Future libraries : what publishing trends and book sales tell us about the future of libraries

Why understanding trends in publishing and book sales matters to school libraries.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post titled “The Post Digital Library: Toward the Hybrid Library” that was aimed at challenging the assumption that print is becoming increasingly irrelevant in an increasingly connected world. I would like to take this idea a little further to dig deeper into the data that underpinned this initial post. I fully recognise that the moment this post is published that the data will be outdated however the big idea is that we need to beware of our assumptions when making decisions about the future of our libraries. Up until this point, this is data that has not been brought into discussions about the role of the library in the school setting. This is a profound oversight that we can begin correcting now. While much of the data I present is based on the Nielson Bookscan research the initial prompt to find data about book sales came through information feeds I follow from a broad range of sources in the publishing sector that seemed to be indicating that the digital revolution has not changed publishing in the way we may have expected a decade ago. The more I read, the more I came to realise that the digital and print information landscape is far more nuanced than I imagined. This spurred me into searching more deeply to find definitive information to determine if the general impressions I was detecting were in fact real. The Nielson research I present therefore represents a concise summary of the trends in publishing and book sales that I have noticed both in my own experience within our own school library and within reports from around the world.

One important caveat is that to extrapolate the data I present too far would also be in error. I hope to simply present the numbers as published from a range of sources to challenge the assumptions we may have and cause us to reconsider our understandings about the role of the library. There are endless methodological issues, causal factors and compounding elements that account for the details of the data I present however it is not my intention to critique the data, simply to present it. If you find some of the data particularly interesting, the links provided will give you the opportunity to dig a little deeper. This post will also deliberately steer away from a discussion of the nostalgic features of print that these conversations will often include because, while I could write much about this (see my post on books as concept manipulatives), in management discussions where budgets are on the line and big decisions about the development of the school library are being made, appealing to emotional arguments can (rightly or wrongly) undermine the credibility of a proposal for further investment in the library.

My hope is that you will find this data reassuring but also challenging and inspiring. By presenting data that makes us stop and think for a moment, I hope that this post will stimulate a vibrant discussion about the role of the library in schools. Let’s begin.

Firstly, let us consider what has been said about the future of books. Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980) has been attributed with purveying the idea that print is dead (Carey, James W, 1967) and we could be forgiven for subscribing to such a view. With the rise of an infinite array of media and means to access these media, it can easily be assumed that the role of print is at best diminished but could in fact be completely erased in the near future. Some libraries have anticipated this future and moved entirely to digital resources removing all print (An example in Texas and the BiblioTech in Bear county). Interestingly, a survey by Digital Shift found that 95% of public libraries in the US are circulating ebooks and that spending on ebooks by libraries has steadily increased over the last years (Barbara Alvarez, January 2, 2015). This may lead us to assume that ebooks are taking over from print and the demise of the printed book is not only inevitable but imminent. We may also be tempted to assume that since we see the ubiquity of electronic devices in our surrounds that people are now less likely to read print and that they are do most of their reading in the digital sphere. Another issue that comes up in discussions about libraries is that with the power of search engines such as Google comes the a reduced need for libraries and for print. This leap in logic seems intuitive and to make sense especially if we assume that the sole reason a patron comes to the library is to find information to answer a specific question. This may also lead us to consider libraries that should shift focus from print toward digital resources and different roles within communities. In the spirit of Visible Thinking, we should ask “what makes you say that?”.

What information is behind these assumptions? What influences drive our perceptions of the role of print? The following data is not presented in order to “prove” anything since extrapolating results is perilous but this data should make us stop to reconsider on what basis we are actually making our decisions about library develop.

Book Sales Data from Bookscan’s Jonathan Nowell, January 2015

The following data is based on a presentation in January 2015 by Jonathan Nowell head of Nielsen Book whose Bookscan service tracks book sales data in the US, UK and other markets around the world. I indicate which slide I am referring to so you can split screen to compare my comments (indicate by “>>“) with Nowell’s presentation.

In the US juvenile fiction has grown from 23% in 2004 (24% in the UK) to 37% in 2014 (35% in the UK) of the total book market (ebooks and print). >> In the school setting, juvenile books therefore remain a strong focus for publishers and book sellers and still relevant. Why would it be any different for school libraries?

Adult print fiction sales have reduced significantly since 2009 (post-ebooks) with sales of “mass market paperback” showing the most significant loss, “trade paper back” has reduced to a lesser extent and hard cover has suffered the least. Adult print non-fiction sales have reduced slightly over the same period (slide 5). >> Adult print fiction (and in particular mass market fiction) accounts a significant proportion of the loss of print market share to ebooks.

US ebook sales have increase from approximately 11m to 50m since 2010 with a peak of 60m in 2014. Since 2012 (2nd quarter) ebook sales have hovered around 50-60M  Adult fiction accounts for 65% of US ebook sales (slide 6). >> 1. adult fiction sales account for much of the increase in ebook sales. 2. ebook sales have shown signs of plateauing since 2012.

Adult print fiction is down 37% since 2009, the advent of the ebook (slide 8). >> Adult print fiction (particularly romance) accounts for a significant proportion of the move to ebooks.

For 3 mainstay adult fiction authors, print book sales 2008-2010 were 27m. Between 2012 – 2014 print sales were 23m (a reduction of 4m) but ebook sales were 28m giving a total of 51m (slide 11). >> Ebooks are not replacing print, both are contributing to an overall growth in book sales.

Declining adult non-fiction sales from 2007 pre-dates ebooks (2009) (slide 13). >> This hints that this change is not strongly related to the advent of ebooks but possibly more to do with the impact of the internet on reference materials. Print sales are down 23% but have rebounded slightly since 2012 so far from eliminating print, current trends indicate that adult non-fiction although changing is not going away.

Digging into print non-fiction sales a little deeper (slide 14), it is travel (down 50%) and reference (down 37%) genres that account for the majority of the reduction in sales. Interestingly, cooking/entertainment and religion/bibles have increased as a percentage. >> These figures make sense when considering that reference and travel are the most logical genres to be replaced by the much more convenient, easily searchable and mobile digital sources of information.

I know this is a lot of data but this is where things become even more interesting.

Juvenile sales have grown from at 109m in 2004, after suffered a slight drop post-ebooks (2009) have risen to 177m in 2014 with the highest sales figures since records began (slide 16 – 17). >> Juvenile print is not only bucking the trend toward digital but actually thriving.

Highest post-ebook (2009) sales growth for print has been in juvenile fiction and non-fiction, performing arts and religion/bibles (slide 19). >> There is a thriving market for print.

Post-ebook declines have been dominated by adult fiction (fantasy, mystery and general fiction), travel and craft/hobbies/games.

Book sales: Other data and ideas to consider.

The closure of big book sellers such as Borders and small independent book sellers has led to an assumption that print is a disappearing market. The above data demonstrates that this is not the case. In fact, the closing of book stores can be attributed more to a shift in the market place with Amazon taking up a significant proportion of sales. So the changing market place is a shift in sales between sellers however sales remain strong overall (Butler, 2014). “The school book club market seems to be bouncing back, independent bookstores are stable though flat, and sales at etailers are up almost 20%, showing the most sales overall” (Gilmore, 17 Sept 2015).

Further Nielson Bookscan data presented on 17 sept 2015 (Gilmore) “for the time period between January 2014 to September 2015, children’s book sales are up 12.6% in the U.S., 28% in Brazil, and 10% in China, with 11 of the 20 bestselling books in the U.S. being children’s titles”. Further, “board books have seen 20% compound growth over the last three years.” And more, the “Children’s share of print markets is averaging 34% across the board internationally, in Australia and New Zealand, it’s almost 50%. Some titles are exhibiting strong sales across international markets, including Minecraft, Frozen, and Wimpy Kid titles.” >> The book, far from being replaced by digital media and social networking remains a strong growth industry.

“Children’s religion, holiday, and nonfiction titles are the categories that are most up, while e-books are actually down 14% this year so far.” (Gilmore, Sept 2015) >> This strongly challenges the assumption that internet sources are replacing nonfiction print. While it is clear that Internet sources are powerful and frequently used, print appears to be offering something different bringing young readers back again and again. Not only that, we do not need to try to promote nonfiction books based on a fear that print will be lost to the digital world, the market trends are telling us that print is selling itself if it is relevant to the market.

And there is more. Since approximately 2012, as hinted to above, ebook sales seem to be plateauing. Since “Amazon launched the Kindle, which is now in its seventh generation, in 2007. Sales peaked in 2011 at around 13.44m, according to Forbes. That figure fell to 9.7m in 2012” (Trotman, 2015). “At the same time, British consumers spent £2.2bn on print in 2013, compared with just £300m on e-books, according to Nielsen.” (Trotman, 2015). >> Far from taking over the market, ebook sales seem to have peaked at not more than 33% of the market share (Anderson, 2015). The future appears to be a blended market place.

What are the implications for libraries?

For libraries to remain relevant, we must stock print. How that print collection looks in terms of genre proportions, balance and types of books must evolve because digital media has dramatically changed what defines “text”. Things must change but not away from print.

The power of this data is that it sits outside opinion, nostalgia or conjecture. Regardless of how this data could be explained away or endlessly debated the fact remains that print is showing no signs of going away and in fact, remains dominant in the publishing and retail sectors. There is no reason for us then to be moving away from print in the school library when clearly, data that represents societies with an abundance of digital media and relative high wealth indicates that print will continue to dominate book sales into the foreseeable future. The move to entirely digital libraries dramatically reduces the relevance of a library to it’s community and reduces the ways in which a community can access literature.

There is no debate that digital media and technology has caused an upheaval in the publishing industry and drastically changed the print landscape so this is where things get even more interesting for schools and the school library. There cannot be a continuation of traditional collection development policies. These need to be drastically rethought and overhauled. With the advent of vast information sources such as Wikipedia, the need for broad audience reference texts typified by the multivolume encyclopaedia sets (and I would add textbooks here as well), is largely (not entirely) unnecessary. This is great news for libraries. No longer do we need to provide a book for every conceivable research topic for our students since this need can be fulfilled through a combination of both electronic and print resources. No longer do libraries need to be the depository of all knowledge and the gateway to all “good” information. This frees our library budgets from this burden and allows for a shift toward more remarkable texts that provide a unique perspective and experience for our patrons. The modern library is a “hybrid library” where digital and print technology mingle, compliment and build toward a common goal of enjoyment and literacy for our students.

To borrow from marketing, the hybrid library “is essentially the duality and combination of print and digital media working together to promote a commonality” (Visual Media Alliance). Far from competing in an either/or scenario, print and digital media compliment each other and together lead to greater levels of engagement and reading. This is a point I plan to return to in another post.

I will stop here from making strong assertions about what this data means for school libraries because the point is clear in regard to the need for print but how this looks for an individual library will be different for each library context. Where this data should lead us is toward a more strategic approach to how we build our collections and how we build our library environments.

This data also challenges us to beware of other assumptions that may be lurking within our plans for the library. Consultation with key stakeholders, through networks with other professionals and contacting experts in various fields of library management and design will help us to minimise errors based on unchallenged assumptions. There is so much more to explore in regard to considering the role of data on library management but the key tenet has been introduced to draw our attention toward a reflection on our assumptions and a call to challenge those assumptions with current data and information.

Another place to go for in-depth research is the Pew Research Center who released an extensive study in 2012 focussed on Libraries, patrons and ebooks but this may the subject of another post. One important point to make from this research may come as a surprise and challenge some beliefs. It appears that people who read more books are also more active readers of digital content. Rather than digital replacing print, avid readers tend to also engage deeply with digital media. The implication appears to be that avid print readers are also more avid digital readers. Does this mean that a fear that if young readers engage with digital books that they may lose the love of the print book? The reality may actually be that young students who are active inquirers will access all media to fulfil their needs. This is my own observation of students in the library that given both digital and print resources, students will engage with both.

This is an exciting time to be in library management because a renaissance is brewing in the wake of the digital revolution that will embrace these new technologies and simultaneously revitalise our print collections to provide our communities with an experience not available outside the library.


Works cited

Alvarez, Barbara. “Shelf Life: The Balancing Act Between Physical and Digital Books.” Public Libraries Online Shelf Life The Balancing Act Between Physical and Digital Books Comments. Public Libraries Online, 02 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Sept. 2015.

Anderson, Porter. “At DBW: ‘What Sells in Print’: EBooks’ Impact.” Futurebook. The Bookselller, 16 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Sept. 2015.

Butler, Sarah. “Independent Bookshops in Decline as Buying Habits Change.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 21 Feb. 2014. Web. 19 Sept. 2015.

Carey, James W. “Harold Adams Innis and Marshall McLuhan.” The Antioch Review 27.1 (1967): 5-39. Web.

Gilmore, Natasha. “Nielsen Summit Shows the Data Behind the Children’s Book Boom.” PublishersWeekly.com. PWxyz, LLC, 17 Sept. 2015. Web. 19 Sept. 2015.

Nowell, Jonathan. “The Changing Mix of What Sells in Print – Jonathan Nowell, Nielsen Bo…” The Changing Mix of What Sells in Print – Jonathan Nowell, Nielsen Bo… Nielsen Book, 15 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Sept. 2015.

Trotman, Andrew. “Kindle Sales Have ‘disappeared’, Says UK’s Largest Book Retailer.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited, 6 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Sept. 2015.

“Who Said Print Is Dead?” Visual Media Alliance. Visual Media Alliance, n.d. Web. 19 Sept. 2015.

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