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Pandemic drives ebook and audiobook sales by UK publishers to all-time high

The Guardian logo The Guardian 14/11/2020 Mark Sweney Media business correspondent

Sales of digital books by British publishers are set to hit an all-time high this year as the public turns to reading to escape pandemic cabin fever.

However, the ebook and audiobook boom comes at a high cost for the industry, with global sales of printed books by UK publishers plunging by 55m in the first six months of the year as high streets and schools closed during the first coronavirus lockdown.

The pandemic has revived the fortunes of the consumer ebook. The format once touted as the future of reading has suffered six straight years of sales declines since peaking in 2014 but this year has been different, with sales home and abroad up 17% to £144m in the first half. UK publishers can now expect consumer ebooks to enjoy their best year since 2015, when sales were just under £300m.

The ebook market has also received a boost thanks to the government scrapping the so-called “reading tax” of 20% VAT charged on digital titles, which Amazon then cut from the price of Kindle ebooks on 1 May, to bring them in line with physical equivalents, which have always been zero-rated.

Sales of consumer audiobooks, which have ridden a wave of increasing popularity over the years, surged 42% to £56m in the first half – easily on track to beat the record £97m set last year. The combined £199m first-half sales of the two formats has set UK publishers up for their best-ever year for digital sales of consumer titles, well ahead of the run rate needed to hit 2019’s record total of £336m.

The data for the UK publishing industry covers companies such as Bloomsbury, the publisher of the bestselling Harry Potter series, Penguin Random House, whose authors include Bernardine Evaristo and Nigella Lawson, and Faber & Faber, the publisher of Sally Rooney’s Normal People.

“In a challenging year for the UK publishing industry, growth in digital has helped counterbalance print decreases,” said Stephen Lotinga, the chief executive of the Publishers Association, which compiles the six-monthly sales figures. “These figures really emphasise the enduring nature of books and reading – and that readers continue to embrace books in all their forms.”

Despite the tale of digital success, it has been a very different story in the still-dominant printed book sector, which accounts for more than a 80% of the total £2bn market for books from UK publishers.

Global print book sales for UK publishers fell by 17% to £1.1bn in the first half, and within this, consumer book sales dropped 12% to £653m. In the UK, sales of all forms of printed books, including other sectors such as academic titles, fell 11% to £647m. In volume terms this equates to a decline in print book sales of 55.6m globally year on year in the first half, a fall of more than 17% to 271m copies. Within that, the volume of sales of printed books in the UK dropped 24.3m during lockdown, a 14% fall to 148m.

The report also reveals the public’s taste in reading material as the nation hunkered down during the first lockdown. While genres such as children’s and non-fiction, including cookbooks, proved popular, across print and digital formats combined the only genre to show overall growth was fiction, with sales of books in that category up 13% to £284m.

Much of that growth was driven by digital books but it also proved to be the only genre to show resilience in the print sector.

Paperback fiction sales managed to stay level at £114.8m – some feat, given the overall decline in print sales during the lockdown – while across all other genres sales fell by between 9.5% and 32%.

Hardback fiction has proven to be the success story of the print pandemic, with sales up 35% to £34m for the period, as consumers looked for a premium reading experience to indulge themselves at home. Hardback fiction was also the only genre to achieve volume sales growth in the period – up a quarter to 6.7m copies – amid the overall 55.6m print sales decline across the print sector.

“These figures show us that UK readers have returned to fiction during the lockdown, turning to novels for entertainment, escapism and comfort during the first six months of the year,” Lotinga said. “Incredible books such as Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other have offered people support in these difficult times.”

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Top five bestselling ebooks from UK publishers (Jan – June)

Normal People by Sally Rooney. Photograph: Jonny Davies/Man Booker Prize/PA © Provided by The Guardian Normal People by Sally Rooney. Photograph: Jonny Davies/Man Booker Prize/PA

Normal People – Sally Rooney

The Silent Patient – Alex Michaelides

Blood Orange – Harriet Tyce

The Flatshare – Beth O’Leary

Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens

Top five bestselling fiction titles – print (Jan – June)

The Mirror and the Light, The Wolf Hall Trilogy – Hilary Mantel

Normal People – Sally Rooney

The Family Upstairs – Lisa Jewell

Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens

Big Sky – Kate Atkinson

Top five bestselling books (print and digital combined) Jan -June

Copies of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light. Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Copies of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light. Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse – Charlie Mackesy

Pinch of Nom Everyday Light: 100 Tasty, Slimming Recipes – Kay Featherstone and Kate Allison

Slime – David Walliams

The Mirror and the Light, The Wolf Hall Trilogy – Hilary Mantel

Pinch of Nom: 100 Slimming, Home-style Recipes – Kay Featherstone and Kate Allison


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