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Why is no-one talking about this market sector?

If you have any interest at all in the future of publishing, you’ll likely be familiar with the eBook vs print book debates (also often framed as Amazon vs booksellers, digital vs analog…choose your binary opposition). Print books are going to go the way of cassette tapes! eBooks will never move beyond a niche market! Amazon is killing the bookshops! You’ll find passionate examples of all these arguments. Of course, a nuanced argument doesn’t get clicks, but nevertheless there’s one particular market sector which is neither fish nor fowl - and is quietly becoming the predominant way to buy books.

Why is no-one talking about the sale of print books online?

The closure of local bookshops during the Covid pandemic led even the most traditional stationary bookshops to develop an online presence. And to everyone’s surprise, sales of print books were up during 2020. Think about that for a minute. Yes, people had more time to read (theoretically, although those juggling work from home with homeschooling might disagree) and limited entertainment options. Still, on the face of it, it should be an easy shift from instantly cuing the new Neflix show to instantly downloading the next eBook is a series. And it’s true, sales of eBooks were also up, but at least to date no massive shift from print to electronic has taken place. People were shopping almost exclusively online – but they were buying an analog product.

It’s not news that the value of the analog is consistently underestimated in our society, while technology is venerated whether or not it actually improves our lives. And there are still strong use cases for printed books. An electronic device will never be as hardy as a knocked around paperback, or as easy to replace should it accidentally get dropped in the bath! You can’t buy an eBook as a present and it’s difficult to lend to friends after you’ve read it. Finally, after being welded to our screens all day, there’s a relief in turning our tired eyes to print on paper.

But the real change – and one that seems to have been widely overlooked (except by the always-excellent TNPS newsletter ) – is the change in where we buy those print books. Physical bookshops will always have a place, but not necessarily as a place for buying books. Rather, the real benefit we get from them is curation of a selection from a bewildering array of published books, expert recommendation, and the chance to flick through a book, pick it up and look at it before buying. I believe in future those bookshops that will thrive will combine a physical presence with an online presence, allowing customers to buy through the channel that they prefer while maintaining their existing advantages and sense of community. After all, it becomes as easy for a customer to buy from a bookshop on the other side of the country as it is to buy from the one on the other side of the city, or even in the next suburb – physical location becomes more or less irrelevant, which means the potential market is exponentially greater.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about sales of print books online without talking about Amazon. Clearly, it has a lot of market power, but it has also done a lot to develop this market which may not otherwise have existed. They also pioneered the print on demand technology which is revolutionising the back end of the book industry. This technology means a book is printed and bound only once it’s been ordered, instead of keeping thousands of copies in warehouses and shipping them once ordered. I can see a day when warehouses full of books are a thing of the past, which would also be good for the environment (avoiding not just the warehouse footprint but the pulping of thousands of unwanted books). So while Amazon should absolutely be regulated and its market power reined in by regulation where necessary, it is neither the big bad wolf nor the saviour of the industry (there's those pesky shades of grey again).

Apparently the only thing newsworthy these days is David vs Goliath or sexy new technology, or a pitched a battle between two opposing camps. But the purchase of print books online is quietly becoming the way in which significant numbers of people consume their books, and it’s a trend that should not be underestimated.

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