Saturday 29 April 2017

Adrian Weckler: Print is new hot tech for books as sales soar

Nielsen's new figures show that 11 million new books were sold in Ireland in 2016, taking in €131m. That's an 11pc rise in revenue and a 9pc rise in volume on 2015's Irish sales figures (Stock image)
Nielsen's new figures show that 11 million new books were sold in Ireland in 2016, taking in €131m. That's an 11pc rise in revenue and a 9pc rise in volume on 2015's Irish sales figures (Stock image)
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

So print is dying, eh? Somebody forgot to tell book buyers. The figures are in: print book sales are soaring. Last year in Ireland, they rose 10pc, It's the second consecutive year of sales growth.

Bookshops aren't closing anymore and digital substitutes are no longer replacing paper.

But hold on - what's going on? Weren't digital screens supposed to be our all-conquering devices for 'consuming content'?

Nope. It turns out that Irish people judge screens to be great for snippets, short reads, messaging and video. But when it comes to diving into a longer text treatise or a bigger story, print is becoming the go-to format.

Just look at the numbers in a bit more detail.

Nielsen's new figures show that 11 million new books were sold in Ireland in 2016, taking in €131m. That's an 11pc rise in revenue and a 9pc rise in volume on 2015's Irish sales figures.

Britain's book sales have risen too, though not as much as Ireland's; the UK saw a 2.3pc rise in sales (to 195m new books) and a 5pc rise in value (to £1.6bn).

Why is this happening? Is there some sort of vinyl-type nostalgia trip going on? Or has a hitherto unknown niche emerged?

One thing that's not driving book sales as much is the Kindle. The rise in Irish and British print sales has not been reciprocated in electronic book downloads, local publishers say. While these haven't fallen, they haven't risen much either.

A few reasons come to mind as to why our digital revolution has been stopped at the gates of bookland.

1. Ebook tech is old and boring

Amazon's Kindle, which effectively rules the ebook world, hasn't had a proper upgrade in five years. It's still a small, grey, dull plastic thing. It's functional but boring. It mainly serves the ebook addict who reads one to two books a week and simply wants the quickest way to get to the next thing. Compare that to a book, which can reinvent itself to be bright, pretty, moody or adopt any other kind of look.

2. Kids prefer print

It seems counter-intuitive to everything we thought we think we know about kids' preferences, but children indisputably want print books over digital ones.

This matters a great deal, as a quick look at Ireland's biggest selling print books shows. Last year, four of the top 10 bestsellers were children's titles. The number one book was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which alone took €1.3m in Irish sales). So while two-year-olds totter up to TVs, trying to control them like a touchscreen, they want their long-form written stories to be on paper.

3. Publishers aren't discounting electronic books as much

Take a look around the Kindle or Kobo e-store and you'll find a lot less new or back catalogue titles for €1.99. While none of them will say so publicly, publishers appear to have shied off heavy discounting of electronic books, preferring to invest in a longer print cycle economy.

4. It's the economy, stupid

What are the critical factors in deciding whether or not you'll shell out a €20 for Paul O'Connell's autobiography The Battle? One of them will how much disposable income you think you have. Book sales tanked during Ireland's economic crash. In the last two years, as people feel they have more money back in their pockets, sales have risen. While there are undoubtedly many die-hard Munster rugby fans out there, macro-economic factors undoubtedly helped a book like The Battle get to number two (raking in €1.2m) in Ireland's bestsellers last year.

5. Books are wrapped up in identity and self-image

The accessorising and aesthetic effects of books are still a significant influence on many people. Books are nice things to have and, sometimes, to show off. At home, they're like framed prints. They remind you of who you are and are often prized as accessories to tell others who you are.

There is probably a vinyl-revival comparison here, albeit a faint one. Absent links on social media, books online cannot really be ogled, savoured or paraded, either in form or in process. But print books most certainly can.

For culture snobs, books even may act as a signal to tell the right and wrong sorts of people apart. After all, everyone now has access to the internet, from alt-right knuckle-draggers to Facebook-commenting shriekers. Being online is a prosaic, run-of-the-mill thing where once it was a futuristic, cool thing. Starbucks has become Supermac's.

6. The design of books is simply better now

Walk into any Easons shop and you'll a much higher standard of design and thought laced into the covers of almost all the titles on display. The recession appears to have made publishers hungry and creative. Books are a pleasure to pick up and peruse whereas they were once lashed-out clumps of glued paper.

7. Books are a guarantee of depth

Most mainstream media organisations are afraid not to keep up with Buzzfeed business models of quantity and frequency over depth. That is starting to put strain on the contract with readers who want an idea or a story to be developed in depth. Books offer a promise for those seeking real depth.

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