It's just after the lunch hour at Tauranga's Books A Plenty and at least half a dozen shoppers are browsing. Some are dressed in business attire, others in casual wear as they pore over novels, magazines, cookbooks and non-fiction, including the new Rendell's Tauranga - Historic Tauranga From Above. Co-owner Chris Baskett says she had to reorder almost immediately.

"The book came out on Friday. We had 40; they were all gone. That's great, it's exciting. It doesn't compare - it's not available as an e-book. It would be no good as an e-book. It's full of photos."

Baskett and other locals in the trade say the Alf Rendell book may be an indicator of the holiday shopping season. "We're very excited about our fiction list this Christmas. It looks very good. The coffee table books are also big sellers at Christmas. We have stunning New Zealand non-fiction. We're optimistic people will like what we have."

More readers are liking what paper books have to offer, according to global industry data.

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Booksellers NZ, which has membership of around 300 businesses, including the Paper Plus chain and independent shops such as Books A Plenty, tracks nationwide sales figures through Nielsen BookScan (a firm that collects book information worldwide). Statistics provided to 48 Hours by Nielsen show the volume of the New Zealand book print market up nearly 9 per cent for the year ending October 31; total value of those books sold is up about 3 per cent.

Booksellers NZ chief executive Lincoln Gould says paper's outlook is promising.
"Booksellers are feeling as though they're thriving, rather than just surviving."

Gould says the upturn started last September, kept rolling through a very good Christmas and has continued throughout this year. "So there's a new buoyancy in the market and booksellers are feeling a lot better about prospects for the future."

David Thorp, who co-owns McLeods Booksellers with his wife, says the Rotorua shop (in business more than 70 years) has weathered many technological waves. "As far as e-readers goes, my father was threatened with radio when it was invented. He was told to get out of books. Then TV was black and white, then colour, then with me 30 years ago it was CD-ROM. And in each case, it affected us for a couple years. People have always gone back to books."

Tauranga resident John Lamason, who we spied shopping at Books A Plenty, says his home library holds around 1000 books. The 70-year-old favours Kiwi authors such as Janet Frame, Maurice Shadbolt and Katherine Mansfield. "My sister has an e-reader. I don't want an e-reader." Lamason shows us titles he's just bought: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee and Ian Rankin's Even Dogs in the Wild.

Lynne Jones and David Thorp, McLeods Booksellers owners, have weathered many technological wave. Photo/Stephen Parker
Lynne Jones and David Thorp, McLeods Booksellers owners, have weathered many technological wave. Photo/Stephen Parker

Over in the cooking section, 26-year-old Bronwyn Scott says she prefers paper cookbooks to anything digital. "But if I'm planning on reading a novel, I usually use my Kindle. If I love a book and think I want to read it again, I'll usually buy the paper version."

Scott is buying Annabel Langbein's summer annual A Free Range Life as a birthday present for her aunt. Another shopper who didn't want to be named, said she likes that e-books are cheaper than hard copies, but some occasions demand pulp fiction. "It depends on the circumstance, where you are and what you're doing. When I read in the bath, it's good to have a paper book."

Bay of Plenty Times columnist Tommy Wilson earlier this week opined we still like the feel and smell of a book, writing, "When you pick it up off the bookshelf for the first time it can feel like touching taonga, a treasure that will keep on giving."

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While sellers and industry experts say cost is a factor for many Kiwi consumers who choose e-books, Gould says some prices are dropping. "I have no statistical data to prove it, but anecdotally, in the last few weeks a number of book sellers have said looking at the Book Depository, which is owned by Amazon and is perhaps the main supplier of books coming into New Zealand, that their prices have increased and New Zealand sellers are now competing very well."

48 Hours found one example where a local shop is beating an online rival on price: Ted Dawe's award-winning teen novel Into the River (banned briefly in New Zealand) is listed on Books A Plenty's website for $20, but priced at $24.60 at UK-based Book Depository.

In another example, the Pulitzer Prize 2015 winner for fiction All the Light We Cannot See is listed at Paper Plus (which has six locations in the Bay of Plenty) online for $24.99. The Book Depository sells the same title for $20.01 (the site offers free delivery worldwide).

So what happened to the much-heralded e-reader?

Gould says while New Zealand doesn't have statistics on e-book sales, data from the US and UK indicate sales of e-books have peaked at around 20 to 25 per cent of the market.

We have no reason to believe that hasn't happened here. We joke that people are putting their e-readers on the top shelf along with their fondue sets.

Gould says print sales slumped around the time of the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. "Things were pretty bleak through those years and so it was only last year that it began to pick up."

The New York Times reported e-books sales rose more than 1000 per cent between 2008 and 2010. However, the Association of American Publishers said e-book sales fell by 10 per cent in the first five months of this year.

That doesn't mean the e-book has completely pixeled out. Experts and readers we spoke with say digital reading continues to have a place in the world of words at the same time as cyber giant Amazon.com opens its first bricks-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle.

Data shows New Zealand, the UK and the US have fewer bookstores today than five years ago. Market research firm IBISWorld issued a report last month predicting the American bookstore industry's revenue will decline by 1.4 per cent per year over the next five years.

Gould says Kiwi shops still in business have shown resilience. He says the country's first national bookshop day last month was very successful, with 180 stores taking part.

"They've adapted to new market conditions and are now putting through these higher sales, so that's really encouraging."

Tauranga's Books A Plenty co-owner Chris Baskett says the allure of print books is on its way up again. Photo/John Borren
Tauranga's Books A Plenty co-owner Chris Baskett says the allure of print books is on its way up again. Photo/John Borren

Books A Plenty's Chris Baskett says e-readers have settled into another way to carry words around, and any reading is good. But she says true book-lovers miss the sensory attraction - and the sharing.

"True book-lovers love to share books and e-books limit that. We're moving upwards. Not massively, but definitely turning around a bit."