverse. Even now, the industry is continuously growing.
Various organizations have tried to pin down the numbers. UNESCO estimates that 2.2 million new books are published worldwide each year, though their data only leads up to 2013. Bowker, who manages ISBNs in the United States, also declares a million rise in new titles during that year. Then there’s Google Books who have taken on a daring challenge back in 2010 to quantify all published unique titles in the world. After having cross-referenced nearly a billion raw records and filtering through numerous variables, they declared a whopping 129,864,880 titles total.
These may be jaw-dropping, where stories piled together can build skyscrapers and cover the expanse of cities, but these statistics only focus on print publishing. It’s one aspect that the traditional printing press celebrates and readers continue to indulge. After all, nothing quite beats the experience of having the printed words in your hands.
And from this, publishing has also evolved into new and interesting formats. Because of modern technology, we have digital and recorded versions that bring stories to a broader readership. In 2012, a few years after Google Books’ daring discovery, Amazon officially announced that their digital sales have surpassed physical units. For every 100 hardback and paperback sold in stores, readers download 114 digital units to their devices. Within the same year, audiobook sales increased by 13.5%, indicating that 6 million more recorded stories were sold in 2012 than the previous year.
What about now? Going back to our first inquiries—Do people still read? In physical and digital format? Is listening the latest growing trend? Yes, yes, and yes! Let’s dive deeper into the latest interesting statistics about book publishing and sales.
Print Publishing and Sales
Publishing begins with print. They turn manuscripts full of potential into well-designed books that may fall right into your hands. It might as well be magic, performed by millions of passionate people in the industry. China, with the highest number, has 3.5 million publishers. The survey, conducted in 2016 and released in 2018, combed through selected countries and different market segments (retail; educational; and scholarly, academic, and scientific [SAS] publishing). South Korea ranks second with 40,000 publishers. In the UK, the publishing industry provides an estimate of nearly 200,000 jobs, which translates to 10% of the country’s creative industries, as of 2018.
While in the United States, publishers add more than $1.3 trillion in annual value to the country’s GDP. Although from 2018 to 2019, the annual revenue of the US publishing industry only increased by 1.1% with physical retail decreasing by 35.9%. Amidst that is the resurgence of the trend of independent bookstores across the US. In the past decade, there is a rise of 53% of the smaller, friendly neighborhood retailers. By 2019, there are over 2,500 locations across the country. These places are “anchors of authenticity”, according to studies of the local communities they inherently build. Of course, the publishing industry is not without its difficulties but it grows against challenges as more methods of storytelling pop up. At the very least, it’s very self-sustaining. Books aren’t about to go down anytime soon.
That is made especially clear with the $1.8 billion print units US publishers sold in 2018. Physical copies remain the US publishing industry’s strongest champion. 47.6% of the total revenue came from four different print formats (hardback, board book, paperback, and mass-market). Between just the first six months of the following year, they earned nearly $6 billion in net revenue. Bertelsmann, the parent company to publishing powerhouse Penguin Random House also saw their highest first half in 12 years with a group revenue of €8.6 billion.
From the statistics of the UK’s print market, 190.9 million units were sold, earning £1.63 billion for 2018. Sure enough, with 45% of the publishing industry’s sales from print copies, the country stands as the largest exporter of physical books. They have published more than 200,000 new titles, according to WIPA-IPO, with Italy and Germany both at nearly 150,000. For the former, there was a minute decrease of 0.4% from 2017, according to the Italian Publishers Association, but stores continue to dominate sales by 69%. Tried and true, print publishing dominates the publishing industry even with the complements of other accessible formats. Like the bound stories kept on shelves in stores, libraries, and childhood homes, print books keep up with the times.
With the internet came the existence of digital reading or ebooks. In 1971, with too much time in his hands, Michael Hart typed in the Declaration of Independence, shared it with the option to download, and created the first-ever ebook. Unironically, he set off stories to be independent of their physical form.
Ebooks, however, were not an overnight success. Before the release of Amazon’s Kindle in 2007, sales for digital copies occupied less than 1% of the publishing industry. Back in 1999, Dick Brass of Microsoft foreshadowed that by 2018, 90% of all units sold would be digital. By the 2010s, there was an expectant shift in publishing tide towards digital reading—increase in sales, higher demand, low prices, goodbye print. How accurate were they in these predictions? Just how different did the industry actually turn out?
According to the Pew Research Center, digital reading increased when more American adults became owners of various devices. By the end of 2011, 41% of tablet-users and 35% of reading device-users were reading more e-content. These statistics surmised that the longer a device is owned, the more the user leans towards digital reading.
From the growth of device ownership and the internet, the 2010s indeed began a generation of digital readers. Pew Research Center declared that there are four times more people who read digitally than there were two years earlier. Only 4% of readers turned to their devices in June 2010 while by December of 2011, 15% were reading digitally. The latter read an average of 24 units a year while print readers only reached an average of 15 titles. The availability of ebooks resulted in one of the biggest factors for digital reading.
The end of the decade, however, tells a different story. By 2015, digital sales began decreasing by 1.6% across the UK. The Publishers Association noted that it’s the first recorded drop since the growth of digital publishing, courtesy of the Kindle, seven years ago. UK’s big five publishers (Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster) were part of the 2015 drop as their digital sales collectively decreased by 2.4%. British retailer Waterstones even stopped selling Kindles due to the “pitiful sales”. According to their statistics, only £563 million were sold from digital units out of a total of £3,311 million in 2014 sales. Every year had introduced only a minute increase in sales from 2013’s £506 million and the earliest data in 2010 of £169 million earned.
The flames of the projected ebook revolution dimmed down by the first half of the decade. Leading technology powerhouses, the retailers of digital reading, encountered lawsuits and pricing violations that affected the publishing industry in establishing and producing their digital stories. By 2018, 29% tap into both print and digital while 7% of American adults only read the latter format. Sales also decreased by 2.6%, according to AAP, and by 4.9% in 2019. Within five years of 2015-2019, industry revenue dropped by 30.8%. Only 25% of American adults have read digitally in 2019, based on statistics from the Pew Research Center.
Print publishing is still the strongest gladiator in the publishing arena. Ebooks, on the other hand, have been slowly and steadily learning to stay up on their feet. While both formats are, by nature, in opposition, Publishers Association chief executive Stephen Lotinga considered them as allies. They are “co-existing,” he stated, “as opposed to taking over.” After all, availability and accessibility are digital stories’ unique selling points that parallel print copies’ tactile physicality.
247,000 downloads in one week—a surge that Libby, a digital reading platform that accesses local libraries, entertained in light of the global pandemic and lockdowns. That translates to 10.1 million digital units borrowed, signifying a 30% increase from the second week of March last year.
The first three months of 2020 followed the steady decline of the previous years with a 4.8% drop in US publishing. But by April 2020, the first full month of quarantine, digital sales rose up to 31% compared to March. Adult titles led the growth: a 23% increase for fiction and 37% for non-fiction. Biographies and memoirs ranked the highest growth by rising 40% while titles for cooking resulted in a 96% unit growth from last month. Waterstones’ online sales skyrocketed by 400% week on week. By August 2020, digital revenues rose by 18.2% across the US, earning $754.8 million while AAP reported $101.7 million in trade ebook sales. This time, the Children’s and Young Adult categories sold the most with a 59.4% growth. Whether by necessity or preference, ebook publishing has solidified its fighting position in the market and the industry. Its strongest weapon remains the digital age—the capacity to store a hundred units and to buy titles upon release just in the palm of your hand. Side-by-side print publishing, there’s an expectation for ebooks to survive.
With the fluctuating rise and stumble of the publishing industry, both traditional and digital, audiobooks swooped in as an unexpected savior. The establishment of a recording studio for vinyl in 1932 introduced recorded stories to the market. By 1995, Audible turned these, having evolved to cassette tapes and audio centers in stores, into downloadable content. They also developed with the digital age through various devices. However, it’s only as recent as 2016 that the listening format ascended to popularity.
According to Audio Publishers Association, 2016 served as the third consecutive year that audiobooks expanded by nearly 20%. The format earned 18.2% higher than in 2015. Their statistics found that 24% of Americans have completed at least one recorded title, resulting in a 22% increase from the previous year. Pew Research Center conducted a similar survey that concluded 14% of American adults listened to an audiobook in the past 12 months of 2016. From there, the percentage experienced an incline, from 18% in 2018 to 20% in 2019. This translates to one out of five Americans listen to recorded stories.
Indeed, this rapid growth shows with the global market size value at $2.67 billion by 2019 and is expected to increase its CAGR (compound annual growth rate) by 24.4% for the next seven years. The first half of 2019 already welcomed exceeding sales by a rise of 14.1%. Just June earned $54.1 million in revenue that is 6.2% higher than the same month of the previous year. 2019 for the US publishing industry totaled to a 15.9% increase than 2018 sales, reaching $1.31 billion for recorded stories.
Grand View Research concluded that 80% of adults make up the listening market whose value goes just over $2 billion. Approximately 60% of listeners play a story for rest and relaxation, according to a consumer behavior survey by APA. The versatility of recorded stories serves as their unique selling point. It calls to its history as cassette tapes played in car stereos. Now, audiobooks have jumped over to smartphones, computers, and even virtual assistants to read us a story.
Because literature, in any format, is an important aspect of culture and humanity, publishing can only move forward and grow. There have been ups and downs in sales through the years, be it print and digital. Even now, a battle wages in the industry and the market for sustainability and revenue. Underneath the statistics and percentages, it’s all just a fight to keep storytelling alive.
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