It’s been a year where the business of books has managed to grab more than its fair share of headlines. Big events like the return of Harper Lee, the continued success of Fifty Shades and the resurrection of print have helped journalists fill pages.

Best sellers

In terms of sales, three novels have dominated the end of year lists. ‘The Girl on the Train‘ marked a move from romance to thriller for Paula Hawkins. Her novel sold more than 6.5 million globally.

Harper Lee’s unexpected sophomore novel, ‘Go Set a Watchman‘ saw the 89-year-old writer return to the best-seller lists, though readers were stunned to find principled lawyer Atticus Finch depicted as a hardened segregationist.

E. L. James, author of smut trilogy ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ scored again – effectively by churning out the same story from a different point of view. ‘Grey‘ was a rehash of billionaire Christian Grey’s S&M-lite romp with demure college undergrad Anastasia. Four million lapped it up.

Print no longer dead

The publishing industry was quick to claim that print was no longer dead. People want paper, they insisted. Sadly people seemed to also want coloured pencils and the supposed surge in demand was mostly down to the bizarre trend for adult colouring books. This week six of the top ten print books at Amazon are aimed at that market.

Sneering articles proclaimed that eBooks had peaked. This claim was based on two irrefutable facts. People didn’t want to buy eReaders. Technology firms twigged that nobody was willing to pay for machines that only allowed them to read books. In the age of all-singing, all-dancing tablets, dedicated eReaders became the Betamax of the digital book world.

Digital sales down

Reports from Penguin Random House, Hachette and HarperCollins suggested digital sales were down. The outlook was gloomy, in stark contrast to the jubilation shown a few months earlier when they won the legal right to set their own eBook prices, and prevent discounters (like Amazon) taking the lead. It led to the strange situation where a new release was available in hardback for £10 or as an eBook for £14. Not surprisingly, the general public saw this as getting less for their money, and sales tumbled.

At the same time, smaller publishers and indie writers reasoned that their aim was to build an audience and encourage the habit of reading. If everyone was honest, e-books were low risk items to produce and sell. Their prices stayed pegged at the £2-£5 mark, and sales rocketed.

The current buzz

As for 2016, the current buzz is around audio-books. Penguin Random House invested heavily in audio in 2015, and Audible, the retailer-publisher that dominates audio-book sales has seen huge growth, but it remains a niche market.

Like the music industry before them, big publishers continue to fail to find ways to exploit technology. They’re putting their money behind direct to consumer sales – creating websites that target readers rather than investing in finding new talent and nurturing relationships with booksellers. Readers buy by genre and writer and not by publishing house.

In much the same vein, sales volumes look set to grow although the amount of revenue will continue to shrink as readers turn away from high-priced books. If the big names are to compete, they need to reconsider their strategy.

The subscription model is dead and yet some remain determined to give it a go. Readers might well be lured in by ‘all you can eat’ models, but in reality £10 a month is a lot to pay for the average reader who might get through one or two books. It’s the equivalent of an unused gym membership.

Big changes at Amazon

That said, we predict big changes at Amazon with a closer relationship between Prime membership and Kindle Unlimited. It may be that authors see their earnings pinched still more if the retail giant decides to allow Prime members unlimited eBooks. Writers may find themselves tempted by perks into longer exclusivity contracts, meaning they cannot sell their books elsewhere for up to a year.

Staying with technology, it can’t be long before the first novel written by a computer hits the bookshops and we predict 2016 to see moves in that direction.

We wish all our readers a very happy new year.