Coffin For a Kindle: The eBook Market is Dying in the UK

By Gerald Lynch on at

Is the eBook revolution on its last legs? That's what both physical book retailers and digital book sales figures from the Christmas period would suggest, with eBook and eReader purchases sliding significantly in the UK.

Waterstones, the UK's largest bookshop chain, told the Financial Times that sales of Amazon's Kindle eReader had "disappeared", with traditional paper-based books enjoying a surge in popularity. Waterstones began selling Amazon's eReader in 2012, but saw sales of the device flatline over Christmas whilst traditional book sales rose five per cent -- a rise that James Daunt, the chief executive of the company, puts down to a new personalised, localised approach to in store stock.

Foyles bookshop of London too enjoyed a significant spike in sales.

Of course, the figures don't take into account Kindle sales direct from Amazon, where a person would expect the majority of Kindle sales to originate from. It's also unsurprising that book sales would rise over Christmas -- it's a major gift-buying period, and the publishing window for popular biographies (though the suggestion here is that it was a particularly fruitful sales period for the stores).

However, eBook sales are slowing too, suggesting those that have eReaders are returning to paperbacks -- UK readers spent £2.2bn on physical books in 2013, compared to just £300m on eBooks, according to stats collated by Nielsen, a trend that the latest stats from Waterstones suggests is continuing. Expect the ease with which texts can be pirated on an eReader to play a part there, as well as the ability to pick up out of copyright classics for free. Sales of the Kindle have fallen over time in line with the trend too, peaking at over 13 million sold in 2011, dropping every year since.

Perhaps most telling of all though is to look across the pond at Barnes and Noble, whose US business is split between physical and digital book sales. It's Nook division is losing $70m a year, while it too is seeing a resurgence in physical sales, also up five per cent in the last quarter.

There's no denying a good eReader is a lovely item to own -- Amazon's latest, the Kindle Voyage, is a luxurious device. But its mere existence is suggestive of the market turning towards a niche audience -- with all its bells and whistles, the premium model costs £229. Considering it's really just a vessel for carrying books in, that's more money than your average reader would spend on books in a couple of years. Having been using the Voyage for the last few weeks I can vouch for its quality, but even the cheaper model is £60 more expensive than Kindle's Paperwhite, which offers almost identical functionality in a marginally-less attractive device. If Amazon is having to turn its attention to the elite reader, it's no wonder sales are sliding.

To an extent, it's a problem shared by tablets -- like the iPad, a Kindle is for life -- there's been no need to upgrade since the introduction of the first Paperwhite, whose backlit screen was the only notably absent feature at that point left for the line to tackle. But eReaders face a challenge that tablets do not -- a tablet's primary purpose has always been to deliver web content, and that's never really existed in printed form. The Kindle and other eReaders battle thousands of years of printed book loving -- the tactile nature of a paperback even having been suggested to offer memory-aiding qualities. Perhaps the argument that the words within a book are more important than the delivery format isn't quite as strong as it once was.