Growth in e-book sales slows in 2012

The number of e-books sold last year grew by 43 percent, but that's a fairly small increase compared to the triple-digit increases of past years.

Shaun Stanley/The Durango Herald/AP
A computer screen e-book titles available for check out at a library in Durango, Colo. E-book sales increased 43 percent last year, but that's far below past increases.

The good news: The number of e-books sold last year grew by 43 percent.

The bad news: After three years of triple-digit increases in sales, that’s a serious slowdown.

That’s the latest news from the Association of American Publishers, which released its annual BookStats study Wednesday. The report found that digital books remain the fastest-growing segment of the publishing market, but that record growth is hitting a plateau after years of runaway sales.

Among the report’s findings:

• E-book sales grew by 43 percent in 2012 

• E-books now represent 20 percent of all books sales

• Some 457 million e-books were sold in 2012, compared to 557 million hardcovers sold in last year

• Even if e-book sales have slowed, the industry has made massive progress: the 457 million e-books sold in 2012 represent a 4,456 percent increase over 2008 when 10 million e-books were sold.

As for the reasons behind the e-book slowdown, analysts’ explanations vary. Some, like Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch, cite the enduring strength of the print format, which continues to outsell digital books by a margin of 4-to-1.

“In all the talk about e-books, we often lose track of the fact that more than three out of four books sold in the U.S. are still printed ones,” Pietsch said, as reported by USA Today.

Another reason for slowing e-book sales? The explosive growth simply isn’t sustainable. Any industry that starts from zero and experiences rapid growth will eventually face a slowdown. So says Amazon vice president Russ Grandinetti: “As e-books have grown from practically nothing, you can’t expect to keep doubling it every year,” he told the AAP.

Finally, perhaps the most controversial reason: the digital marketplace may finally be reaching saturation. That is, the folks who have decided to adopt e-reading have already done so and the rest aren’t likely to go digital anytime soon.

“We’ve just reached a point of natural resistance,” Mike Shatzkin, a publishing consultant and organizer of the Digital Book World conference, said, according to USA Today.

Or, as Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch put it, “Consumers have settled into their book formats of choice.” 

The bottom line: Both print and digital will remain important segments for the industry for years to come.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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