When ebooks first became popular, and especially after sales of ebooks passed sales of printed books, it looked like print was doomed to extinction. Now the demise of print looks highly unlikely.
Speaking for myself, I spend hours each day looking at a computer screen. When it comes time to read for pleasure, print offers a welcome break.
Other factors may also influence the vigor of sales of printed books:
- Reading from a screen makes our eyes work harder, although e-readers cause less eyestrain than computers or phones.
- People have long enjoyed sharing books, something difficult to do with an e-reader.
- Rows of books on shelves make attractive room décor.
Upward trend in sales of printed books
In recent years, sales of printed books have increased. According to Statista, the industry sold 648 million in 2004. Sales rose to 778 million in 2008, fell to 591 million in 2012, and have risen every year since then, reaching 695 million in 2018. The years of declining sales coincided with the recession. Sales of many if not most other consumer goods fell at the same time.
The upward trend continues at the beginning of 2019. Sales of print books in the first week of January increased by 9.3% over the same period in 2018. Juvenile fiction saw the largest increase, 16.4%. Juvenile and young adult fiction and nonfiction categories all had double-digit increases. Adult fiction was up 2.0% and adult nonfiction by 7.3%.
A writer at the New York Times was apparently unaware of how long sales of printed books have been trending upward. She wrote that book sales were strong in 2018 “much to everyone’s surprise.” She also wrote that readers bought a lot of books “despite the relentless news cycle.” Then she listed three politically oriented best sellers.
Might not the news cycle be driving the sale of printed books?
If someone takes an interest in a news story, a book provides more depth than a TV spot, newspaper article, or even long-form magazine essay. If someone wants to escape from the news cycle, strong sales of literary fiction shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Some details of the book business
Sales of printed books could have been even stronger in 2018 if printers had not failed to keep up with demand for some best sellers during the Christmas season. Amazon listed numerous popular titles as out of print in December.
It’s not that those titles were entirely unavailable. Customers could always try to find them at a bookstore.
Much of the problem resulted from the closing of Edwards Brothers Malloy, the fifth largest book printing company in the US and Canada, in June 2018.
The failure of Borders bookstores a few years ago made headlines. We have fewer large bookstore chains than we used to. Independent bookstores, on the other hand, seem to be thriving. Sales in 2018 showed a 5% increase over 2017. That figure improves to 10% for the stores that sell online as well as in the store.
Part of that gain, though, comes from an increasing number of stores. By the end of 2018, the American Booksellers Association added 95 new stores and branches in 35 states, the District of Columbia, and Bermuda.
New technology seldom completely supplants old technology. We still have calligraphers hundreds of years after the invention of the printing press.
For that matter, the technology behind cuneiform hasn’t completely disappeared. The ancient Babylonians made indentations in wet clay and baked it in the sun. Today, you can find sidewalks where the installing company has impressed its name into the wet concrete and left it to bake in the sun.