Books: print media’s last stand

Quite rightly, there was a celebratory air to last week’s IPG conference. While the trend for most media sectors is reported as gloomy, book sales have been consistently growing for the last few years.

Stronger than they look

According to Mintel, 74% of Brits bought or read / listened to a book in 2016/17. The Publishers Association reported record sales of books and journals in the same period, rising to £4.8bn. Sales in both print and digital categories are up – with print consumption massively dominating the UK market (around 90% of copy sales).

So why are print books outlasting their physical counterparts in other media sectors? Well, from a consumer perspective, magazines, newspapers, and music are eminently ‘snackable’ propositions. People tend to read their favourite parts of newspapers, for, instance, and rarely start at the beginning and read right through to the end. Ditto magazines. After first hearing of a new album, most consumers add their favourites to a playlist, and this suits them fine.

Books, by contrast, tend to involve a long-term commitment, and tend to be read sequentially. There is no advantage offered by a digital reader in this regard. Academic or professional print books also lend themselves to easy note-making, and to having multiple books open at once for reference. Moreover, what little consumer research has been done shows that people like books. A Nielsen survey of young readers last year found that they feel physically and emotionally attached to them (in the same way that ‘real’ music lovers are attached to vinyl).

So, does this mean that the publishing industry has beaten off the digital threat? Unfortunately, no. We can all agree that the need for, and love of, physical books will only diminish incrementally. But innovation comes in waves: and we are in a lull at the moment, with the Kindle / Apple Books wave receding from the beach. Unfortunately, my children’s generation are simply not as affectionate about print, or linear reading, in the same way that they are not at all nostalgic for vinyl. And as the smart money flows into ed tech, schools, which have inculcated the book habit, are becoming ever-more digital. The next wave – probably mobile, possibly something we haven’t yet thought of – could soon come and wash the sandcastles from the beach.

In the medium term, some things are in publishers’ favour: they learned from the mistake made by the music business in the early digital days, and have fought hard to hold on to their IP. And, as James wrote last month, the trend in home entertainment retail is upward. The same impulse that has encouraged people to buy DVDs and games will continue to benefit the books sector, at least for now. Predictions are that book sales will hold steady for the next few years.

But publishers should not rest on the laurels awarded them by the current lull. Instead, they should welcome the opportunity to think about what the industry, and individual products, will look like in five, ten, twenty years’ time.

Martin Tripp

[email protected]

Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.