How print beat digital in the book world

From The Straits Times:

If the media industry needed proof that it moved too quickly to devalue its print products on the way to chasing digital audiences, the book industry has been making a convincing case in the last few years. The rise of print book sales and decline in e-books in 2015 was no accident. Last year, the trend continued, and self-publishing in electronic form no longer seemed as good a bet as in previous years.

Last year, the unit sales of printed books in the United States increased by 3.3 per cent. That’s not unusual, except that the publishing industry didn’t produce any runaway bestsellers such as 2015’s The Girl On The Train, and only a handful of books, mostly from previous years, sold more than one million copies. The industry made up that deficiency by selling more non-fiction books. That’s an indication of book publishers’ overall health: They are flexible and versatile.

In dollar terms, hardback and paperback books were both headed for solid growth in the first eight months of last year, while e-books appeared destined for an even bigger decline than the 14 per cent drop registered in 2015, according to the most recent data released by the Association of American Publishers. If traditional book publishers accepted that the digital revolution meant a total overhaul of their business – the way the music and media industries have largely done – they would be locked in the same race to the bottom that those two industries have faced. The ease of digital self-publishing and readers’ sense that digital books should be cheaper than paper ones have resulted in growing unit sales but falling revenues – much like how the audiences of major news media have snowballed since the turn of the century without a concurrent growth in revenue.

. . . .

Even in the US, the most mature e-book market in the world, printed books are far more popular. Last autumn, Pew Research found that 65 per cent of Americans had read a paper book in the past 12 months, while only 28 per cent had read an e-book. The popularity of both formats has been steady since 2014, thanks to older consumers who refuse to leave print behind and younger consumers who seek a more analog lifestyle. Reading a paper book – or listening to vinyl records – is a statement, a human being’s answer to being increasingly surrounded, and now even threatened, by machines.

Link to the rest at The Straits Times and thanks to Eustacia for the tip.

PG is anything but an expert on “younger consumers”, but doubts that large numbers are seeking “a more analog lifestyle.”

32 thoughts on “How print beat digital in the book world”

  1. I think a special award needs to be created for statements like this one:

    That’s an indication of book publishers’ overall health: They are flexible and versatile.

    So amazing I’m not even sure where to begin to unpack it.

    • Nor should it be taken back. One party assets a set of statements as facts. Another party asserts a different set of statements as facts.

      That’s how people routinely challenge one another. Watch it happen in this thread.

      • If that were the entire sum of the art of dialectic, no argument could ever be settled. If you asserted that 2+2=4, I could simply counter by asserting that 2+2=5 (or whatever I wanted it to be).

        But assertions are not facts. The factuality of one side’s assertions is precisely what is in question here.

        • On the other hand, assertions tell you a lot about the person dishing them out.

          It is better to get their positions out in the open, to be analyzed and debated, than to stiffle discussion unded guise of consensus or manners or sensitivity.

          Wouldn’t you rather know to a certainty where the “other guy” is coming from (so you can act accordingly) than speculate or project motivation?

          Transparency has value.

            • Who says the argument always has to be settled?

              Once you understand the other person’s position you might see merit in it, agree to disagree, or decide they are hopeless and discussion a waste of time.

              Sometimes you live and let live, sometimes you live and let die.

        • But assertions are not facts. The factuality of one side’s assertions is precisely what is in question here.

          Of course. We have to acknowledge the ideas competing for fact status, and decide. Or not. Recently it has become fashionable to speak of “your truth” and “my truth.”

          So we can look at the assertion that ebook growth has stopped, and we can look at the assertion that is has continued to grow.

          These are alternative candidates for fact status. I notice TPV commenters regularly offering alternatives to the idea that ebook sales have stopped growing.

          And those offerings are things that, once uttered, can never be taken back.

          • We have to acknowledge the ideas competing for fact status, and decide. Or not. Recently it has become fashionable to speak of “your truth” and “my truth.”

            Which is shorthand for saying that there is no truth at all, but only opinion. This position is logically indefensible and practically useless: a thing proved beyond controversy more than two thousand years ago. All argument, all mathematics, all philosophy, all science, all history – all knowledge of any kind whatever – depends upon the rejection of this fashion and the insistence that truth is not merely opinion.

            So we can look at the assertion that ebook growth has stopped, and we can look at the assertion that is has continued to grow.

            These are alternative candidates for fact status. I notice TPV commenters regularly offering alternatives to the idea that ebook sales have stopped growing.

            No. TPV commenters are regularly offering facts and evidence to show that ebook sales are continuing to increase, and that the statistics cited to the contrary capture only a diminishing segment of the market. These are not ‘alternative candidates for fact status’, but facts marshalled in a reasoned argument against the contrary assertion.

            • Which is shorthand for saying that there is no truth at all, but only opinion.

              No. It’s a simple statement that ideas have to be examined after they are presented.

              But, it’s also an acknowledgement of the people who now tell us about “My Truth” and “Your Truth.” They claim both are both true. These folks do exist, and their numbers appear to be increasing.

              Their existence is a fact.

              TPV commenters are regularly offering facts and evidence to show that ebook sales are continuing to increase, and that the statistics cited to the contrary capture only a diminishing segment of the market.

              Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.

                • To speak of ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’ is to say that there is no objective truth, only opinion.

                  Agree. And it’s a fact that people advocating that position exist.

                • That does not entail that they are right.

                  Of course not. The existence of any position tells us nothing about whether it is right or wrong.

                  However, the existence of these positions is a fact.

  2. Even in the US, the most mature e-book market in the world, printed books are far more popular. Last autumn, Pew Research found that 65 per cent of Americans had read a paper book in the past 12 months, while only 28 per cent had read an e-book.

    One. More. Time.

    The number of people who read a book is not the same as the number of books read. How many paper books did the people who read paper books read? How many ebooks did the people who read ebooks read? Until you have those numbers, you aren’t saying anything about the state of publishing which depends on unit sales, not number of customers. Yes, the article mentions the 14% decline of ebooks in 2015. We know that figure to be an error resulting from using data only from a subset of US publishing.

    • There’s another figure missing in all this talk about ebooks declining in favor of print. Remember the meme that all ebooks were going to be free and destroy publishing? Didn’t happen but… there are more and more free ebooks.

      Maybe a lot of people are reading free ebooks (including ebooks from libraries) and that’s also depressing ebook growth (particularly overpriced ebooks by big publishers).

      I suspect there are a lot of young readers on limited budgets who love all the free ebooks circulating.

      • Penguin used to do big business selling PD classics.
        Now there’s Guttenberg. And others.
        One can (and many do) go for years reading just classics and free promos.

  3. In the PEW research, did they ask about avid readers, not one book a year readers. Like, for those who read 12 or more books a year, did you read most of them in print or ebook format? Because as various forms of entertainment distract would be one-book readers and two-book readers, the people who LOVE written entertainment will still be buying half a dozen, a dozen, a hundred books a year. And the industry better note what THEY like.

    The hyperreaders I know are majorly doing the ebook thing, because they can get a book immediately. No shopping in stores.

    • That is the one question pollsters never ask and probably never will. They know they won’t like the answer.

      Just by looking at the AE data it is pretty clear that heavy readers go digital while occasional readers stay with print. And since there are far less of the former than the latter, all the “print is back” smoke-n-mirrors reports are about the number of people expressing a preference, even if they don’t actually exercise that preference. Because pollsters know all too well that the less people read, the more they say they prefer print.

      If they were to limit their polls to actual book buyers or, better yet, weigh those opinions by the number of books they bought, the results would look “somewhat” different. 😉

      It would also help if they bothered to filter out educational and professional books out of the mix since those are neither read nor bought all that voluntarily but out of necessity.

      Then again, we’re at the stage where anybody willing to swallow those narratives should be allowed to go down with the ship. The old saw about bringing the horse to water…

  4. They thin 12 books a year is an avid reader? Bah. I read one or more a DAY. So I do read a lot of free books, along with purchased books.

    • Members of the hundred-book-a-year club are legion.
      All it takes is two books a week and nothing more pressing to do.

      I’m a lapsed member. One summer in my college days I got a windfall tuition refund that went towards paperbacks. I did sixty in two months, probably two hundred total that year. Not hard at all. If ebooks had been around then…

      I’d still be doing it if it weren’t for Hulu, Netflix, video games…

      • I read about three to five books a week, mostly ebooks. The occasional paper book is usually something to do with one of my many hobbies, as I still like those things to be “real” books, plus the occasional reference book.

        When I was younger, it was nothing to read a book a day, maybe even two. I couldn’t be out in the heat much, so I had to occupy myself somehow. And I love to read.

        I think this article falls into the usual thing that the answers you get depend on how you ask the questions, and to whom. It really means nothing, because those old, hardly read anything and only then in paper folks are dying off, and the future is digital.

  5. You beat me to it, Al. I’ve bought about 50% e- and 50% print so far this year. Since 1/1/17 I think I’ve scored 10-12 titles but I may be forgetting a couple. My numbers probably don’t interest collectors of data.

  6. Clearly, they didn’t read Data Guy’s presentation from Digital Book World which showed how that 3.3% increase was an Amazon artifact caused by them playing with print discounts since they were,’T allowed to do eBook discounting.

  7. I think most interpretations of the Pew reading survey miss a very important point. It shows reading in any format going down: 79% read a book in 2011, 73% in 2016, a modest, but significant decline. Print reading tracked with the total: 71% in 2011, 65% in 2016, a 6% decrease. We seem to be on a downward literacy slope, although the trend is not that strong and it could easily indicate growth in non-book reading rather than an over-all decline in literacy.

    Total ebooks read in all years is much less than print books. That does not surprise me in the slightest. Printed books have been around for a long time and a huge cache of them is all over. I will venture that even the most avid ebook readers still have a lot of paper on their shelves.

    In my opinion, the most telling statistic from the survey is the percentage of ebooks: in 2011 only 17% of the respondents read an ebook. In 2016, 28% read an ebook. That is 11% growth. In other words, ebook reading is increasing almost double the rate of print book decline.

    I think it is fascinating that the Pew report authors did not point out this growth in the popularity of ebooks. I think in TPV, we tend to be rather partisan in our defense of ebooks, but I am sure most people here grew up with their face in a paper book and we all naturally developed an affection for our constant companions. Until this decade, ebooks were not tip-top. Anyone remember Peanut Press on the Palm? I loved Peanut and my Palm on airplanes, but not no much at home or in the office. People are learning to love ebooks as much as paper, but it takes time. The numbers show it.

  8. “I will venture that even the most avid ebook readers still have a lot of paper on their shelves.”

    I guess I am an anomaly then, I ditched almost all of my decades-old collection of pbooks (I only kept reference books I still read and some paperbacks that never made it to ebook format).

    So I gave up* a houseful of books, including thousands of science fiction magazines and pulp magazines, and now have 2 bookshelves.

    *I donated and got tax credit for the magazine collection, i gave away to friends and to libraries all the rest of my books.

    • I’ve gotten rid of a lot of physical books. I just don’t have the room, and most I wouldn’t re-read anyway. I kept some collectible books and my craft books, cookbooks and some reference books.

      I still need to cull some, especially stuff stored out in the shed. I can use that space for other things. Next up will be my huge piles of magazines (dolls, miniatures, teddy bears, gosh, I read a lot of those things). I’m going to have to be really strict with myself. 🙁

    • I’ve been getting rid of ebooks also, mostly donating them to the local friends of the library to sell in their store. It had not occurred to me that I might be able to deduct them.

      Nevertheless, I still have a lot of paper. Some because I haven’t gotten around to getting rid of them, a major tranche because they are not available in digital. Admittedly my tastes are out of the main stream– mostly odd Song dynasty editions of Chinese classics and pacific northwest local history– but I think most people have their own specialties. There is an additional factor: money. I can’t afford to purchase digital editions of every paper book on my shelves that I must have at my fingertips, even though those same aching fingertips cry for a lightweight Kindle instead of those awkward lumps of wood pulp.

      People who prefer digital have lots of reasons to keep reading paper some of the time. We can’t expect reading habits to change overnight, but I think the Pew survey makes it clear that they have been changing and I see no reason to expect the trend to change.

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