• The Publishing Post

Digital or Physical? The Use of Paperbacks, Audiobook and eBooks During the Pandemic

By Charlotte Hegley


12 April 2021 saw the re-opening of bookshops in England after a three-month national lockdown. For all book lovers, this was a very welcome change!


Against all of the odds, more than two hundred million print books were sold in the United Kingdom in 2020 alone, according to official book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan despite the closure of bookshops during three national lockdowns between 23 March to 15 June 2020, 5 November to 2 December 2020 and 6 January to 12 April 2021 (approximately seven months!). Not only this, but the number of independent bookshops in the United Kingdom and Ireland continued to rise for the fourth consecutive year running.


Whilst Bookshop.org, an online retailer set up to support independent bookshops, raised over a million pounds since its conception in November 2020. See our last issue for a round-up of some of our favourite independent bookshops around the country. According to Amazon, the bestselling paperback of 2020 was Charlie Mackesy’s illustrated book The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse.


On the other side of the publishing park, so to speak, are audiobooks. The pandemic has led more readers to consider and use audiobooks for the first time, further enabling them to continue to be the fastest growing format within the publishing industry. Further, more than 120,000 people across the country joined local libraries in order to access their digital resources after the first lockdown on 23 March 2020, a 600% increase on the year before, as reported by the BBC. According to Audible, George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is still one of their best-selling audiobooks.


Publishing houses, including HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster had begun to invest more in their audiobook lists and speakers, even before the pandemic hit. This often took the form of investing more in studio spaces, celebrities to narrate the books or marketing campaigns. Spotify, the beast of the music world, more recently joined the competition and 2020 saw the streaming company add more titles to its audiobook collection. Amazon’s Audible and Apple’s Apple Books currently dominate the audiobook market. However, Spotify aren’t only a music service for their customers, their increased focus on podcasts has proved successful, with the company reporting a 108% year-on-year increase in podcast listeners (September 2020). Now, imagine being able to listen to your favourite album, favourite podcast and favourite book all on one app? Spotify is an audiobook provider to watch very closely...


eBooks are books you can read online, for instance on a laptop or iPad, whilst audiobooks are books you listen to, typically through a mobile phone device. eBooks also had a successful year, with sales up 15.2% according to the Association of American Publishers. This is in stark contrast to the years preceding the pandemic, which saw eBook sales declining for the last six years, since peak sales in 2014.


2020 has made us realise, if any one of us had yet to catch up, just how valuable the digital market is and will continue to be, with digital formats coming to the fore across all sectors: trade, education, scientific and academic publishing. The move towards digital no doubt has its environmental advantages, with the production of books and newspapers in the US requiring the harvesting of more than one hundred million trees. However, producing one e-reader uses up to 70 gallons of water and produces a lot of waste which is dumped in landfills. Whilst buying second-hand books is a great alternative for those who cannot afford or access brand new copies, borrowing from your local library is a great sustainable and free alternative that also ensures authors receive their public lending right, a fee they are paid each time someone borrows their book.


The government also scrapped the “reading tax” in May 2020 (a 20% VAT charge on digital titles), which put them on equal footing with physical books. Amazon is conquering the world of eBooks in addition to audio, with Kindle remaining the most popular service.


The weekly reading stats for 2020 are in, according to Nielsen BookScan:

Print: 39%

Audiobook: 34%

eBooks: 27%


Print is still leading the way, but only just! If we consider music as a parallel to publishing in terms of the technological shifts, we have to remember we went from MP3s to iPods in just under eight years, yet cassette sales were their highest last year since 2003! In twenty years, the publishing industry will be as different from 2020 as 2020 is from 2000, and we’re very much ready for the ride...

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