Ebook vs print sales

Interesting snippet in the latest issue of The Author magazine, saying that the growth of ebook sales in the UK was slower in the first half of 2013, and the decline of printed books was not quite so precipitous, although it still fell by 4.5% in value, 4.2% in volume. It didn’t give figures for ebooks. The article is not available online, so no link I’m afraid. The piece added:

There are signs that the ebook market may be slowing, and Nielsen BookScan has warned that it will be a challenge to maintain the strength of sales seen in the last couple of years in part generated by the enthusiasm of book buyers purchasing their first e-reader and loading it with content. More encouragingly, there are signs that the decline of the printed book market is slowing as the ebook market growth decelerates. If nothing else, perhaps the balance between the print and ebook markets is at last starting to stabilise.

As a print-lover, this gives me some encouragement – although “slower decline” is still a decline.

On a personal note, I’ve had a Kindle for a couple of years now, but still prefer real books. Because I am living abroad, and am not settled in a single place, I am almost exclusively buying ebooks at the moment. But when I’m settled in one place, I think I’ll go back to buying almost exclusively print books, only using the Kindle for an occasional 99p punt on an author I’m not sure about.

How about you? What percentage of the books you buy are ebooks vs printed books?

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There are 33 comments

  1. Nice article, Andrew! Nice to know that print books are making a comeback. I have read only a few ebooks – two or three – and like you I love the printed word.

    1. Ah, a fellow paper-lover! I thought so πŸ™‚ I’ve been reading quite a lot of ebooks lately, simply because it’s hard to buy the latest UK fiction here in Crete (and it was the same before that in Barbados). Plus I don’t want to ship a lot of heavy books across continents! But I have noticed that I don’t relish the idea of sitting down to read on my Kindle the same way I relish opening up a good hardback or even paperback.

  2. It will be interesting to see what is going to happen in 10-15 years, when the new “digital generation” is all grown up. Will they choose ebooks over printed books? Now the concept of ebook is fairly new and people are still experimenting, but when both options will be around for a long time, I’m curious to see how that will go.
    I’ve only read a couple of ebooks, one was yours, A Virtual Love.
    I still prefer printed books because for me reading is not just about the text – the weight of the book, the cover, the paper (I remember a book by Neil Gaiman which had roughly cut paper edges – I loved to feel them) they all contribute to my reading pleasure. Besides, for some reason, electronics hate me – the screen freezes, I can’t find the page, and so on.

    1. Yes, it will be very interesting, Delia. Good point about the kids growing up with technology. I remember seeing a video of a toddler holding up a magazine to her father and saying “It doesn’t work!” She was trying to click and scroll in the way she was used to from the iPad πŸ™‚

      1. That image of the toddler made me laugh, Andrew πŸ™‚ Well, I can’t believe that things have changed so much in the past few years.

        1. Things are definitely changing, Vishy! I remember as a child I used to laugh at the adults who couldn’t manage to use a VHS video recorder. Now I’m in danger of becoming that adult myself. It’s hard to keep up…

  3. I must sheepishly admit that I have fallen ion love with e books. I love the connivence as well as the features (easy highlighting, search function, internet tie in, etc.) As for the tactile value of owning a book, I tend to value that mostly for higher quality hardcovers. I never owned many of these anyway.

    My biggest regret is the decline of the independent t bookstore that this trend has precipitated.

    1. Hi Brian

      No need to be sheepish – I’m happy to find a defender for ebooks πŸ™‚ I agree about the convenience, and I have found the search feature useful when doing reviews. The highlighting on mine is a bit cumbersome, but it’s an old model so I’m sure the latest ones are better. For me, it’s more of an intangible thing – I just don’t enjoy it as much.

      And yes, the damage to independent bookshops is a big worry. It’s not just the direct loss of sales, but the erosion of price expectations – they’re already struggling to compete with internet discounters, and the proliferation of cheap ebooks just makes it even harder for them to sell full-price books.

  4. Yes, the slower decline is the take away – even if there wasn’t a decline nothing’s set in stone. I have a lot of ebooks but most are free. There are a few digital publishers I’ve bought books from but I do still prefer print and dream of a Beauty and the Beast library. I think the novelty aspect is very true. It’s great having a ereader, but after a while books start to seem the same, because aside from the story and author they are.

    1. Hi Charlie
      Ah, you have the library fantasy too! It’s interesting to hear how many people still prefer print. Ebooks seem so ubiquitous, but print still has attractions. There are a lot of freebies, and perhaps that’s what ebooks are best for – building an audience for new writers by giving them a chance to send out lots of review copies, something that’s more difficult with print.

  5. Thanks for your comment on my blog Andrew, and thanks to Vishy for making the connection. Good to see you also reading the Peirene novellas, we are fortunate to have access to such an excellent collection of contemporary European fiction.

    I love the printed version of books and of course the physical bookshelf. I couldn’t imagine not having bookshelves. But I also read on the kindle and love that it is not necessary to purchase a physical copy of each of the books I read. I do think I read more as a result of having the convenience of the kindle and I sometimes read advance copies, the perfect solution.

    I think the rise of ebooks has something to do with consumption, the fact that people actually consume books rather than read them, good for authors pay packets perhaps, though not necessarily for their reputation. I think this activity will tail off, when people realise they have huge collections on their e-readers of unread books and discover that it’s still quite fun to read a physical book.

    1. Hi Claire

      Good point about consumption – it is very easy just to click and buy, click and buy, and end up with loads of unread books on the e-reader! I try to stop myself from buying until I’ve read everything I already have, but it doesn’t always work. I’m especially likely to buy when the price is discounted, because I don’t know when it will go up again. You’re right, it’ll probably tail off as people realise what’s happening and get used to reading in the new format.

  6. Since I commute by subway, ebooks have been a terrific help to my lower back. πŸ™‚ I can now carry think, juicy hardcover titles in an easy to carry format. But I still love and buy paper books. I love looking at the covers and being able to flip back and forth easily. In fact, I just bought a new copy of Walden last week as my old copy had never been returned after I lent it out (I can’t blame the person!) That’s not a book I want on an e-reader.

    1. Haha, very good for your back! It can be difficult to read a hardcover book on the subway too, if you are standing and have to hold on with one hand and hold the book with the other. E-readers are easier, and definitely lighter πŸ™‚ But you’re right, sometimes you just want a good physical copy, particularly of books that are important to you.

  7. I love my Kindle, but I’ll never replace my books with it. I find it’s perfect for testing a cheap book or if I want to read something immediately. However, if I love a Kindle book I’ll probably buy it in paperback.

    It’s perfect for when, like yourself, you’ve not got a permanent base or your travelling. Yet, nothing feels quite like a physical book, bookshelves stacked with books make me instantly happier – you don’t get that with a Kindle. There’s no way to pretentiously show off your shelves, ha!

    1. Hi Alice

      Yes, it’s great for testing a new book or new writer without too much investment. That’s interesting what you say about buying in paperback after liking the Kindle. I’ve never done that, but probably would if I had a more permanent home.

      I’m with you, I don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling from a full Kindle the same way I do with piles of books. And impressing people with your books is tough – although it’s easier to hide the guilty secrets πŸ˜‰

  8. I read an article from earlier this year in the Wall Street Journal, which essentially said that the ebook was a flash in the pan. It’s rate of increase is declining, and is basically a fad.


    It’s a natural part of the life cycle of a new technology that it’s rate of increase will decline, just as with paper books it’s natural that their rate of decline will decline. But it’s still declining.

    I love paper books too. I only got a Kindle last year. With the improved technology, such as is available in the Kindle Paperwhite, the print is crisp and clear, and I never have to worry about having enough light to read by.

    When you consider the advantages of an ebook over a print book, it’s clear that paper books are doomed. But is that bad?

    We’re only talking about the medium, not the content. Paper books require paper. Have you ever lived near a paper mill? It takes a tremendous amount of energy and nasty chemicals to create paper. Then there’s printing, shipping (using lots and lots of energy), and storing . . .

    Ebooks require virtually no energy to produce and transfer. They don’t take up any room. You get them instantly.

    They are less expensive.

    Print books have been dying for decades, mainly because of cost. When I was young, a book came out in hard cover. After a while it may have come out in paperback.

    Then a hard cover book started to cost upwards of $30 dollars. So trade books came in. Big paperbacks, really. Then just paperback. The only reason they continued to exist is that there no technology to replace them. Now there is, and they will largely be a thing of the past. But that’s good.

    Will they go away altogether? No. Just as horses did not go away. And pretty much for the same reason.

    1. Hi Michael

      Very good point about the natural cycle of technology – rapid growth can’t continue forever. And you’re right about the advantages of ebooks. I think my attachment to physical books is more emotional than rational – I certainly can’t argue with your points about the environment (of course e-readers do take energy and resources to produce, but each extra e-book doesn’t). Thanks for commenting!

    1. That’s interesting to hear, Michelle. There does seem to be quite a lot of support for print books still, on this post anyway. I agree that they probably won’t completely go away, but it’s hard to see them making a big comeback. It’ll be interesting to see how things shape up in the next few years.

  9. I only buy print books these days if they’re second-hand or a kindle version is not available. I did have a big flurry of buying when I got my first kindle because the first thing I did was buy lots of classics. The pace has slowed now but I buy more books now I have a kindle than I did before.

    1. Hi Jayne
      I did the same thing with buying classics on the Kindle – well, I say ‘buying’, but a lot of them were free πŸ™‚ That’s a big advantage – with the copyright expired, the classics can easily be free or very cheap, making them more widely available. With print there’s always the cost of production, even when the author no longer needs to get paid. Thanks for commenting!

  10. Interesting news and discussion. I’ve not long had a kindle and only bought it because a specific book I wanted was only available as an e-book.

    I don’t enjoy reading on it much and my main impression is that it didn’t draw me back to pick up the read again after an interruption. When you put a paper book down on the sofa or table the cover remains in the corner of your eye, and also how far you’ve read, without picking it up. The kindle reminds you to read, but an actual book reminds you of a setting, or era, or character. Also if you see another person put an actual book down you might ask them about it but if they put a kindle down it could seem intrusive to even ask what they are reading.

    I’m keeping my kindle in case another e-book only title comes up again, or if I was going to travel maybe, but otherwise I’m sticking to paper.

    In response to Michael Henderson e-books may seem greener but I don’t think they are considering the materials and energy required to produce e-readers and also that they run on electricity. Every time a reader is updated and re-launched, on it goes. Paper books are produced once and read for free thereafter. Used books go on to make money for charity shops.

    1. Hi Wendy

      Glad you raised that point – I suspect that ebook-only books will become more common, and may encourage more people to buy e-readers.

      You’re right about a print book enticing you to come back to it. And I’ve often asked people about a book I see them reading – even strangers on a bus sometimes – but would never do it with a Kindle.

      It’s true that e-readers take energy and resources to produce, and electricity to run. It would be interesting to see a comparison of the two. I suspect e-books would still come out greener, simply because of the volumes – you would only replace your e-reader every few years, in which time you might read hundreds of books. But you’re right that it’s not an open-and-shut case. Good points – thanks for stopping by!

  11. I’m still yet to buy a single ebook. I hope I’ll never have to. I was worried for a while that we might one day have no choice, but that doesn’t seem likely at the minute.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Fran. I hope you never have to buy an ebook as well. It’s fine to have the option, but I’d hate for it to get to the stage where print books were either unavailable or a prohibitively expensive ‘niche’ item.

      You’re right, though – seems that’s a long way off. As Wendy mentioned, there are some books that only come out as ebooks, but they’re a minority, at least among traditional publishers (with self-published books it’s more common). You’ve got plenty of real books to choose from!

      Good to hear from you. It’s interesting how varied the results of my unscientific little survey are so far. Anyone else want to chip in? Please leave a comment below – I’d love to hear more people’s experiences.

  12. I’m a ‘real’ book lover and always will be – I love having books on my bookshelves and being able to pick up old favourites and dip in and out. Having said that, while I don’t (yet) own an e-reader, I do have Kindle on PC which I have used for a number of e-books, that are only available in e-book form.

    I admit to also having bought a few e-books because they are cheaper and I’m not sure I’ll love them!

    Reading on a laptop is not such a good experience as I imagine reading on a proper e-reader, but it does the job. Like so many have pointed out though, a real book is so much more engaging in my opinion.

    I’m sure e-books are more ‘green’ but probably not so much as people imagine. Somewhere there are gigantic servers and goodness knows what else that keep the web alive that require huge amounts of energy and fans to keep them all cool.

    The places where our technology is developed are, no doubt, huge swish air-conditioned laboratories and offices which themselves probably use up massive resources! Never mind the devices we use – which people will replace as newer and more tecky options become available, while some of my books are the same ones I’ve had for 40 years – or longer.

    1. I love having bookshelves full of books too, Lindsay. In fact, that’s one of the main things I’ve missed in the last couple of years as I’ve adopted a more itinerant lifestyle.

      I really struggle with reading on my laptop – even long newspaper articles are too much. I find myself scanning and skipping, always impatient. Glad that it “does the job” for you – certainly good to avoid having to buy another gadget!

      You’re right about the longevity of books. It’s hard to imagine today’s ebooks being readable in even fifty years, let alone five hundred! and the constant upgrading of devices definitely has a big environmental impact. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  13. Andrew, I’m an English major and big reader from way back. I was always a paper book type.

    However, I think what has happened is I have become so use to reading on a computer or reader (since I now read a lot on the internet), that when I read a book, I feel more comfortable reading it on an electronic screen.

    So in the last two years, I gone almost 100% ebooks. It is sad, though, reading a book and not having a copy to put on the bookshelf.

    Maybe they should give a free digital copy when you purchase a paper copy. In that case I would buy more paper books.

    1. Hi Curtis

      I think that’s a great idea about giving a free digital copy when you buy a print copy. It wouldn’t cost anything extra to provide the ebook, and would be a nice incentive.

      Perhaps another option, as well, would be to give a discount on a paper copy when you buy the ebook. That way you could try new titles cheaply as ebooks, and buy print copies of the ones you like.

      It feels crazy to spend money on the same book twice in different formats, so any way of helping people own both ebooks and print would be good, I think. Thanks for commenting!

  14. I’m a book lover, but have a Kindle for travelling. The Kindle somehow feels cold in the hands compared with paper. I also dislike not being able to share. SD

    1. Hi Sandra,
      Thanks for your comment! Pretty similar to me, it sounds. ‘Cold’ is exactly the right word for it. And yes, I really think we should be able to share ebooks with friends and family – I can see the need for protection against large-scale piracy, but perhaps there could be a limit of 5 or 10 copies or something.

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