"Last year was the first time in five years that hardcover print book sales overtook e-books," said David Walter, executive director, client solutions, for NPD BookScan, during his presentation at the Book Industry Study Group's Making Information Pay conference on April 21. The shift happened despite the fact that print book sales in the fourth quarter in 2016 were generally flat with 2015 and that print sales in the holiday season--where unit sales are usually strong--were "generally soft" in 2016, Walter reported.

Walter cited a general rise in e-book prices--to about $9 for a trade title--due to the imposition of agency pricing models in 2015, and a general shift way from the use of dedicated e-readers to smartphones for ebook consumption as key factors in hardcover unit sales overtaking e-books last year.

That said, "the total print and e-book market has stabilized after a period of transition," explained Walter, adding, "and as consumers move away from e-readers sales are migrating to print rather than being lost."

Since taking over as executive director of the Book Industry Study Group in September of last year, Brian O'Leary has implemented the move to smaller, more focused agenda for the group's annual Making Information Pay conference brand. This year will see three such MIP conferences. In addition to last Friday's event, two more are scheduled on November 9 covering Higher Education and the Accessibility Supply Chain.

The theme for last Friday's conference, held at the Harvard Club in New York City, was "The Evolution of Delivery: Getting More Content to More Readers." As such, Walter noted that e-retailing remains the top sales channel, accounting for more than 40% of total unit sales last year, with bookstore sales trailing, having shown a dip in 2016. Sales through mass merchandisers had a small uptick in 2016 over 2015. Print books are still primarily delivered through booksellers, despite ceding some ground to e-tailers in 2016.

When it comes to the higher education market, Walter pointed out that sales of current editions of books continue to be in decline and now account for less than 50% of the market. Digitally delivered integrated learning systems, which allow teachers and publishers to monitor students behavior and tend to be piracy proof "provide a means of creating significant added-value for publishers," Walter said In addition, "inclusive access models" — which include the cost of textbooks or learning materials in the price of a course — "could present the rout to a win-win scenario" for publishers and students, said Walter

While several other speakers during the day remarked on the the decline in interest in e-books, Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association, underscored that audiobooks, "once the redheaded stepchild of the publishing industry," remain one of the fastest growing formats in the book business and accounted for $1.77 billion in annual sales in North America in 2015, the last year for which statistics are available. "We do know that according to the AAP, sales are up 27% among [publishers] that produce audiobooks that has a print arm as well. "Over the past five years we have had double digit growth."She added that the business has been so robust that the number of audiobooks produced from 2013 to 2015 rose by 44%. "In 2011, as an industry we only produced 7,000 titles, and five years later we have produced 36,000 titles." Why such growth in unit output? "Part of the reason is that we now have self-publishing in the market and an author can go to Audiobook Creation Exchange and make their audiobook available on a variety of services,," said Cobb.