The Book Industry Isn't Dying

Borders is long gone, Barnes & Noble (BKS) is on the ropes, and total sales at U.S. bookstores have fallen 22% over the past five years. Is every book lover’s nightmare coming true? Is the publishing industry somehow being destroyed by a combination of Amazon (AMZN) price cutting and a wave of Netflix (NFLX) watching, iPhone gaming and tweeting?

Definitely not, though you might come away with that ridiculously pessimistic view from some recent coverage trashing Amazon's role in the industry. Actually, book sales have risen strongly since 2008, not coincidentally since ebooks came on the scene. There’s more than ever to read — thus people are reading more than ever.

But the true numbers are hard to nail down. Stick with me while we try to tease out the truth from imperfect market research (and I’ll be dealing only with the mainstream book market, not textbooks or religious books).

First of all, an increasing portion of sales has moved online, both for print books and, obviously, for ebooks, which are only sold that way. Including both online and physical sales, U.S. publishers had revenues of $15 billion in 2012, the most recently reported annual figure from the Association of American Publishers. That’s up 14% from 2008 – not bad. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see that, within the total, ebook sales rose from $68 million to $3 billion, what’s technically known as a gazillion percent increase. Absent ebooks, total print book sales did shrink about 8%.

That’s enough right there to disprove the pessimists and ebook critics. It also certainly ought to embarrass theNew Yorker, which last week published its third -- and most off-base yet – profile of Amazon and its impact on the book market. Trotting out many of the same anecdotes Ken Auletta used in his 2010 New Yorker article, writer George Packer cites innumerable unnamed agents and publishers who worry Amazon doesn’t really care about books as they do. By encouraging low-priced, self-published ebooks, in the end, quality literature will be destroyed, Packer and his sources fear.


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