C.S Lewis once said that “you can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

Well, if sales of both tea and books are anything to go by - the British public wholeheartedly agrees. 

Leaving our tea obsession aside for now, Mintel predicts that sales of books and e-books will reach £2.02 billion in 2017, marking an annual increase of 4%.

Interestingly, despite the nation’s supposed digital addiction – with consumers spending more time watching screens than ever before – print is winning out. Sales of physical books are predicted to rise by 6% to £1.7bn this year, while sales of e-books are in line to fall.

So, what’s behind this boom in consumer desire for physical books, and how are brands and publishers capitalising on it? Here’s more on the story.

Perceived value in physical media

Sales of print books are predicted to grow by 25% in the next five years, reaching £2.1 billion by 2022. In contrast, annual growth of e-books will be minimal.

Perhaps we can put this down to the fact that consumers attribute higher value to physical books. Mintel’s research found that 69% of consumers are prepared to pay more than £6 on a hardback book, while 48% are prepared to spend more than this on a paperback. On the other hand, just 17% are prepared to spend more than £6 on an e-book, demonstrating how the perceived value of physical media is much greater. 

Alongside this, increased sales also appear to be due to a younger generation eager to get their hands on physical books. This is perhaps a little surprising, especially considering the fact that children’s digital usage is at a record high. Ofcom research found that 34% of children aged three to four years own their own media device, while youngsters aged five to 15 years spend an average of 15 hours per week online. 

It’s easy to assume then that this digital media consumption would translate to books. However, with printed copies mostly accounting for the 16% growth in children’s books in 2016 (rising to sales worth £365m) – this is apprently not the case.

One publisher to capitalise on the desire for children's print is Wonderbly, which uses data to personalise its books based on its young reader's interests and personalities. Using technology to create and sell traditional books – it is a clever example of how to combine the digital and physical. With today's shoppers naturally drawn towards ecommerce giants like Amazon, Wonderbly draws in consumers with engaging storytelling and a seamless user experience.

The ‘shelfie’ trend

Another reason for the resurgence in affection for physical books could be the ‘shelfie’ trend popularised by Instagram. Essentially, instead of taking photos of themselves (i.e. in a selfie) social media users are now photographing beautifully curated shelves – filled with an impressive amount of books.

It’s an undeniable phenomenon. There are currently 883,652 posts using the hashtag #shelfie on Instagram. Naturally, book publishers both large and small have recognised the trend, incorporating the hashtag into posts alongside #bookstagram and #bookworm. 

It’s not just book publishers that are reaping the benefits either. Furniture and home interior brands are also said to be capitalising on the trend, using the hashtag to engage both book and home design fans. And these brands aren’t just benefiting from increased social media engagement – apprently it’s also boosting sales. According to John Lewis, sales of bookcases have increased 11% on the back of the trend, with consumers being inspired to get back into physical books.

Desire for a digital detox

But are consumers really reading, or are they only doing it for design purposes? It’s an interesting notion, and it’s hard not to think that the trend might sometimes be more about perceived intellect or a pretty bookcase rather than real enjoyment of literature.

That being said, the overriding rise of audiobooks negates this, showing that the demand for content itself is legitimate. After all, audiobooks were the fastest-growing format in publishing in 2017. And in the first half of 2017, digital audio sales increased by over 28% in the US, generating $74m dollars.

Book publishers are helping to drive this popularity through greater investment. Instead of unknown actors, they’re now employing well-known movie stars and media personalities to narrate books. Similarly, publishers are also ramping up the value of audiobooks (which can be more expensive than books or ebooks) by including additional or exclusive content. 

Technology has of course played a big part - brands like Audible enable consumers to access and consume content in a variety of different ways – however the resurgence of phsyical books is also perhaps due to a growing desire for less technology in our lives. While much of consumer downtime can be digitally-focused, e.g. shopping online or watching Netflix, audiobooks and physical books give people the chance to truly switch off and enjoy some screen-free time. 

Other forms of physical media

So, does this consumer desire for physical media stop at books?

According to Neilsen, sales of vinyl have been on the rise for the past few years, growing 2% this year – and that's despite sales of CD’s and digital downloads falling. Similarly, a recent report by eBay suggests that gamers are also looking for physical copies of videogames, generating 22m searches on its marketplace over the past year.

This proves that the desire for physical media is still there, which is naturally great news for traditional high street brands like HMV and Game. Meanwhile, with the likes of Amazon opening its own physical bookstores, it's a sign that even the most digitally-focused brands should not dismiss the pysical just yet. 

Related reading:

Nikki Gilliland

Published 22 November, 2017 by Nikki Gilliland @ Econsultancy

Nikki is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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