When I started in publishing I regularly heard people say that books were recessionproof and that people would always buy them. That plainly isn't true. From a high of €165 million in 2008, book sales in Ireland have fallen for nearly six years. In 2013, according to Nielsen Bookscan, the market was now worth less than €100 million. So far for 2014 Nielsen's figures show that sales are down nearly 14 per cent compared with the same period last year.
Partly the fall is the result of the bursting of the bubble as boom-time sales revert to more normal levels. Even so, the market is now down about 40 per cent and still falling.
Why are books sales doing so badly? After all, we’ve seen some of the most popular books ever published in recent years. But Ireland isn’t alone. The US saw a drop in sales last year as well, down 2.5 per cent; the UK also saw a 6.5 per cent falloff in sales in 2013.
I think that three factors are at play. The first is that Nielsen does not yet report ebook sales in Ireland, which has had some impact. But even if we were to estimate that ebooks made up 10 to 15 per cent of the Irish market, a big fall-off in book sales would still go unexplained.
A second big factor has been the closure of bookshops and the reduction in shelf space for books. The Irish book trade has seen big changes in the six years since 2008, including the closure of shops and the loss of some well-known chains. These changes have hurt book sales, though still not enough to explain the drop we’ve seen.
The third reason is harder to quantify, but I suspect it is the most important: it’s the wider impact of digital. Smartphones and tablets make films, music, apps, games and the web generally available and accessible, giving a potential reader a lot more options, which are often free aside from the data cost. Commuters browsing Buzzfeed or playing Threes, where five years ago they might have been reading, is lost attention time for books, and that certainly reduces sales.
As the economy shows signs of improvement, can books bounce back? One thing we must do is remind readers why books are such great value and to engage them with reading as smartly as the builders of apps, the creators of websites and the producers of movies do. It may be that culturally books have as much work to do as they have to do economically.