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What do sales of digital and physical books mean for multichannel retailers?

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Ebook and book sales have much to say about the prospects for multichannel retailing. Books were the first product category for Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.com, when it started selling in 1995. Since then online bookselling has repeatedly been blamed for the decline of the bookshop, while the subsequent emergence of digital ebook sales, initially through Amazon's own Kindle e-reader, has been expected to be the death knell for the traditional printed format.

However Publishers’ Association figures out this week seem to suggest there’s no need for a funeral. Indeed, publishing turned in a record year in 2012. Total sales of physical and digital books grew by 4% to £3.3bn.

Digital sales grew fast, with consumer ebook sales reaching £216m in 2012, 134% more than the previous year, according to the Publishers’ Association’s Statistics yearbook 2012. Total digital sales, which include audiobooks and online subscriptions as well as ebooks, grew by 66% to £411m and now account for 12% of the publishing market. Total fiction digital sales increased by 149% to £172m.

But despite rapid digital growth, physical publishing remains alive and well. Physical sales of children’s books grew by 4% to £233m, while physical fiction sales were up by 3% to £502m.

Physical and digital fiction sales grew by 21% to £674m and digital sales of non-fiction and reference books grew by 95% to £42m.

So what to conclude from the figures? Richard Mollet, chief executive of The Publishers Association puts it like this: “British publishing is a healthy industry which continues to grow. The continued increase in digital sales across different disciplines illustrates the shift of readers to e-book reading.

“Such growth has been achieved as British publishers have been able to invest in new exciting innovative products and in great authors, thanks to the strong framework provided by copyright law.”

Publishing, and thus reading, are in fine fettle. The implication for multichannel retailers seems to be that consumers are increasingly keen to buy in the format and the way that suits them at any given time. Importantly, enabling such flexibility means they are likely to spend more, rather than less. It’s a lesson worth bearing in mind.
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