Have e-books found their place in the publishing market?

It seems barely possible, but it’s less than a decade since Amazon boss Jeff Bezos ordered his lieutenants to build the world’s first mass-market e-reader. The original Kindle was introduced to the public in 2007 and with it came the fear that its development marked the beginning of the end for printed books.

In the nine years since its launch, Kindle has been through eight generations, an LCD version has launched, along with various adaptors and applications that allow Amazon’s content to run on the slew of other platforms and technologies than have also come to market in this time.

Yet despite the digital explosion that has taken place, despite the consumer’s readiness to ditch old technology for new (honestly, when was the last time you read a printed newspaper?), and despite 2007’s fear for the future of the book, the situation we currently find ourselves in isn’t the one book-lovers feared.

If anything, the lure of the e-book has begun to wither over the last year. According to figures highlighted by the Bookseller, collective year-on-year sales of e-books from leading publishers Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster (collectively known as the Big Five) have fallen for the first time.

Big Five e-books sales stood at 47.9m units in 2015, down 2.4% from the 49m units sold in 2014, but still more than the 42.5m sold in 2013, and the 35.9m sold in 2012.

This decline in e-books sales is unlikely to represent the start of a significant downwards trajectory accompanied by sales of printed books surging back, what’s more likely is a plateauing of e-books sales.

Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books & Music, recently told Publishers Weekly: “I think what people are saying is e-reading is not going away – we continue to participate in that market – but increasingly, people are using it for certain things, like when they’re flying, or when they can’t carry books around. Other than that, people seem to be happy reading their print books.”

It might just be that e-books have found their place in the market, as a necessity for times when print books just aren’t practical – and the publishing industry seems to be, broadly, getting used to this idea.

Phillip Jones, editor of The Bookseller and co-founder of FutureBook.net, made a significant observation when he said that rather than seeing the print book and e-book markets as two countervailing forces, ‘it may be wise to figure out how they are working together’.

Rather than worrying too much about the primacy of one form or the other, shouldn’t the question now be, as Jones suggests: how has digital helped to revive and reinvent print?

Well, yes; but isn’t that now a given? Isn’t there another pressing question to ask about what publishers plan to do about losing market share to self-publishing on e-books. It’s a complex question which tempts further exploration – maybe in another blog. But in the meantime, let’s celebrate.

The book is dead! Long live the book!