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Books and consumers research shows rapid change

9 April 2012

The annual Books & Consumers research into the British book market was delivered to a highly interested audience last week. Rarely can there have been so much change in one year and the assembled bookseller and publishers were keen to hear what had actually been going on.

Ursula Mackenzie, CEO of Little Brown UK, who chaired the conference, opened the presentation by saying that 'there has never been a more testing time in publishing'. The sudden growth of the ebook market has thrown long-held certainties about books, the book trade, publishers and authors - and how they all relate to one another - up in the air, with general uncertainty about where they might eventually come down.

British consumers bought 344m books in 2011 but the overall value of consumer book purchases fell, with the result that spending on books is 9% lower in 2011 than in 2008. This is only partly because ebook prices are lower than paperback prices.

The growth in ebooks was the big subject of the year and by the fourth quarter of 2011 they were accounting for 5% of consumer book purchases by volume and 3% by value. They took share mainly from paperbacks in 2011. Overall ebooks cost the consumer a third less on average than paperbacks and were bought for half the price paid for hardbacks.

Genre fiction was on the up, with these categories showing increases in both volume and value: crime, romance and fantasy and (perhaps more surprisingly) poetry, cookery, history, humour, art and religion. Fiction readers are more likely to buy ebooks than non-fiction readers.

Self-publishing had an impact here, but not as big as you'd expect. Although around 20% of ebooks bought were self-published, they only accounted for 4% of value, suggesting that sales were achieved by very low prices.

The rise of ebooks accelerated the shift in book purchases from chain and independent booksellers to internet booksellers, as clearly the ease of using something like the Kindle has proved very attractive to readers. EbooksDigital bookstore selling wide range of ebooks in 50 categories from Hildegard of Bingen to How to Write a Dirty Story and showing how the range of ebooks available is growing. are however not generally considered suitable gifts, so the non-fiction gift market is less affected.

For the first time the value of books bought on weekdays exceeded weekend purchases, with Monday overtaking Saturday as the highest value day of the week because of internet sales.

Bowker, the parent company of Book Marketing Ltd, now renamed Bowker Market Research, had been looking at global internet and ebook trends, thought to be linked closely to internet growth. In 2011 the worldwide population of internet users was 2.3 billion, or 32% of the world population. This currently doubles every five years, so by the end of 2015 there will be 4bn internet users.

A ten country study came up with interesting figures relating to ebook use. Those countries with the least potential seem to be Japan and France, in spite of their high tech populations. Future growth looks most likely in Brazil and India. The latter only has 2% of the population saying they have purchased an ebook to date, but that is more people than in the UK, with 20% of its population having bought one. The global growth in ebooks is likely to come from rapidly growing countries like this.