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Why are ebook sales declining?

ebook reader

According to publishers’ own figures (reported in The Guardian in February 2016), there was a decline in ebook sales in 2015 compared to the preceding year.  Although this decline was small compared to the previous year (a drop of only 2.4%), the figure was noted with alarm by publishers and by many commentators who had predicted the end of the physical book when ebooks were first introduced – after all, 2015 was the first year that ebook sales had not increased. Why are ebook sales declining?

Of course there is no shortage of commentaries on why this should be. Some linked it to a decline in the sales of dedicated ebook readers. James Daunt, head of Waterstones, a supporter of print, stated they had withdrawn Kindle ebook readers from sale in their stores. Apparently sales of the Kindle have been decreasing steadily (according an article in the Daily Telegraph) from a peak in 2011.

I can suggest several reasons, from my own experience of using ebook readers, why sales might be falling. First, there is more than one widely used ebook platform, and I can never remember which platform any particular ebook is held on my PC. Secondly, some basic functionality is lacking from ebook readers. Often I will read one ebook on multiple devices, but the devices don’t remember where I had got to when I change from one to another. Thirdly, the positioning of graphics leaves a lot to be desired. They are frequently not placed next to the text that refers to them, something that print books achieved many years ago.

A recent PCPro article on ebooks (October 2016) suggested that more technology should be thrown at the ebook to make it more interactive – not a route that I think is very likely to increase sales. Whatever the reasons for the hiccup in ebook sales, one new initiative in the UK is unlikely to make much of an impact. According to the PCPro magazine article, the Digital Cultures Research Centre (based at the University of the West of England) has been awarded £800K by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to develop an “ambient story”. According to the DCRC website, “the project, which launches in May [2016], will combine expertise in the history of the book with research into the future of reading.”.  Professor Jon Dovey stated “The scope of the team’s work is nothing short of designing and developing a new literary genre, in which pervasive technology delivers story and experience. We’ve been researching location-based computing and storytelling for some years but we now want to consolidate our experiments, and work with the publishing industry, to build a market for this new kind of storytelling.”

Whatever this team does, I’m pretty sure it won’t lead to an increase in the sales of ebooks as a result. It doesn’t seem likely to me that a research centre can build a market for any kind of storytelling, as they claim (although they may well research a market), and I have little faith in any research centre’s ability to create a new literary genre.