Americans are judging books by their covers, and in the process changing how the national publishing industry does business.
Jim Milliot, editorial director at Publishers Weekly, said hardcover print books are finding new life in the shadow of the ebook’s rising popularity. The publishing industry has noticed that consumers are buying higher-end hardcover books because they enjoy the aesthetics of the physical object on their bookshelf.
“Publishers saved money on cheaper paper and jacket design, but are now rethinking that (strategy) for people who want to own physical books,” said Milliot.
The meteoric rise of tablet devices fueled doubts over the print book’s future, but Milliot warned not to assume that everyone buying a tablet would also purchase ebooks.
According to Milliot, the rate of growth in ebook sales dropped from about 100 percent in 2011 to 35 percent in 2012. During the same period, the rate of decline in print sales has stabilized to similar 2010-11 levels.
Milliot explained that hardcovers outperformed mass-market paperbacks in 2012 — though both experienced decline — because the higher quality of the hardcover can offset the convenience of the digital format.
“Ebook growth was unsustainable in the early couple of years,” Milliot said. “Once you get to a mature market, it’s hard to get those (earlier) growth rates.”
Yet this national trend is not universally applicable. The History Press, a Charleston publisher, has continued to rely on sales of its print paperback books.
Publishing Director Adam Ferrell credited The History Press’ success to readers’ sense of local pride. But the company also accommodates consumers’ occasional preference for higher-end products.
Printed books that have a niche or a particular local appeal continue to sell well, but ebooks will continue to account for a significant market share. Last year, The History Press introduced ebooks, which constitute about 5 percent of current sales. Evening Post Books, part of The Post and Courier, issued its first fully-formatted ebook, “The Mark Sanford Story,” this month.
Milliot said the prognosis for the physical book is mixed. While the ultimate trend line for print sales is flat, he said that was not necessarily detrimental.
“Flat print sales and an increase in ebooks — that’s a good proposition,” he said.
Zach Marschall is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.