E-books and the lockdown effect

When the first lockdown hit in March 2020, e-books were a saviour for many readers who were suddenly stuck at home with lots of time and limited options for buying print books, due to shop closures and delivery disruptions. In April, more than 10m e-books were downloaded in the UK, the highest month on record, compared to under 8m the previous April. Late summer and autumn saw numbers return to typical levels, but April to July, combined with a December uptick, were enough to boost e-books to record heights of 95m purchases for the year, adding up to nearly £390m. It’s unlikely that 2021 will surpass that, even with a strong lockdown-induced start, but for the first seven months of the year, book buyers have spent over £200m on nearly 50m e-books, slightly ahead of the same months in 2019.

Now that purchases have returned to pre-lockdown levels, we can start to see if the pandemic has introduced any shifts to the e-book market and consumer, whether temporary or lasting. In many ways, the first half of 2021 doesn’t drastically differ from 2019: e-books are about a quarter of the overall book market, fiction still dominates, women account for nearly two-thirds of purchases, and low prices are key. But a few changes could point to a possible expansion of the e-book consumer base going forward.

Starting with those low prices: the share of e-books bought for under £5, though still quite high, has dropped compared to 2020 and 2019. Nearly 30% of e-books are still bought for under £1, so those discounts and deals remain important for the market, especially for heavy buyers, but price bands over £5 have all gained share. If we consider those more varied/higher prices, in conjunction with e-books increasingly bought by light book buyers and decreasingly bought by those that prefer e-books to print, that could point to growth for the more casual or novice e-book buyer. The 2021 data does still of course include a few months of lockdown and therefore could be influenced by those that turned to e-books due to limitations, so we’ll have to wait for 2022 to fully understand any enduring effects.

In other minor changes, fiction’s overall share of e-books dropped from 79% to 78% from 2019 to 2021, with non-fiction picking up that 1%. The top three genres remained the same, however, with a third of e-books falling into crime/thriller and romance now on par with general fiction after gaining 2% of the market. Subscriptions are becoming more popular, with women aged 45-64 the most likely to be using an e-book subscription, while back in 2019, they were behind those aged 25-44. Whether bought on subscription or individually, e-books are increasingly bought by older women, with those aged 65-74 the largest segment, compared to 45-54s a couple of years ago.

Perhaps incongruent with that trend toward older consumers, the social media platform that has increased the most, known for its younger base, is TikTok, used by 13% of e-book buyers (the 2019 comparison isn’t available, but the 2020 figure was 8%). Long-established platforms have shifted as well, with Facebook still the leading site but buyers using Facebook and Twitter less widely, to the extent that Instagram has overtaken Twitter, along with gains for YouTube and Goodreads. The discovery method that’s grown the most for e-books in 2021 vs. 2019 is following the author/series via social media, which ranks only behind having read the author/series before and online browsing, highlighting the importance of reaching consumers on the right platforms.

And reaching those consumers is how we get bestsellers, those cover images pictured above. While 2019 had a non-fiction book in the mix with ‘This is Going to Hurt’, 2021 is all fiction at the top of the chart, and four of the top five sit in crime/thriller, with only the number one book ‘The Midnight Library’ diverging. Beyond those top five, the ‘Bridgerton’ series is certainly having a hand in romance’s growing share of the e-book market, with the fourth book ‘Romancing Mr Bridgerton’ within the top ten and the fifth book ‘To Sir Philip, With Love’ in the top 20. Further to that, Julia Quinn ranks behind only James Patterson and Ann Cleeves for cumulative e-book sales in the first half of 2021, with crime/thriller stalwarts Lee Child and David Baldacci closing out the top five authors.

Based on data from the Books & Consumers UK survey along with bestseller data from PubTrack Digital. For more information, please contact