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E-book or physical book? The answer may surprise you

Updated : September 30, 2019 02:41 PM IST

E-book or physical book? You may be surprised to hear that for most, old school print on paper still wins. Physical books still sell more than e-books, despite digital media disrupting most other industries.

67 percent of Americans read a physical book in 2017, but only 26 percent read an e-book.

So, why do people still prefer printed books over the convenience of devices like a smartphone, Kindle or Kobo?

You might think that electronic books, more commonly known as e-books, are relatively new. But an initiative called Project Gutenberg claims to have started them all the way back in 1971. Today, it still publishes books online, focusing on older works where the American copyright has expired so it can offer them for free.

The modern e-book came around in 2007, when Amazon launched its Kindle in New York. It went on sale for $399 and was reported to have sold out in just five and a half hours. By 2010, Amazon announced it was selling more e-books than hardcover printed books.

At the time, many questioned the future of hardcovers and their relevance in the digital age.

While the Kindle popularized e-books, the book industry is still dominated by physical versions.

I met up with Meryl Halls, managing director of the Booksellers’ Association, to learn why.

Print’s been incredibly resilient actually, I think the e-book bubble has burst somewhat, sales are flattening off, I think the physical object is very appealing. So the cover designs are often gorgeous, they’re beautiful objects, The book lover loves to have a record of what they’ve read and it’s about signalling to the rest of the world, it’s about decorating your home.

In 2018, more than 2.7 billion books in all formats were sold in the U.S., for an estimated net revenue of almost $26 billion for publishers. And that’s just the value of all books directly sold by publishers to retailers.

Of that amount, around $22 billion-worth were printed books, $2 billion were e-books and $1.2 billion were audio books.

In the U.K. the same year, publishers’ sales of printed and e-books topped $8 billion, with printed books taking $4.5 billion of that.

cookbooks are, they’re having a resurgence, nature writing and nature books are doing incredibly well and it’s partly the political landscape, people are looking for escape but they are also looking for information, it’s harder to have an emotional relationship with what you’re reading if it’s on an e-reader.

It’s obviously cheaper to produce e-books than print copies, but the number of printed books sold by publishers to retailers in the U.S. and U.K. also outstrips the number of downloaded books.

Even the kind of books people like to read in print versus on an e-reader varies. In the U.K., readers prefer fiction categories like crime, thriller and romance on their e-readers, but children’s books are still dominated by print.

High profile launches like Three Women and of course, the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, have also boosted print sales.

But one study revealed that readers found it harder to recall the plot details of a short mystery story when they read it on a Kindle, compared to those who read the same story in a paperback book.

E-books really, a lot of innovation had started in the academic area of publishing, and then of course they came into trade publishing and I believe, started off with romantic fiction and possibly slightly erotic fiction because it was marvellous that you could read that in public totally anonymously.

Traditional stores took a hit when Amazon started selling printed books online back in 1994. In 2011, U.S. chain Borders declared bankruptcy, while Barnes & Noble’s sales have declined steadily for the past six years.

In 2019, activist investor Elliott Management bought Barnes & Noble. And it also owns this U.K. chain, Waterstones, which has undergone a bit of a revolution in the past few years.

How have bookshops reacted to Amazon Kindle?

Okay, well I think initially they were frightened and they did try and sell e-books, but I think what they discovered very quickly is that bookshop customers are coming into bookshops for a very particular reason. Their shops, their spaces are very welcoming and people are looking all the time for things to do that are not on screen.

In 2015, Amazon opened its first physical bookstore in Seattle’s University Village mall, and it now has 19 outlets across the U.S. It uses information on Kindle reading habits to inform what it sells. For example, it has an “unputdownable” section in-store, which displays physical copies of books that Kindle readers finish in three days or less.

E-books have also been a way for new authors to get noticed by mainstream publishers. Science fiction author Hugh Howey published his e-book Wool in 2011.

It went on to sell more than 300,000 copies. In 2012, American publisher Simon & Schuster bought the print rights

But not every author is a fan of e-books. The Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger resisted digitizing his novels for years, but in August 2019, his son Mark agreed to publish them as e-books, saying his father wanted to keep his work accessible and affordable

So, what’s the future of books, in any format? While Millennials get blamed for killing many industries, it’s actually younger people that appear to be driving sales of printed books, especially in the U.K.

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

What’s the future for the book industry?

people always need knowledge and people always need stories, will it be the written word, or will it be the spoken word, but it will still be stories and it will still be knowledge. So, I think that the book, in whatever format, has a strong future.

As for the Kindle, when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos launched it, he said: “We knew we could never out-book the book,” but some reviewers say its latest model is the most paper-like yet.
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