A tale of three formats

In the first seven months of 2022, the sector that experienced the biggest percent decrease in the UK book market was non-fiction e-books. On the other hand, where can we find the biggest percent increase? Non-fiction audiobooks. Thanks to that combination of decline and growth, the digital sides of non-fiction are on their way to meeting in the middle: the gap between the two fell below 1.5m purchases, compared to more than 3.5m at the same point in 2021.

Non-fiction still trails behind fiction in audiobook purchases, but to a lesser extent than last year, as fiction purchases have dropped for 2022 so far. Fiction accounts for just under half of the audiobook market, ahead of 41% non-fiction, with the remaining 10% going to children’s/YA. Fiction also takes the highest share of e-book purchases, at nearly 80%, but within fiction itself, print books have overtaken e-books for this first time at this point in the year since 2013, and are at their highest level since that year. However, that print growth hasn’t been enough to balance the digital decline, so cumulative fiction purchases dropped 4% in January to July 2022 vs 2021. With only audiobooks improving on 2021, non-fiction purchases were down in that time as well, by 11%, while the children’s/YA market grew 6%, reflecting an increase in print book purchases and a very slight increase in audio.


But those overall sector stats don’t tell the whole story, as plenty of genres are defying the generalised patterns. Children’s & YA fiction e-books have increased year-on-year, along with sagas over in adult fiction. Science fiction, fantasy and romance have all grown in audiobooks, despite fiction in general falling short. Auto/biography and business/economics e-books posted a more positive performance than wider non-fiction e-books in the first half of the year, while self-help/popular psychology and family/relationships have stayed afloat in print.

The latter two are also seeing success in digital, although print still accounts for 60% of books bought in either genre. Both e-books and audiobooks have grown alongside print for the family/relationships category, while audiobooks have overtaken e-books in self-help/popular psychology; self-help is second only to crime/thriller in audiobook purchases for the year. Joining those two with overall growth, we have children’s & YA non-fiction and pre-school & picture books, both made up predominantly of print books, as shown below. Children’s fiction/graphic novels has maintained a similar format split year-on-year, just half a percent migrating from print to audiobooks, while print formats have gained nearly 3% of young adult fiction.

The most significant shift can be seen in romance books, the strongest performer in fiction in 2022. E-books are still holding half of the category, but that’s down from more than 60% in the previous year, thanks to print sales jumping up and, though a relatively small segment, audiobooks doubling. At 44%, romance’s print share is at its highest level since 2012, with purchases themselves at their highest level since that year, across print and digital combined.

2012 was of course the year that ’50 Shades of Grey’ dominated the charts, and the age profile of buyers this year is certainly echoing back to then. Compared to the last few years, buyers under 35 have gained share of romance purchases away from those 45 and over, although the Colleen Hoover/BookTok wave of 2022 seems to be skewing younger than ’50 Shades’, with 13-24s taking a higher share now than they did in 2012. And tying back to our examination of formats, those younger consumers are much more likely to be buying print as opposed to e-books: 63% of romance books bought by 13-24s in the first half of the year were print formats, vs under 40% for all other age groups.

While it’s unlikely that 2022 will topple 2012 as the leading year for romance books, it will surely be one for the record books.

Based on data from Nielsen BookData’s monthly Books & Consumers survey. For more information, please contact For more on audiobooks, click here for a preview of our 2022 Understanding the UK Audiobook Consumer report.