The total unit sales of print books sold through the outlets whose sales are captured by Nielsen BookScan dropped 10.2% in the six month period ended July 3, falling to 307.1 million. Among categories, the biggest decline came in adult fiction with units off 25.7%, while mass market paperback had the steepest decline among formats with units down 26.6% in the period. BookScan totals cover about 75% of the outlets where print books are sold.
Is this yet another signal that the book is dead or should at least be placed on the endangered species list?
As someone who makes a living in the book publishing industry I continue to maintain an optimistic position on the future of the book, in part, because I don't define the book as a physical object.
I see no reason for hand wringing. Publishers need to keep their focus on what they can control and what matters most: great content. The distribution medium matters but is not paramount. The music industry fought Napster (rightfully) and electronic distribution (wrongly) for most of a decade - and lost control of its own packaging and pricing. I think the book publishing industry has maintained a much healthier point of view toward electronic formats from day one.
I like physical books - actually, love is the better word for it - but I'm not going to lose sleep if we sell more books as electronic editions and kill fewer trees in the process. One of the biggest benefits of selling e-books for publishers is fewer dollars tied up in paper and ink with all the inventory management issues surrounding that. The amount of time it takes to recoup a dollar of the investment that goes into publishing a book is long enough without making the irreversible commitment to a print quantity that may not dovetail with real demand. (Many publishers have built financial models around a certain percentage of their unit sales coming from higher priced hard cover releases, and that is changing the assumptions for other formats, so I'm not saying this change makes things easier in all ways. Change is hard.)
I'm strictly describing what I think is - not proscribing what should be. And no matter how strong Amazon is as a bookseller, I still hope the market will support a robust brick and mortar retail environment. (Borders might not agree that is possilbe - but we should know if their reorganization is Chapter 11 or Chapter 7 within days - or even hours.)
My personal prediction - more gut than numbers at this point - is that five years from now 35-40% of all books sold will be e-books (digitally distributed), which would mean the majority of books consumed would be on the ink and paper medium. I also think that projection would leave sales space for a strong retail store presence for those chains and some exceptional independents that incorporate an e-book strategy into their overall sales mix.
"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated," said Mark Twain after hearing his obituary had been printed in the New York Journal.
The same can be said by and of the book.