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Trend 14 May May 2021 1540 14 May 2021

Ebooks and audiobooks: reading is increasingly digital

Readership increased during the pandemic year along with the emergence of diverse reading tools. The publishing industry will now need to deal with these changes, including the introduction of new professionals

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Readers are made, not born. This is what Angelo Piero Cappello, director of the Centre for Books and Reading (Cepell), is sure of. In March, Cappello published the 'White Paper on reading and cultural consumption in Italy for 2020'. It was certainly a difficult year because of the pandemic, which led to a radical transformation in daily work processes and habits, disrupting the world of books and the entire publishing industry in general.

"We owe a great deal to digital: because of it, we made it through this year quite brilliantly, despite the pandemic. And now that it is part of our lives, I believe that digital can further change a world that is already not the same as it was in the past", Cappello says.

What stands out above all is the sector's resilience, both in terms of market data and the value of the book itself. While Italians were reading less than one hour a day during the March-May lockdown, favouring news over books, this autumn, with the new lockdowns, we took up books again. It should therefore come as no surprise that the number of readers rose from 26.3 million to 27.6, an increase of 2.3%, between October 2019 and October 2020. A trend that seems to have been consolidated in the first months of 2021, given the 25% increase in sales of printed books. "This is an important finding, because despite such a difficult year, Italians have continued to read, apart from a physiological period linked to the pandemic", Cappello explains.

Yet diversification of reading tools is the novelty in the year of the pandemic. The unexpected 0.3% increase in sales at the end of 2020 came mainly from online sales, which drove an entire sector. "Ebooks, audio books and even digital library lending have filled a need that people could not fill themselves because, for a long time, leaving home and going to a shop was so difficult", Cappello says. Some particularly impressive figures include the increase in the number of ebook readers, from 20% to 32% of the population; the value of the audiobook sector, which grew by 94%; and online library lending, which grew by 250% in spring followed by 103% in December. In 2020 alone, digital expanded its market share from 5% to 7.4%.

Ebooks, audio books and even digital library lending have filled a need that people could not fill themselves because, for a long time, leaving home and going to a shop was so difficult

However, there was no shortage of critical issues. "Of course, it cannot be said that everything is perfect. The white paper shows a patchy Italy, divided between regions where aid and support for reading works best and others where some critical issues emerge. Books are now perceived in a new light, no longer confined to the front and back cover. Today, the Internet also provides a kind of insight, a place to search and understand", Cappello continues. The Internet, the crux and delight of the book world. "Other issues include language for example, since the market for books in the Italian language is limited to the domestic sphere and the few who study it abroad. And then there is the decline in school-age readers. We observed a declining interest in reading between age 13 and 16, the time when readers usually turn to electronic media. A decline from which we only sometimes recover", Cappello points out.

The vital commitment from the entire supply chain coupled with institutional and governmental support, which declared books to be an "essential asset", allowed bookshops to remain open, even in red areas, and yet the book world is now facing new challenges and grappling with the permanent nature of the changes brought on by these months. It certainly starts with new professional figures geared towards digital consumption, both in publishing companies and at points of sale.

These and other points will be the focus of the aid measures for the sector promoted by the Ministry of Culture, which aim to improve reading education and promote Italian books worldwide. "These are important projects to support a sector which, despite having been able to reinvent itself several times in the space of a few months, has nevertheless suffered from the pandemic period and the season of closures", Cappello stresses. And what does the future hold? "Digital has served an entire industry to emerge almost unscathed, yet has inevitably affected lives and habits. That's why I think we can't do without them any longer, and I expect that from now on festivals and debates will be partly online and partly face-to-face". The book can no longer be the object we have previously known. "There is a continuum now linking Internet and books. Many people today read books online: a figure that gives an almost unknown potential to the entire publishing industry. Figuring out how to leverage this to get more people reading and expand this widespread culture has to be our first step". The future starts here.

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