Physical Books Are Dead — Long Live Physical Books

The 2012 physical and digital book sales numbers are out, and they're not at all what you'd expect.

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FRED DUFOUR / Getty Images

Children read pop-up books, three-dimensional or movable books, on December 04, 2010 in Paris.

A little less than two years ago, one of the largest physical booksellers in the U.S. shuttered forever, saying farewell to nearly 400 stores and about 11,000 employees. At least three of those stores, including the company’s 330,000-square foot headquarters, were in my backyard (Ann Arbor, Michigan). Borders’ departure left us with a handful of secondhand booksellers, one notable independent and a single Barnes & Noble. The sense that we’d gone from feast to famine overnight was indelible, a sense driven by presumptions that physical books are doomed, to be assimilated by the Borg-like inexorability of the digital medium. If you hold with some of the less optimistic analyst predictions, the writing may even be on the wall for the company Barnes, Noble and eventually Leonard Riggio built.

Each year the Publishers’ Association rolls out a bunch of numbers canvassing the last year’s book sales. Given what we think we know about physical books, this year’s numbers are something of a surprise. For starters, book sales overall — that is, both digital and physical formats — actually rose 4% in 2012 (over $5 million). That’s a record, made even sweeter because 2011 revenue had been negative — a 2% slump from 2010.

We can thank digital for much of the gain, of course, with overall digital sales up a whopping 66%, split between e-book sales (up 134%) and digital fiction sales (up 149%). And yes, physical book sales were down, though with a mere 1% dip, only slightly. But what I’m not sure anyone was expecting was this: Total sales of physical books in the fiction genre actually grew by 3%. Take a bow, Fifty Shades of Grey.

Another area physical book sales grew: children’s books. Why? Well, the rate at which readers are shifting from physical to digital books appears to be related to what each genre tends to do best or uniquely: PA reports 26% of fiction sales were digital, but that figure drops to 5% for nonfiction and just 3% for children’s books.

As the BBC notes, it’s probably a matter of why you buy (and what you can do with) different types of books. You’re not losing much in the translation, going from Fifty Shades of Grey on paper to the e-ink version. But e-readers pale in comparison to physical objects when the physical object happens to be two or three times the size of the average slate, harbors giant splashy color pictures, and — as I’ve come to understand with my nine-month-old — can just as often be “read” with one’s mouth as one’s fingers (a definite no-no when it comes to our tablets and smartphones). In fact it’s hard to imagine tablets ever doing stuff involving irregular sizing or extensibility — say pop-ups — all that well, holography or no, or presenting the same sort of rigid physicality you want when your child’s flipping through one of these extra-durable infant books where each page is roughly a quarter-inch thick.

No, that doesn’t mean the audience for physical books won’t continue to decline — digital convenience will continue to outbalance what’s surely a generationally linked fondness for physical paper artifacts (if anything, that accelerates as the digital aesthetic improves). But it’s a reminder that there’ll probably be some things digital readers will never be able to replicate about the reading experience in certain genres or styles, and for the moment, that’s keeping physical sales buoyant.

The biggest losers here? Probably brick and mortar booksellers. With book sales experiencing actual growth, it’s not that people are spending less, it’s that they’re increasingly likely to do so through an e-tailer, either beaming books to an e-reader instantly at cut-rate prices, or willing to wait the extra day or two it takes for the physical object to arrive in exchange for significant price breaks over rent-beholden traditional retailers.