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Has the E-book Peaked?

Nicholas Carr notes [1] a steep decline in the growth rate of e-book readership, which increased at only 5 percent in the first quarter of 2013. E-books are still an expanding market—again this is a slowdown in the rate of growth, not a decline in overall sales—but Carr wonders whether they might soon reach at a plateau. He writes:

E-books are still taking share from printed books, sales of which declined by 4.7 percent in the quarter, but the anemic growth of the electronic market calls into question the strength of the so-called “digital revolution” in the book business. E-books now represent a bit less than 25 percent of total book sales. That’s a healthy share, but it’s still a long way from dominance. The AAP findings are backed up by a remarkable new Nielsen report [2] indicating that worldwide e-book sales actually declined slightly in the first quarter from year-earlier levels—something that would have seemed inconceivable a couple of years ago.

Carr has number of thoughts about what might be contributing to this slowdown, and he’s particularly curious whether the success of multitasking tablet devices relative to dedicated e-readers is a factor. There’s a lot more to do with an iPad than just read e-books, which can’t really be said about the older generation of Kindle.

I suspect another point Carr raises may be more significant:


The early adopters, who tend also to be the enthusiastic adopters, have already made their move to e-books. Further converts will be harder to come by, particularly given the fact that 59 percent of American book readers say they have “no interest” in e-books, according to [3] the Bowker report.

There’s more to this than just early adopters. The book-reading public is presumably disproportionately older (but see below) and therefore less likely than younger Americans to adopt new technologies quickly. A segment of middle-aged and older readers are more technologically adventurous than most, and that segment may indeed have already made their transition to e-books, while their peers aren’t interested at all in books without pulp and glue. The bigger question is what becomes of younger Americans: are they going to read books at all, and if they do, will they be more inclined over time to read e-books rather than bound ones?

Here’s what Pew reported [4] in June from a study of library use by patrons under 30:

As with other age groups, younger Americans were significantly more likely to have read an e-book during 2012 than a year earlier. Among all those ages 16-29, 19% read an e-book during 2011, while 25% did so in 2012. At the same time, however, print reading among younger Americans has remained steady: When asked if they had read at least one print book in the past year, the same proportion (75%) of Americans under age 30 said they had both in 2011 and in 2012.

In fact, younger Americans under age 30 are now significantly more likely than older adults to have read a book in print in the past year (75% of all Americans ages 16-29 say this, compared with 64% of those ages 30 and older). And more than eight in ten (85%) older teens ages 16-17 read a print book in the past year, making them significantly more likely to have done so than any other age group.

I do wonder whether the study is really evaluating its demographics correctly. I would think that high school and college students are disproportionately likely to use a library, and those users will almost entirely be covered in the under-3o demographic. The same person as a student will use a library more often, and probably read more books, than that person will as a 30-something insurance salesman—or 30-something McDonald’s cashier, if we’re talking 21st-century jobs.

On the other hand, other data also suggest that younger Americans are more interested in books than their parents are, or at least spend more on them. Last year the Bowker research organization reported:

Generation Y, those born between 1979 and 1989, spent the most money on books in 2011, taking over long-held book-buying leadership from Baby Boomers. That’s according to the 2012 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Review [5], the publishing industry’s only complete consumer-based report integrating channel, motivation and category analysis of U.S. book buyers. The Review, an information staple prepared by Bowker® [6] Market Research and industry trade magazine Publishers Weekly [7], notes that GenY’s 2011 book expenditures rose to 30 percent—up from 24 percent in 2010—passing Boomers, 25 percent share.

I still think it’s fair to say the book-buying public skews older than the general public, since Boomers plus other adult cohorts is sure to be greater than the born-after-1979 book-buying blocs, and this influences the “early adopters” argument—in short, I expect to see gradually more “adopters” in successive generations—but it does look as if younger Americans are quite interested in print books as well as electronic ones.

Still, print books are going to face headwinds in the future as chain bookstores continue to close. I don’t hold out much hope for Barnes and Noble surviving another five years. Books aren’t going to vanish, of course: there’ll be good used bookstores, and yes, there’ll be Amazon, hiking its prices as its competition collapses. But there’ll be fewer places to buy print books overall, and that promises to make e-books more attractive and convenient by comparison—assuming “books” of a few hundreds pages are what even literate people really want to read on their devices.

I’ve been culling my own bookshelves recently, and doing so only reinforces to me how many books would be better at a third of their length. Instead of every book on, say, the first decade of the 20th century having to cover the same basic ground for the uninitiated before getting to what an author uniquely has to say, a much shorter electronic book could point the reader to an excellent introductory text elsewhere and then get on with whatever new content or perspective the author wants to offer. Books, by publishing convention, are larded with redundancies on the theory—quite right for the longest time—that a reader wouldn’t have introductory information at his or her fingertips. But with the Internet, everyone has access to the equivalent of a reasonably good public library at all hours of the day. This ought to permit nonfiction to be more tightly focused.

(I’m all in favor of good general surveys, but you only need or two of those for a particular subject or period—classic works, not every ambitious latter-day academic’s attempt to surpass the masters.)

I buy far more print books—mostly used—than e-books, in part because of the price of the latter and in part because most of the things I want to read aren’t available electronically at any price. If I seem cold-blooded in my assessment of the future of print, however, it’s because the sentimental side of paper and pulp is outweighed for me, in the most painfully literal sense, by the sheer mass of the books I’ve accumulated. Moving them, storing them, it’s all an enormous burden [8]. My life would be much simpler if books were shorter, better, and mostly electronic.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Has the E-book Peaked?"

#1 Comment By AndrewH On August 8, 2013 @ 11:53 am

I buy far more print books—mostly used—than e-books, in part because of the price of the latter and in part because most of the things I want to read aren’t available electronically at any price.

This is why after having a an e-reader for two years I’ve gone back to buying as many print books in this past year as I did before getting the eReader.

Another possible reason for growth rate decline is that many (most?) of us only purchased e-readers within the last couple of years and, if most are like me, they immediately downloaded lots of e-books thus causing a surge in sales. Many of those people now have a backlog of books to catch up on so are not buying many new e-books. If almost everyone who wants an e-reader already has one then such sudden surges in e-book sales won’t be happening in the future.

#2 Comment By Stephen Smoot On August 8, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

Print books are easier to handle than electronic devices, less likely to be stolen, less likely to be ruined in a costly way by the elements, and many are dirt cheap used. They are also much easier to use for research writing than ebooks.

#3 Comment By DarrenB On August 8, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

Libraries of books are not the easiest thing to manage, and I do love my e-reader. Having hundreds or thousands of titles at my fingertips when I travel or I’m unable to select a book to keep on my person at all times is priceless. That said, the aesthetic of one’s well kept library or office is unparalled.

No minimalist, Apple-esque decor is enticing enough to lure me away from the favorite room of my home. That said, moving, storing, and cataloguing the ever growing collection of books is not easy. That, however, is part of the fun. A library is something to maintain and, for me at least, find solace and pride in.

#4 Comment By Dennis On August 8, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

As Anthony Powell put it, “Books do furnish a room,” and I’d hate to get rid of my aesthetically pleasing and abundantly stocked shelves.

Not sure if the pollsters would put me in their “older” category (I’m 39) but I do have an Kindle e-reader and love it (with the paper-like display, I can’t stand long reading on an LCD screen). That said, I can’t imagine ever going to e-reader only. Certain books I just don’t like to read on the e-reader (or they are not, yet, available). In the past year or so, my reading has probably been about one-third on the e-reader, and the rest old-fashioned books. Plus, I like to make marginal notes sometimes, which is difficult to do properly on an e-reader.

#5 Comment By cka2nd On August 8, 2013 @ 4:49 pm

Thank the Gods for Harry Potter and the entire Young Adult genre!

Let’s also not forget that public library usage – visits and books borrowed – has increased, and if those in my city are at all representative, kids, youth and young people use them in healthy numbers, too.

#6 Comment By Marchmaine On August 8, 2013 @ 5:05 pm

What I’m looking for is to buy a higher quality book for my shelf, and have it come with a digital copy of the content.

If the book is not shelf worthy, then I only want the content.

#7 Comment By FL Transplant On August 8, 2013 @ 7:59 pm

Applying Pareto’s Law–which seems to be reasonably correct from my experiences working in a bookstore–20% of the customers buy 80% of the books. I’d be interested in data on if that 20% are buying electronic or paper books and what they do in the future–I’d find that more relevant than slicing the population by age. Those who buy a couple of mass market genre books from the “new releases” spinner once a year for the beach trip will have little influence on the direction the market goes.

(Based on my completely anecdotal personal experience quite a few of the 20% has moved to some type of ereader, whether a dedicated one or a multipurpose tablet.)

#8 Comment By Roy M Carlisle On August 8, 2013 @ 8:35 pm

These statistics are helpful, in a limited way, for my work as a book publisher and editor of 36 years. But ultimately I know, as every publisher knows, that it is very small percentage of Americans who regularly buy and read books of any format. Our struggle is to edit and publish books that will get read at all. I don’t think that is harder or easier than it has ever been, at least during my career. It is always hard; it is always a gamble. And with POD I don’t care anymore about whether one of my books is read primarily in one format or the other. What matters is that I don’t have to maintain huge mountains of print book inventories. That is most important factor in these equations. And has been one of the reasons the independent publishing world has exploded and why it is now possible to do this remarkable creative work and know it will continue, well into the future of post modern civilizations.

#9 Comment By Just Dropping By On August 9, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

From a purely anecdotal standpoint, one of the things that may be contributing to holding back e-book sales is that a number of publishers seem to have bizarre pricing policies for them. For example, you can order a new hardcover copy of The Soviet Elite from Lenin to Gorbachev from Amazon (with Prime shipping) for $34.73, but the Kindle edition will cost you $79.19: [9]

Obviously no one would be willing to buy the e-book version of the title unless they were fanatically opposed to owning physical media. Once you start paying attention, you’ll discover that sort of pricing imbalance is not uncommon. And even where the e-book is priced less than the physical version, the discount is so small in many cases that it hardly makes it worth it other than for truly “disposable” titles (i.e., those that you think you’ll never read again, wouldn’t want to give away or lend, and won’t use as reference works).

#10 Comment By Robert Bidinotto On August 9, 2013 @ 5:47 pm

Has the ebook peaked?

I. Don’t. Buy. It.

Know why?

Because this report is by the AAP, whose data are all about ebooks issued by publishers. In other words, the report excludes data from self-published authors. That biases their survey hugely, because there’s good reason to believe that the growth in sales of indie-published ebooks is continuing to be explosive.

In addition, publishers’ deliberately high ebook pricing has been intended to suppress ebook sales in order to continue the viability of their print operations. And if you price your ebooks way above where customers are willing to buy — and where indies are pricing theirs — then of course your sales will tail off…especially when those same readers can buy good indie ebooks at a fraction of that cost.

Finally, be careful in interpreting percentage figures. To belabor the obvious: In any new market with high demand there will be an initial, spectacular surge of percentage growth that must necessarily flatten out. That’s because it’s easy to show amazing percentage growth when, say, you have grown from sales of 1,000 units to 100,000 units. That’s a 100-fold increase. But if you increase from 100,000 units sold to 1,000,000, that’s “only” a 10-fold increase. Yet the first increase added only 99,000 units, while the latter added 999,000. Which shows the greatest sales growth in absolute numerical terms?

In other words, the only way percentage increases are meaningful is to relate them to your baseline numbers. Any future percentage increases of ebook sales will be on top of a much higher baseline of established sales. So, while the percentage of increase may “flatten out,” that doesn’t mean the actual number of sales isn’t increasing significantly.

So for self-publishing authors like me, the future is bright. And while I can understand why Big Publishing continues to issue self-serving reports, in my humble opinion they are just whistling past the graveyard.

#11 Comment By Robert Bidinotto On August 9, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

Quickie correction: In my example above, my second stat should read: “…while the latter added 900,000” — not “999,000.” Hasty error, but the point I was making remains valid.

#12 Comment By Mike W On August 9, 2013 @ 6:51 pm

I’m not sure about the data and general reading trends. IAs for me, I’m a member of two public libraries (the county I live in; the adjacent county I work in) and between the two, I have thousands of books free to check out on my Kindle (and now my Nexus 10). So why would I buy one? Though I actually prefer print books, the convenience of downloading and then reading on my Kindle has made me a convert. I’ve probably never read more books each month than I’m doing now….and that’s because they’re eBooks and I can get them easily from my “PUBLIC” libraries.

#13 Comment By Erin Manning On August 9, 2013 @ 10:05 pm

It took me a long time to adopt an e-reader, but now I’m ruthlessly culling my print book collection: storage space and the tendency of books to gather dust once read are two big considerations.

However, my favorite books are the fiction classics, most of which are available for free in various e-reader formats. I agree with those who have raised the pricing issue, too: if I want to re-read an old favorite Agatha Christie (for example) I don’t see why an electronic edition should cost more than a print paperback (and much more than a used print paperback).

#14 Comment By Will On August 9, 2013 @ 10:36 pm

Right now I’m living in Afghanistan, sharing a shipping container with 2 other men. Thanks to my Kindle reader, I have over 200 books with me. Would this be possible with printed books? Not ever.
My only complaint is with the pricing of the newer books. Considering that the price of an ebook to the publisher is close to zero, a price like the above mentioned example
“The Soviet Elite from Lenin to Gorbachev from Amazon (with Prime shipping) for $34.73, but the Kindle edition will cost you $79.19”
is highway robbery. I had always thought that beautiful binding and quality paper was the reason that hardback books were so high. Sure I’ll stop buying (or licensing my one copy) if this is the future of ebooks.

#15 Comment By stef On August 10, 2013 @ 9:02 pm

Young people are reading, and they are using the libraries. The studies are very likely right.

And like someone said above, books are often available for very low cost at yard sales, second hand stores, thrift stores etc.

Further, young people read a lot online, on their phones: and they aren’t limited to reading an e-book when they do.

#16 Comment By Sharon Packer, MD On August 12, 2013 @ 8:01 am

As a psychiatrist, I typically learned a lot about someone from looking at the book that they read in the waiting room, and asking them about that book. With electronic books, there are no telltale signs of the personality hidden inside.

That’s not to say that I myself do not value an ebook over a hardcover book. Lugging around heavy texts is too hard! And cutting them into portable chapters is painful. There are times when ebooks are preferable to print. However, some ebooks are now priced the same as print. That eliminates the economic incentive for ebooks.

#17 Comment By Leslie Loftis On August 13, 2013 @ 12:56 am

I’m completely with DarrenB. But a few other points I don’t see mentioned. E books have no physical context. I do that quote search thing when I can “see” the sought after quote in the ‘middle of the book, on the left page, third or fourth paragraph after a section break. E readers kill that. Plus, they aren’t smelly. A fave Buffy quote, that’s actually my sig file on my iPhone because I like the juxtaposition:
Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible, it should be…smelly. Giles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

#18 Comment By Annek On August 19, 2013 @ 10:44 am

DennisB and Leslie Loftis,

I’m with both of you. In fact, DennisB, you comment has re-inspired me to look into getting the built-in bookshelves I’ve been wanting since we moved into our current house!