eBooks vs Paper Books – The Facts

eBooks versus Paper Books - the facts

In this two-part discussion, I break down why I’m breaking up with eBooks (posted yesterday), and explore eBooks vs paper books – the facts.

Before eBooks came on the scene, the publishing industry was already in a spot of bother. Non-fiction sales were suffering a little due to the plethora of free information available on the Internet, and sales of other books were decreasing as the population moved towards digital entertainment. When eBooks launched, with peak sales of 23.2 million eReaders in 2011, there was scaremongering that physical books would disappear entirely in favour of their digital counterparts. It is, after all, the age of the digital revolution – VHS lost to DVD, Xtravision is gone thanks to Netflix, cassettes lost to CDs (which lost even quicker to digital downloads), HMV is gone thanks to Spotify. We’re evolving, and business models that don’t adapt quickly? They don’t survive.

While all other aspects of our media consumption have been revolutionised, so far, books are still being printed (yay!). It’s difficult to predict when, or if, this may change. Trends in publishing vary widely from country to country, and within genres, so direct comparisons are incredibly difficult to make. In the US, print fiction sales increased by 20% to a peak of 220 million units in 2009, before declining to 140 million units in 2014. This coincided with eBook sales booming from 2010, and stabilising from 2013 onward. eBooks are typically cheaper than print books, so although eBook sales boomed from 2010, the industry’s revenue suffered a net loss. This is not the same story in the UK, where eBook sales compensate for the loss of revenue from print books, resulting in overall industry growth.  

Is it all doom and gloom for print? Well, no. Print books account for around 70% of all book sales in the UK and US, and other European countries haven’t quite caught on to eBooks. For a while, eBooks enjoyed a massive soar in sales (they were starting from a baseline of 0), but this levelled out, before declining by 2.4% in 2015, the first decline recorded in five years (from 49 million to 47.8 million units). The Bookseller’s editor, Philip Jones, attributed the decline to “a natural slowing down of growth and adoption rates”, along with a massive downturn in Kindle sales.

Sales of eReaders are in massive decline. Those who want an eReader have one by now, and as the technology is slow to update (unlike phones, there isn’t a new release with noticeably improved benefits every year), there is minimal incentive to repurchase. Predictions indicate that going forward more consumers will read eBooks on their phones and tablets, rather than on a dedicated eReader, and history shows us that a one-stop-shop is preferred – whichever platform provides a smooth, user-friendly, and intuitive service first ends up monopolising the market. Clearly, this is iTunes for music downloads, Spotify for music streaming, Netflix for movies and TV shows, and Amazon/Kindle for eBooks. While other market entrants (including some BIG household names) may attempt to get a piece of the pie, digital consumers typically stick with what they know works.

The Kindle eReader is used by 48% of eBook readers, so Amazon undoubtedly owns the eBook market, accounting for 72% of all eBook sales. Apple iBooks comes in second with a measly 15% of the market. Sony, one of the eBook’s initial innovators, have closed their online store and migrated their customers to Kobo. Nook (owned by Barnes and Noble) has pulled out of the UK. eBooks look like they’re here to stay, and Amazon couldn’t be happier.

Print book sales have been declining (though it looks like they’re holding their ground with 70% of the market), but are any genres actually growing? Surprisingly, yes. Although children and young people are starting to read eBooks at a younger and younger age every year, and the younger generations are typically those who adapt to new technology quicker (I’m not the only one whose 4 year old niece can work a tablet better than I can, right?), the YA and children’s print books are actually experiencing growth in sales. YA and children’s fiction sales have increased in the US from 23% of the market in 2004, to 37% in 2014, and in the UK from 24% of the market in 2004, to 35% in 2014, and eBook sales for three of the biggest selling YA authors from 2008-2014 increased their overall sales, rather than cannibalising print sales.

Stephen Fry eBook Quote

So, with all of this information, what do I expect from eBooks of the future, and how can publishers ensure both print and digital thrive? I’d like to see eBooks becoming more than just a digital version of a printed book. eBooks offer innovation and creativity in story-telling like never before, with the ability to incorporate imagery, music, video content and interactivity in what we read. To encourage sales of print books, I’ve often wondered why publishers don’t offer a digital download at a reduced rate (or for free) with a full price physical copy. Currently, you can buy the audio version of a book at a discounted rate on Audible (Amazon), when you have already bought the eBook or physical book, and it baffles me why the print and music industry have never tag-teamed formats in this way in an effort to boost sales and tackle illegal downloads.

I’m all for eBooks introducing non-readers, or lapsed-readers, to a wonderful hobby. I’m all for people reading in general, however they get their fix. I know eReaders have helped those who are near-sighted to read more comfortably as you can increase the font size. And when the need is there, I’m all for reading eBooks myself. However, when it comes to the survival of print books, I feel that in many cases eBooks would never be able to fill the gaping void that would be left, should print books ever disappear from our world. I would never be able to study from or flip through an eTextBook, I would never want an eCoffeeTableBook, and I would never want to own a solely digital library on digital bookshelves.

“eBooks are co-existing with print books, as opposed to taking over… digital sales of fiction and non-fiction appear to be slowing as readers increasingly want to consume books in a variety of ways… Digital continues to be an incredibly important part of the industry, but it would appear there remains a special place in the consumer’s heart for aesthetic pleasure that printed books can bring.” Stephen Lotinga, Publishers Association Chief Executive.


About Rachel

Avid reader & #bookblogger. Lover of all things business. A fan of drinks & dancing. Ever optimistic. Feminist.

18 Responses

  1. This is really interesting! At first, I was hesitant to read eBooks. I just didn’t think I’d like them that much. But I started reading eBooks mostly because that was the easiest way to get review books. And I soon discovered that I actually kind of liked them – I love the convenience of always having a book with me on my phone so that anytime I’m standing in a long line or stuck waiting for my kids somewhere, I have a book to read. And I like being able to take a bunch of books with me on vacation without bringing a bunch of books. But I still prefer physical books overall. (Oh, and I can’t get my kids to read eBooks – they are just not interested unless they can hold the book in their hands.)


  2. The info in this post is just so fascinating. All the facts and figures and things I haven’t even thought about. I think ebooks will get bigger for younger generations but I don’t think print books will ever go away. They may get smaller print runs as time goes one but people like having a physical thing to hold in their hands.

    I do think you make a good point for near sighted readers, but it’s not just them. A while ago someone developed a font which dyslexics find easier to read and leads less switching around of letters for them. This font is actual on my kindle as one of the font choices and I think it’s a fantastic resource for dyslexics to use as there isn’t the demand for books to also be printed in a specific font for dyslexics. Reading many dyslexics do not enjoy doing and that is more for the work which is involved for them and I think it’s great that there is a way to encourage people to read and to show them that there are other things out there to in fact help.

    Ebooks will never be for everyone, I mean look at the resurgence of vinyl, people like certain media and I think books will be one of those things we can never get rid of. I may be wrong, but we all like to be able to see and hold things no matter how much we like convenience.


  3. I was a little worried when ebooks and ereaders became a thing too, because as you say, digital downloads have almost completely taken over in other industries like music, and even though I now don’t mind ebooks, I would never ever want to see print books die out! Thankfully I don’t think they ever will – there’s too many of us out there who are too attached to physical books and having shelves full of them! 🙂
    And I absolutely love the idea of publishers selling physical copy + ebook bundles! I really hope that catches on! It would just be so nice to be able to conveniently read the ebook, whilst having the actual copy to put on your bookshelf 🙂
    Great post! 🙂


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