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Why print book sales are rising, and books are getting longer

E-book sales have remained stagnant in 2015. But print book sales are up, and Harper Lee's latest novel and adult coloring books are the big winners.

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    Bookshop owner Russell Desmond sits at his desk in Arcadian Books in May this year in New Orleans, Louisiana. This is one of many independent bookshops located in the French Quarter. Sales of printed books increased for the second year in a row in 2015.
    Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
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Sales of print books have increased slightly in the United States this year, possibly boosted by the release of Harper Lee’s newest novel and a popularity surge in, of all things, adult coloring books.

As of December, sales of paper edition books rose to 571 million units, up from 2014 when 559 million copies were sold, according to Nielsen BookScan, which follows 85 percent of the print market. 

The company told the Associated Press that adult coloring books and Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” led the trend.

Jonathan Burnham, publisher and senior vice president of HarperCollins Publishing, pinned the change on Lee’s novel. The book was released in July. While updated sales statics have yet to be revealed it sold four times as many hard copies as e-books.

“Possible the historic nature of the publication made people want to own a physical copy,” he told the AP.

2015 was the second consecutive year that print editions grew, following a dip in 2013, when about 500 million were sold in the United States.

Adult coloring books and books written by celebrities who made their names on YouTube have also contributed to sales, publishers told the AP.

PewDiePie, Tyler Oakley, and Shane Dawson have translated a large YouTube following into bestseller status, reports NPR

"PewDiePie has in particular has over 40 million subscribers to his channel," she says. "That's more than most print magazines nowadays, most TV shows during prime time would have tuning in ... every video that he puts out immediately has about a million views."

Author Jeff Kinney said he was not surprised that almost all of his popular illustrated children’s books, “Diary of Wimpy Kid: Old School” were sold as hard copies.

“So much of the way kids experience the world these days is through a screen, but we instinctively know that the best way to get kids reading is by placing a book in their hands,” he told the AP in an email.

Not only are printed books more popular recently, but books are getting longer overall.

The Guardian reported that the average number of pages per book has increased by 25 percent from 320 to 400 pages since 1999, according to a study by James Finlayson from Vervesearch, who carried out the survey for the interactive publisher Flipsnack.

The study looked at 2,500 books on The New York Times bestseller list and others from Google’s annual survey of the most discussed books.

While e-book sales have taken a dive in recent years, literary agent Clare Alexander said long books are easier to carry when they are electronic, also noting that romance, crime, and erotica are the most popular types of e-books.

“Despite all the talk of the death of the book because of competition from other media, people who love to read appear to prefer a long and immersive narrative,” she said, to the Guardian. “The very opposite of a sound bite or snippets of information that we all spend our lives downloading from Google.”

A Pew Research Center study released in October noted that e-book sales have remained stagnant despite the fact that 72 percent of American adults have read one in some form in 2015, a fall from 2014 when nearly 80 percent did.

While the sale of printed books increased this year, the number of American adults who read them fell from 69 percent to 63 percent, the Pew survey found. Overall digital sales make up 20 percent of the overall market.

The data measured adults who have read at least one book, wholly or partly, this year. Women and young adults were the most likely to read books, the study found. 

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