Fifty Shades of Grey helps UK book sales turn over new leaf

It seems that the death of the UK book industry has been greatly exaggerated: British publishers have reported record sales for 2012.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 08 May 2014

Yes, we’re in a downturn and yes, Google’s free ‘Books’ library is trying to take over the world. But neither of these challenges can trump the power of the printed word, it seems. According to latest data from the Publishers Association, total spending on printed and digital books rose 4% to £3.3bn last year.

As digital spending has shot up (by 66% to £411m), there’s only been a slight 1% dip in physical book sales to £2.9bn. Brits have gone book mad, both in their digital and paper iterations.

And whom do we have to thank for this reading renaissance? None other than EL James, the author of the now (in)famous Fifty Shades trilogy. James’ S&M romp, following the sexual and romantic adventures of Christian and Ana, were the three best-selling titles in 2012, according to figures released by Nielsen, selling over 70 million copies and raking in combined sales of £10.5m.

So there is still something for the doom-mongers to latch onto here - these titles not being exactly well known for their, ahem, literary qualities.

Fifty Shades of Grey may be cited as the saviour of the British book industry, but figures show that readers weren’t necessarily keen to let on what they were reading. Some 50% of revenues from the trilogy were from e-books, compared to Fifty Shades’ publisher Random House's global average of about 20% from digital sales. It appears that plenty of people chose not to display the iconic book cover when commuting from Reading to London on the 6.05am.

The enduring strength of physical book sales is proof that the rise of e-readers like the Kindle and the Kobo have not dented the publishing industry, says Publishers Association chief executive Richard Mollet. ‘[British publishing is] a healthy industry which continues to grow,’ he says. ‘And what publishers were very quick to do [was] to make works available. That's the key to succeeding in the digital world - having [books] capable of being read on any device on any platform.’

But not all is well in book land. Independent publishers are still struggling to survive in the current climate. Competition from the likes of Amazon, with its tiny overheads, and high street chain Waterstones, with its national brand reach, has seen the UK lose 7% of its remaining independent bookshops in the past year. ‘At the moment we are concerned that independent book shops are finding it tough,’ says Mollet.

Perhaps this calls for a radical change in strategy from the indies. Ditching their extensive libraries entirely and confining themselves to selling Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed instead, for example?

Perish the thought…

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