Physical books still outsell e-books — and here’s why

From CNBC:

Do you prefer reading an e-book or a physical version? It might be a surprise, but for most people, old school print on paper still wins.

Publishers of books in all formats made almost $26 billion in revenue last year in the U.S., with print making up $22.6 billion and e-books taking $2.04 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers’ annual report 2019. Those figures include trade and educational books, as well as fiction.

While digital media has disrupted other industries such as news publishing and the music business, people still love to own physical books, according to Meryl Halls, managing director of the Booksellers’ Association in the U.K.

“I think the e-book bubble has burst somewhat, sales are flattening off, I think the physical object is very appealing. Publishers are producing incredibly gorgeous books, so the cover designs are often gorgeous, they’re beautiful objects,” she told CNBC.

People love to display what they’ve read, she added. “The book lover loves to have a record of what they’ve read, and it’s about signaling to the rest of the world. It’s about decorating your home, it’s about collecting, I guess, because people are completists aren’t they, they want to have that to indicate about themselves.”

. . . .

It’s more than a decade since Amazon launched the Kindle, and for Halls, there is also a hunger for information and a desire to escape the screen. “It’s partly the political landscape, people are looking for escape, but they are also looking for information. So, they are coming to print for a whole, quite a complex mess of reasons and I think … it’s harder to have an emotional relationship with what you’re reading if it’s on an e-reader.”

. . . .

Sixty-three percent of physical book sales in the U.K. are to people under the age of 44, while 52% of e-book sales are to those over 45, according to Nielsen.

It’s a similar picture in the U.S., where 75% of people aged 18 to 29 claimed to have read a physical book in 2017, higher than the average of 67%, according to Pew Research.

Link to the rest at CNBC

With data from the Association of American Publishers and the Booksellers Association in the UK, PG notes a distinct lack of information in the OP regarding how many ebooks Amazon sells in the US and UK. Unless he is much mistaken, the statistics quoted in the OP don’t include sales of ebooks by Amazon Publishing and indie ebooks via KDP.

When PG last checked, in addition to not collecting ebook sales information, Nielsen (now NPD) Bookscan figures didn’t include printed or POD books that weren’t registered with Ingram.


14 thoughts on “Physical books still outsell e-books — and here’s why”

  1. Well, I’m a lifelong avid reader and I don’t share any of the characteristics described in this post. While I appreciate lovely physical objects, there’s no way I would want to buy hardbacks, no matter how beautiful, of all the books I read.
    I’m really shaking my head here. Reading for pleasure is all about the convenience, selection and accessibility of the stories. Pure and simple, that’s e-books. I usually don’t want strangers around me knowing what I’m reading at that moment. I’m not thinking about decorating my space when I’m selecting my next read. As far as some sort of escape from screens, my office with its multiple large screens and keyboard is a way different dedicated workspace environment than my iPad or phone. I do a great many entertaining things on my devices (read, music, podcasts, games, social media, Netflix). I can do them in the comfort of my living room, bedroom or any place I find myself with a few minutes. Yes, I also use those devices for work, but I don’t have any trouble using them for entertainment.

  2. How many of those sales of physical books to people under the age of 44 are textbooks, books for school, and kids’ books? A goodly portion, I anticipate.

    I live in a small town, and whenever somebody moves there’s a garage sale, and I usually go by to see if there are any books I might want, either to read or resell. Nine times out of ten, if there are books, they’re kids’ books or self-help/political books.

    • You have to remember that these reports focus on tbe reader-spend metric. $$$. Not units.

      With average BPH book prices, both digital and print, running 3-5x Indie ebooks and 2-3x APub titles, it doesn’t take much effort to make print come out ahead, even if they don’t muddy the waters by adding textbooks, chapter books, and photobooks, etc.

      Plus, Amazon doesn’t reveal KDP sales volume.

      So it’s easy for ebooks to sell more units while still being a smaller segment, moneywise, than print. If anything, one of ebooks’ sales driver is lower price.

      On top of that, there are the Kindle unlimited rentals which are paying out at over a $300M a year rate while substituting for an unknown number of sales. There is simply no way of knowing how many ebooks are being read, totally or partially, on KU since we don’t know how many payouts are partial.

      The only thing we know is the number of ebooks being read is much higher than any of these reports can possibly measure.

      • Yes, their revenue data of course only reflects the amount of money spent, but the first sentence implies that people prefer reading paper. It would seem that if quite possibly the number of units is higher for ebooks, that people might prefer reading them to paper books.

        But as you say, it is hard to know with any certainty how many ebooks (or even paper books) are actually read. The OP goes on about how people buy physical books to show them off….but that does not necessarily mean they read them.

        Then there are all of the borrowed or free books and ebooks that are read each year.

        • The whole thing is a series of quotes..

          according to Meryl Halls, managing director of the Booksellers’ Association in the U.K.

          This is a person whose entire job is cheerleading for stores that sell paper books. Her talking points are lifted directly from the hoary old ABA/AAP points, and we know those points were developed to counter ebooks which ABA members (and this woman’s membership as well) do not sell.

          Same old song, same old music. Nothing to see here.

        • These money-based articles always remind me of the panicked tradpub authors who raised a ruckus when Amazon announced the KU per-page payout, thinking it applied to them and they would only be paid for books actually read. Big panic.

          Books bought for decoration or virtue signalling don’t necessarily get read. And many top sellers are bought because of buzz, only to go unfinished or unread, with authors ending up as one hit wonders.

    • I fear they had a sampling error due to only interviewing employees of the English Exchequer. Amongst the general public – !iterate subsection – the codex had been the thing since the time of Charlemagne

  3. PG, odd things are happening to my edits. I correct the posting, save it, next time I look the correction is not there (in this case I actually checked on another device and my posting still said “coded”) but looking now the correction is showing in the posting. Its not the first time this has happened to me.

    Also, when I go to your home page the reported number of comments is often wrongly shown as zero.

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