Deep River Books | Ebooks Are Losing Popularity, and Here's Why

Ebooks are losing popularity, and have been for the last couple years. Publishing professionals have speculated on several possible reasons, including the types of books that are popular. But it comes down to this: people need a break from their electronics.

Print Books Outperform Ebooks

To be fair, print books never stopped outperforming ebooks. However, ebooks were gaining ground on their printed counterparts—at least, until recently.

This past March, Sian Cain of The Guardian examined the trend in her article “Ebook Sales Continue to Fall as Younger Generations Drive Appetite for Print.” The book market did well in the UK last year, with 2% more books sold than the year before. But ebooks didn’t benefit from this increase the same way as print books:

While sales through shops increased 7% in 2016, ebook sales declined by 4%. It is the second year in a row that ebook sales have fallen, and only the second time that annual ebook sales have done so since industry bodies began monitoring sales a decade ago.

Why? Cain acknowledges that some of the recently popular books simply come across better in print form than digital. The adult coloring books that became popular in 2015 are one obvious example of these, but certain types of lifestyle and cooking-related books also perform better in print.

Still, genre trends don’t seem to be the main reason, Cain writes. A Nielsen Book Research UK survey points “to children’s fiction and to younger generations preferring physical books to e-readers.” Children’s fiction is most clearly dominated by printed books: only 4% of children’s fiction sales are digital. But young adults contribute heavily to print sales as well. Of those surveyed, 62% of sixteen- to twenty-four-year-olds prefer print.

Young Readers Drive the Trend Away from Ebooks

Why the preference for print among young people? The research director at Nielsen Book Research UK, Steve Bohme, says that they need the break from the screen: “We are seeing that books are a respite, particularly for young people who are so busy digitally.”

Bohme is far from the first person to notice this. A Publisher’s Weekly article from last June, “As E-book Sales Decline, Digital Fatigue Grows,” agrees with this reasoning. In this article, Jim Milliot draws from Codex Group’s April 2016 survey, which displays the percentage of book buyers in six different age groups who want to spend less time on digital devices. Thirty-seven percent of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds wish to escape their devices more often—as opposed to only fifteen percent of book buyers in the sixty-five-and-over age group.

Millet relates two reasons Codex president Peter Hildick-Smith says that digital book sales haven’t continued to increase:

First, electronic devices are optional for reading books, . . . and the current range of e-book reading devices—including smartphones, tablets, and dedicated e-readers—has not delivered the quality long-form reading experience needed to supplant print, even with e-books’ major price and convenience advantages. Second, Hildick-Smith said, a new consumer phenomenon, “digital fatigue,” is beginning to emerge.

The “digital fatigue” comment mirrors what Bohme of Nielsen Book Research UK says above. The matter of reading experience, however, is also noteworthy. There have been holdouts since the beginning—diehard print-book lovers who wax poetic about the smell and feel of books. But it seems that even those who were willing to give ebooks a chance now miss the print experience.

Ebooks Are Far from Dead

This doesn’t mean that ebooks are out of style, though, as Cain writes in her Guardian article: “Bohme said it was important to remember that the figures were still higher than they were five years ago, holding a 25% share in 2016, compared with 26% in 2015 and 18% in 2012.” A quarter of book sales is certainly a significant amount.

So, what does this mean for authors? Not too much yet, even if your target audience includes primarily younger readers. Yes, ebooks are losing popularity, but the change doesn’t appear too drastic. And, despite the hype, they were never more popular than print books. The change in trends simply reminds us not to dismiss the importance of printed books, especially when targeting the younger generations.

For more insight and statistics, check out the full articles quoted above:

Sian Cain’s article from The Guardian: Ebook Sales Continue to Fall as Younger Generations Drive Appetite for Print.

Jim Millet’s Publisher’s Weekly article: As E-book Sales Decline, Digital Fatigue Grows.