After Christmas it has become a tradition to look through my books and make shelf room for those I have just received as presents. This ritual is soon followed by a trip to one charity shop or another.
These shops seem to do extremely well out of secondhand books. In fact, Oxfam now devotes entire branches to them, and those located in the Headingley area of Leeds and the lane behind Betty’s tearoom in Ilkley are among my favourite places to browse.
Yet a decade ago physical books were increasingly seen as items from another age. In the noughties we were all said to be going digital, and the last rites were read for books made from dead trees.
I was one of those swept along by this revolution and wrote in one column that “the reading experience is simply amazing”. I went so far as to publish four ebooks myself, enduring the mental torture of producing them in the different formats required by ebook readers like Kindle, Kobo and iPads. They comprised two of my own books and the republication as ebooks of two much sought-after bird books which were first printed 90 years ago.
To my amazement, within a few weeks of publication one of the latter books entered WH Smith’s list of top ten bird ebooks and was several places higher than the latest work by one of Britain’s best known ornithologists, an achievement that led BBC Scotland’s evening news to cover it. When I checked the sales numbers, however, I discovered that my ebook had sold less than 20 copies. This suggested to me that even ebook bestsellers weren’t actually shifting that many, and the ebook revolution was being hyped up.
To paraphrase the popular misquote attributed to Mark Twain, it turned out that reports of the death of paper books were greatly exaggerated, and if you want evidence just walk into those Oxfam bookshops or a Waterstones or WH Smith and see for yourself. Books as we have always known them are as popular as ever.
So what happened to reverse the ebook revolution? It seems people began to complain of “screen fatigue” and when their reading devices went on the blink, as the early ones appeared to do after a few years, they weren’t replaced. As more and more jobs required computer usage, people felt less inclined to stare at another screen for long periods, according to the UK’s Publishers Association.
The ebook market peaked in 2014 with total UK sales of £275m and now earns below £100m. Printed books, on the other hand, have continued an upward trend. Last year was the first time since 2012 that UK paper book sales surpassed 200 million, earning publishers £688m, up from £571m in 2019.
This story is mirrored by the revival of interest in vinyl records, despite digital competition from CDs and streaming services. In the UK sales were 4.8m in 2020 and the British Phonographic Industry predicts that this year record labels will have earned more from the sales of vinyl than CDs for the first time since 1987.
It is heartening then, that despite the relentless march of technology in our lives nothing can replace the room-filling sound of a record spinning on a turntable, or settling down with a good old book.