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The Latest Trends in Books, Ebooks, and Audiobooks
Posted On July 10, 2018
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“Who doesn’t read books in America?” asked a recent Pew Research Center report. This March 2018 update finds that adults with lower incomes are “about three times as likely as the most affluent adults to be non-book readers (36% vs. 13%)” and that those with “a high school degree or less are about five times as likely as college graduates (37% vs. 7%) to report not reading books in any format in the past year.” Non-book readership is higher among Hispanics, who “are about twice as likely as whites (38% vs. 20%) to report not having read a book in the past 12 months. But there are differences between Hispanics born inside and outside the U.S.: Roughly half (51%) of foreign-born Hispanics report not having read a book, compared with 22% of Hispanics born in the U.S.” While 28% of American adults age 50 and older reported not reading a book in the past year, it was 20% for those younger than 50.

Even more interesting is the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent American Time Use Survey, which “measures the amount of time people spend doing various activities, such as paid work, childcare, volunteering, and socializing.” Data for 2017 shows a continuing decline in leisure reading—a record low 19% of Americans age 15 and older reported that they read for pleasure. The largest declines are in the 35–44 age group. Balancing this is a rise in television viewing (which is nearly 10 times the amount of time devoted to reading for pleasure). Use of social media was not aggregated in the released data. Of course, the increase in the number of mobile phones has been phenomenal—today, more than two-thirds of the world’s 7.6 billion people have these devices, due to the ready availability of affordable smartphones and data plans.

So how are changing attitudes and interests impacting book publication, sales, and readership?

American Reading Declines

Sales Channels

Amazon now has 17 physical bookstores across the U.S. that are designed to complement its online sales system. Amazon devices such as the Kindle are available for hands-on testing, and a selection of popular online items is featured. According to the Amazon Books page, “Prime members get the same prices as on for everything in the store. Amazon devices are the same prices as on for all customers. Non-Prime members are welcome to learn about all the other Amazon Prime benefits and join Prime in store. Books and other items are available at list price for non-Prime customers.”

Unlike Amazon’s Whole Foods unit, the bookstores aren’t adding much to the company’s profits, which a recent Business Insider analysis attributes to these locations not being “a place for browsing and discovering books like a local independent bookstore—they’re actually just a place for Prime members. There’s no compelling reason for a non-Prime member to visit an Amazon Books store, except maybe to check out devices like the Amazon Echo or Kindle.” Speaking at the 2018 BookExpo on the future of retail, NPD BookScan’s Kristen McLean noted that even though Amazon increased its book market share, its sales have been flat in recent years.

Barnes & Noble’s total sales fell 6% in FY2018, “and the retailer posted a net loss of $125.5 million last year, compared to net income of $22.0 million in fiscal 2017,” Publishers Weekly reports. “Revenue last year was $3.66 billion, down from $3.89 billion in fiscal 2017.” It also reports that the Barnes & Noble College Booksellers division of Barnes & Noble Education had a 17.6% increase in sales, remaining the largest profit center in the Education area; however, it still posted a loss. The company “attributed the decline to a 4.1% decrease in comp store sales, driven primarily by enrollment declines—especially at community colleges—and the overall decline in average textbook sales prices.”

“Time was that Barnes & Noble was the apparently unstoppable goliath of the publishing world,” notes Larry Light in a recent Forbes article. “Amazon is the monster, out to kill both Barnes & Noble and any other physical emporium of books.” However, Light sees changes at B&N that are positive: “B&N plans to clear away much of the shelf clutter that isn’t related to books, namely games and gifts. It also is experimenting with running actual restaurants in their stores, a step up from their customary Starbucks counters. The company also should abandon its money-losing Nook reading device, and use the money to upgrade its stores. Amazon’s Kindle owns that ebook reading space.”

Independent Bookstores

Independent bookstores have experienced a revival. From 2009 to 2015, the number of these stores grew 35% to 2,227 in the U.S. alone. For survival, McLean believes that bookstores must focus on being “highly local businesses,” concentrating their efforts on four areas: curation (“less is more”), convenience (“removing friction from shopping”), personalization (“customized experience in a mass-produced world”), and putting consumers first (“like an anthropologist”).

Retail stores continue to recede with the rise of ecommerce; Credit Suisse estimates that as much as 25% of U.S. shopping malls may close by 2020. Yet a recent report on Morningstar says that “small retailers are maximizing new shopping trends to encourage strong sales and customer interactions by pairing websites and storefronts in complementary ways.” In the same report, George Washington University professor Leah Brooks notes that small family-run businesses have strong social value today: “The small and mom-and-pop store has gained cache in our post-internet era. I think that maybe we place an even greater value on it than we used to.”

Forbes contributor Tom McGee says, “So far, 2018 is coinciding with what feels like an entire new era of retail and retail real estate, though brick-and-mortar remains a proven formula. Physical stores capture more than 90 percent of all retail sales. My bet is pretty soon we won’t be talking about omnichannel because it won’t matter where the product is purchased; it will only matter if consumers can get what they want, when they want it.”

American Reading Declines Age Group

Print Books and Ebooks

Forbes contributor Adam Rowe reports that according to Nielsen’s PubTrack Digital, total ebook sales were 162 million in 2017, down 10% from 180 million the previous year. However, Rowe explains that “this isn’t a comeback story for print, and shouldn’t be considered evidence of a waning public interest in ebooks. The fact that traditionally published ebook sales fell 10% last year isn’t the full picture.” He adds that “audiences moved to indie publishers, largely on Amazon.” The reason, according to Jonathan Stolper, who was the SVP and global managing director for Nielsen Book in 2016, “comes down to pricing.”

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Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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