eBooks have their uses but the statistics show we still prefer printed books
Physical books are still flying off the shelves — let’s examine why
Since the eBook first emerged on the market, the controversy has raged: which is better, the digital read or the traditional printed book? But while the argument may seem hot in the media and on reader/writer/book blogs the world over, the facts tell a less contentious story. Most people, it seems, still prefer to read a physical book.
According to The Association of American Publishers, US booksellers sell almost 2 billion printed books each year. By contrast, according to Statista, American readers bought just 191 million eBooks in 2020. There’s also evidence that this figure is unusually high because of the pandemic that kept people all over the world at home and left many stores closed for months at a time. Typical eBook sales are somewhat less, and in recent years have leveled off. A survey for the AAP showed that 39% of American adults say they only read printed books; a mere 7% only read digital formats; and 29% read both.
The so-called digital revolution has definitely proved problematic for several branches of the print industry: newspaper sales have plummeted as most people find their news online, for example, and most business newsletters are now digital. But the physical, printed book not only endures: it goes from strength to strength. Given the perceived convenience of the ‘10,000-books-in-your-pocket’ e-reader and the lower price point, why should that be?
The physical object itself is, without doubt, an important factor. A book is more than a channel of communication; it’s an experience. You know, nutrition pills were developed for astronauts decades ago, but who prefers popping a nutritional pill to sitting down with friends for a leisurely lunch prepared by a skilled chef? In the same way that eating isn’t just about nutrition, reading isn’t just about information.
People love physical books: their texture, weight in the hand, the subtle whisper of turning pages, their aroma. And not only that. Publishers are creating incredibly beautiful books these days. Cover art, layout, fonts, drop capitals, dividers, all contribute to books which are works of art in their own right, embodying value even before you read them. They look good on your bookshelves at home. They express something of your personality, your cultural values, your sense of self. And they display those messages to the world, to your family, friends, and colleagues. That’s something with which no eBook, however neatly coded, can ever compete.
A 2021 survey showed that in the US, 65% of adults had read at least one printed book in the past year compared to 30% who had read an eBook. And overall, print books still comfortably outsell eBooks. While it’s commonly thought that digital reading is more popular with the younger crowd and the older folks prefer a digital reader, the statistics suggest the exact opposite is true. It’s people under forty who are driving printed book sales.
Whether you prefer to read in an electronic format or in print, one thing’s for sure; books and publishing have a secure future. People still need to access information and they still want to read stories. While that continues to be true, there will always be books. And despite their convenience for certain applications, eBooks have severe limitations and we — the reading public — much prefer a ‘proper book’ most of the time; eBooks may complement printed books, but they’re not set to replace them anytime soon.
eBooks vs. print books: what are the differences?
How does a paperback book and an eBook differ?
Paperback books — and, indeed, hardcover books — are physical, printed editions, ink-on-paper with the pages bound together. They may contain only text or text and images, too. The images may be photographs or illustrations and may be black-and-white, gray-scale, or full color. Whereas eBooks are digital files which can be read on-screen either via an application on a device such as a desktop computer or a smartphone, or on a purpose-made e-reader. The most common file types are pdf, mobi , and ePub. The Kindle, the Nook, and the Kobo are the most popular e-readers.
Pros and cons of eBooks and print books
There are advantages and disadvantages to both printed books and eBooks. It’s really not a binary choice between one or the other. Each has its place in the modern reading ecology. But let’s take a look at a few of the pros and cons:
- Printed books, paperback and hardback, have a physical feel to them that most readers prefer
- Illustrations and photographs reproduced on good paper stock and using the latest print technology are clearer and the colors truer
- Readers like to keep physical books and display them at home on their bookshelves
- They can be made from sustainable materials and recycled
- Off-screen reading is less of an eye-strain
- Printed books sometimes cost more than their electronic equivalents
- They are more inconvenient to deliver and store
- E-readers are lightweight and easy to carry around compared to some print books
- You can keep a library of several thousand eBooks in your pocket
- Once you’ve made the capital outlay to buy the e-reader, the books themselves are often — although not always — cheaper and may even be free
- Illustrations are usually poor and charts, tables, and graphics are often indecipherable
- The production of e-readers — like smartphones — is resource heavy and damaging to the environment; they can’t be recycled
Are eBooks cheaper than print books?
Yes and no! Some eBooks are free. Others are cheaper than the print versions. Often print versions and electronic editions are almost, if not the same, in price. And many self-published books in certain popular sub-genres only have an eBook version. Stores like Amazon may run special promotions on eBooks from time-to-time, but all stores do that, on- and offline, with electronic and print books. There’s no hard-and-fast rule. It all depends on the publisher, the marketing strategy, the genre, how famous or unknown the author is, and several other factors.
But let’s be clear: the idea that eBooks are always cheaper isn’t true. And you must buy, charge, and update your e-reader in order to read eBooks. With a physical book, you don’t need software, a device, batteries, or anything else: you just open it and start reading!
eBooks vs paperbacks: the publisher’s perspective
Most self-publishers favor eBooks because they’re perceived as cheap and relatively easy to put into the marketplace. Traditional publishers — perhaps having initially seen the e-reader as a threat — took a little longer to adopt electronic publishing. As time goes on, however, it seems that we can expect increasing hybridization until self-publishing and mainstream publishing are divided only by a blurry line with plenty of crossover in-between.
But is it really cheaper to publish eBooks only? Not really. While you obviously don’t have printing costs, you still need to pay for editing, formatting, and artwork; not to mention ISBNs (if you want to publish off Amazon and get your books into libraries’ digital databases), marketing, and promotion. And where you may save on one side, you pay more on the other. For example, as we’ve seen, few readers are e-reader exclusive. So, the word on self-publishing street is that you must publish a paperback edition anyway or you’re effectively cutting down your market share to less than 10%. If you choose not to have a print edition — say, if you go with KDP Kindle exclusive publishing — then you’re competing in a very narrow field and your marketing budget will probably go up.
eBook vs. paperback: 5 common questions answered
Which is better, eBook or printed book?
Many studies — several cited in a fascinating article published in Scientific American — show that the brain responds differently to digital reading and reading print. In fact, there’s now conclusive evidence to suggest that we understand more and retain information in memory for longer when we interact with a traditional printed medium as opposed to a digital one.
Most people in the surveys that we quoted earlier also say that they enjoy the experience of a physical book more than an eBook. Because many people aren’t just readers but ‘book lovers’ and the reading experience for them isn’t just about the words; and the multi-sensory richness of the physical, printed book beats even the most expensive e-reader on those metrics.
So, while eBooks have their place, on balance, the market and people’s buying habits suggest that the paperback, or hardback, is still thought to be the best way to read for most people, most of the time.
What are the disadvantages of eBooks?
eBooks pose several disadvantages over printed books:
- There’s the expense — hundreds of dollars — to buy the e-reader in the first place
- Then you need to keep recharging the battery and replace it when it gives up the ghost
- You need a fast, reliable Internet connection to download your books
- Technical issues, poor connectivity, software updates, and more can all interrupt the reading experience
- Even now, according to this article in The Atlantic, the eBook is dominated by the self-publishing movement. Relatively few traditionally published authors’ books are available in electronic format if they were published after 1932. Which means that to find something good to read, you need to plow through all the not very good stuff published without any quality control; and if you’re looking for a favorite mainstream author, you probably need to get the paperback
Is reading e-Books worse than reading paper books?
Most studies — like the ones cited in the Scientific American article we mentioned above — show that the electronic reading experience is less engaging, less memorable, and worse for your eyes. So, in that sense, yes, reading eBooks is worse than reading printed paper books.
Do eBooks outsell print books?
The short and sweet answer is that — evidenced in data from Publishers Weekly, Statista, and The Association of American Publishers, to name only a few reliable sources — no, eBooks don’t outsell print books. The printed paper book still dominates the market.
Can eBooks replace paper books?
In theory, it might be possible for eBooks to replace certain kinds of printed books such as genre fiction like romance, SF, crime, thrillers, mysteries, and so on. Although it’s unlikely. If that was going to happen, the eBook’s had 10 years and more to take over the paper book and shows no signs of doing so. Other books — text books, art books, scientific books, technical books, and specialist books of every kind — don’t lend themselves to electronic publishing at all. The format, image reproduction size and quality that these books need can’t be provided by any e-reader. So, it looks like e-Books are here to stay — as an often handy and convenient complement to the printed book — but they won’t replace paper books.
The future of printed books
So, the future of printed books is secure. Whether a reader, a collector, a writer, a publisher or self-publisher, you’ll find that your e-reader may be useful, but it’s never going to become a definitive alternative to a paperback, a hardcover, or any other format of printed book. The paper book is here to stay.
Thinking of printing your own book?
You needn’t be a career self-publisher or the director of a mainstream publishing house to print a book — although if you are either of those things, we should talk! — as people choose to print books for many reasons. Memoirs, cookbooks, photo gift albums, and more, are all popular book printing projects. Whatever your reason for printing, talk to us first. We have decades of professional experience and innumerable satisfied customers. Get in touch today and our friendly expert printers will be happy to discuss your project, and give you a quote, with no obligation on your part. We look forward to working with you!