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Holidays are 'heartbeat' of print book sales

7:05 AM, Dec 11, 2012   |    comments
'Killing Kennedy' by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard is a hot print seller this holiday season. (Photo: Handout)
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Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY
NEW YORK - Connie Atkins knows that her uncle, a social studies teacher, likes his Nook e-reader, but for Christmas, she's getting him a hardcover book: Jon Meacham's new 800-page best seller, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.

"He likes the Nook, but mostly for novels and magazines and newspapers," she says at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan. "For a certain kind of book, especially the big fat biographies and histories, I think he'd rather have the book itself to put on his shelves."

Even in a digital age, when e-books are the fastest growing part of publishing, print books - especially hardcovers - are in the midst of a pre-holiday bounce.

Data collected for USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list's current Top 50 show that the most popular format is hardcover (25 of the 50 titles) , followed by paperbacks (13) and e-books (12). Best-selling hardcovers include fiction, such as Janet Evanovich's Notorious Nineteen (No. 5 on the list), as well as non-fiction like Bill O'Reilly's Killing Kennedy (No. 6) and Meacham's Jefferson (No. 14)

The numbers were similar this time a year ago, with print outselling digital on USA TODAY's list: hardcover (30), paperbacks (13) and e-books (7). By the end of June it was more divided among e-books (21), paperbacks (16) and hardcovers (13).

The big e-book surge came last January after millions of new e-readers and tablets were activated. The most popular format on the list for the first week of January was e-books (35), followed by hardcovers (9) and paperbacks (6).

The latest report of the Association of American Publishers, for the first eight months of 2012, shows e-book revenue for adult fiction and non-fiction is up 37% from last year, hardcover down 2% and paperback revenue is mixed. Mass market (cheaper, smaller editions, released a year or more after the original) is down 16%; trade paperback (released sooner) up 11%.

"The holidays remain the heartbeat of print book sales," says Michael Norris, a publishing analyst for Simba Information, a market research firm. "When you give someone a gift, you want it to have some weight, to see them open it. You can't really do that with an e-book or a Barnes & Noble gift card."

He expects a smaller "January bounce" for e-books because more people will be getting tablets - "that let you do a lot more than read books" -- rather than dedicated e-readers. His long-range prediction: "Print books will be around forever."

In Milwaukee, Daniel Golden, owner of Boswell Book Company, reports strong pre-holiday sales for hardcovers.

His store's most popular gift book is Chris Ware's $50 graphic novel, Building Stories, that comes in a box that contains 14 separate elements - books, magazines, newspapers and pamphlets - telling the life story of a woman living in a crumbling building in Chicago.

"The design makes it an experience that cannot be duplicated on a tablet," Golden says. "There's way too much touch involved."

He says that could change once "immersion virtual reality readers" come on the market, but he guesses that won't happen until the holiday season of 2016.

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