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Books vs e-books, print and the new “pulp fiction”

Written by Jon Tolley
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Originally published
April 26 2017,
updated
September 14 2019

For those born in the 80s or later “pulp fiction” is simply a film reference due to Tarantino’s movie classic. In the 1930s and 1940s though it was a term coined for a new genre of popular fiction - so called because of the cheap pulp paper it was printed on. While this particular medium has long fallen out of use, it looks like the e-reader may be fast becoming it's modern day equivalent.

A turn-up for the books!

Die-hard print fans like myself swore never to buy an e-reader or download an e-book. Perhaps we were too ready to believe that they signaled “the death of print”. Turns out it couldn't have been further from the truth. While audiobooks and e-books are still hugely popular, according to Nielsen physical book sales in the U.K. have continued to rise registering an increase of 2.3% in 2016. E-book sales on the other hand declined by 4% in the same period, and that’s the second consecutive year those numbers have shrunk.

What’s the story?

2015 saw an explosion of adult-colouring books resulting in a worldwide shortage of crayons! That craze, the release of some long-awaited bestsellers, and books by popular social media stars like Zoella and PewDiePie, were thought to be the cause of the year’s upturn in print volumes.

In 2016 though, Nielsen attributes the further increase in print sales to children’s fiction and to younger generations actually preferring physical books to their digital equivalents. The report found that, though 50% of all fiction sales were in e-book format, only 4% of children’s fiction was digital.

Page versus screen

Steve Bohme, Nielsen Book Research UK’s research director believes young people are turning to books as an alternative and an escape from the digital world saying, “We are seeing that books are a respite, particularly for young people who are so busy digitally.”

Our experience bears that out. The demand for the personalised children’s books we produce (categorised as personalised gifts and so outside the scope of Nielsen’s research) is huge and growing at a rate way above the single figure percentage enjoyed by static titles. That’s not just print volumes but the burgeoning number of titles too.

There's books, and there’s books

What seems to be becoming apparent is not that there is a power struggle, or that books should be either print or digital, instead that it’s “horses for courses”.

Because, as well as the age of the reader, visual and tactile appeal are helping to determine the most appropriate medium. For example, lifestyle, cookery and travel books don’t translate well to digital and the demand for those in their printed versions remains overwhelmingly buoyant. Contrast that with “words on a page” fiction - say, two weeks worth of “chick lit” for a beach holiday -  and there’s an easy and outright winner. Perfect. Pulp fiction, but nowadays without the actual pulp!

 

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