By David Durant
(This article offers some further thoughts and ideas from David Durant expanding on his recently published Charleston Briefing: Reading in a Digital Age.)
The advent of digital reading has produced a tremendous debate on the future of the book, and of reading. Digital skeptics fear that the rise of digital reading will massively erode our ability to engage in linear, in-depth reading. Supporters of digital reading either regard such fears as overblown, or insist that digital reading will prove superior to print. Regardless of each side’s arguments, one thing has become quite clear: if recent book sales figures are to be believed, predictions of the death of print have proved quite premature.
For example, the New York Times reported on September 22, 2015 that e-book sales declined 10% in the first five months of 2015, according to the Association of American Publishers (AAP), while “Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.”[i] The Times also noted that paperback sales grew by 8.4% in the first five months of 2015.[ii] Sales figures for 2016 have further confirmed this trend. AAP figures for January-July 2016 show that sales of paperback books grew 8.4% over the same period in 2015, and hardback sales increased by 2.6%. E-book sales, in contrast, declined by 19.2%.[iii] In summarizing sales figures for all of 2016, AAP notes that “Print books saw growth, and for the second consecutive year publisher revenues from eBook sales declined.”[iv]
This is not just the case in the U.S. The five largest UK publishers saw a decline in e-book sales in 2015, with a cumulative average drop of 2.4%.[v] The trend continued in 2016, with overall UK e-book sales declining by 3%, while print sales increased by 8%, according to the Publishers Association.[vi] This plateauing of e-book sales, experienced in both the US and UK, strongly suggests that the e-book market has found its level for now.
To be fair, there are observers who dispute the significance of this development, or that it represents any kind of turn away from e-books towards print. Mathew Ingram, in a piece for Fortune, argues that the recent fall in e-book sales numbers is deceptive, as it does not reflect independently published, non-AAP e-books, whose sales have increased, in large part because they tend to be much cheaper than e-books published by mainstream publishers. His point is reinforced by news that Amazon reported an increase in its e-book sales in 2015.[vii] In a similar vein, Andrew Richard Albanese has argued in Publishers Weekly that “just as the e-book market started to boom, the major publishers put a collective thumb on the scales to tip readers back toward print, with efforts that included a scheme with Apple to raise e-book prices, and burdensome restrictions on library e-books.”[viii]
Perhaps the foremost exponent of this notion is one “Data Guy,” pseudonymous co-founder of the Author Earnings website. Correctly pointing out that most book sales data tend to be limited to traditional publishers, and thus overlook independently published e-books, “Data Guy” has set out to measure sales of e-books through Amazon and other online retailers. At the core of his analysis is a formula designed to estimate sales per book based on that item’s Amazon sales ranking. While he has tweaked his methodology over the last several years, and reportedly now has access to some actual sales figures for individual titles, the attempt to estimate e-book sales based on Amazon ranking remains at the heart of “Data Guy’s” methodology.[ix]
At first treated with suspicion by the mainstream publishing industry, “Data Guy” has recently achieved a newfound respectability, being invited to present at both the 2016 and 2017 Digital Book World (DBW) conferences. In his 2017 DBW presentation, “Data Guy” offered the most recent overview of his findings. He openly dismissed any notion that “print is back”, insisting that the recent increase in major publisher print sales is due merely to those publishers raising their e-book prices, combined with Amazon discounting many print titles. All other explanations for this trend, “Data Guy” assured us, are wrong. According to his figures, e-book sales, driven by independent and Amazon imprint authors, have actually increased each of the last three years, including a 4% increase in e-book sales thorough Amazon in 2016. “Print-book customers are migrating”, he insists, towards e-book dominated, independent author friendly, venues such as Amazon.[x]
Reinforced by the views of “Data Guy,” champions of digital reading continue to insist that the last couple years are merely a minor speed bump on our way to an all-digital future. In early 2016, digital publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin told the BBC that ““I think printed books just for plain old reading will, in 10 years from now, be unusual,” and that the death of print is “inevitable.” In his words, “I think there will come a point where print just doesn’t make a lot of sense.” In the same article, Robert Stein, who founded the Institute for the Future of the Book, expressed similar views. In his words, ““We’re in a transitional period,” he says. “The affordances of screen reading will continuously improve and expand, offering people a reason to switch to screens.”” [xi]
“Data Guy” is right that mainstream publisher sales tools fail to adequately record sales of independently published e-books, and many of his big picture conclusions, such as the major growth in self-publishing, the takeover of adult genre fiction by e-books, and Amazon’s overall dominance of the e-book market, ring true. At the same time, his methodology remains somewhat controversial, and it seems wise not to be too dependent on any one statistical method in the current reading environment. In discussing his methodology, “Data Guy” rather contemptuously dismisses the use of survey or polling data to gauge reader behavior and preferences.[xii] Yet, survey techniques and methodology have a proven track record, and it seems absurd to discard them. Rather, considering the flawed nature of all the available statistical methods for studying trends in book buying, it seems reasonable to utilize reader surveys as an additional tool that can help give a broader view of the current state of reading, and shed light on which sets of statistics might be considered most reliable.
While “Data Guy” argues that print readers are migrating toward e-books, this frankly flies in the face of almost all recent reader preference survey data that we have. According to an August 2015 survey published by Statista.com, 68% of respondents who identified themselves as book readers read most or all of their books in print, while only 17% read mostly or entirely e-books (only 4% read e-books exclusively.)[xiii] This data accords with the latest annual Pew research study on book reading habits, published in September 2016. According to Pew, the percentage of those who read an e-book in the previous year has remained flat since 2014, the figure for both years being 28%, with a slight drop to 27% in 2015. Only 6% of respondents had read e-books only. To be certain, the percentage who indicated that they had read a print book has fluctuated a bit more, going from 69% in 2014, to 63% in 2015, then rebounding to 65% last year. Yet even these numbers are fairly stable.[xiv] This data strongly suggests that readers are not abandoning print for e-books. As Pew’s Lee Rainie told Publishers Weekly, “one of the things we hear when we talk to consumers about print books is that print is a fabulous technology. Ink on a page is amazingly portable, longlasting, sharable. Print is still amazingly attractive to people. And, my general sense is that readers are happy with their pathways to books.”[xv]
“Data Guy” also claims that, according to his numbers, readers are buying and consuming massive numbers of indie and Amazon branded e-books. In a 2016 interview with Digital Book World, he stated that: “Most avid readers today read digitally. When you look at who’s reading 50 books a year, 100 books a year, those are the folks who are giving new authors a shot.”[xvi] The most recent Pew numbers, however, also bring this into question. Both the mean and median for number of books read per adult respondent have actually declined in the last five years, the former dropping from 14 books to 12, and the latter from 5 to 4.[xvii] This inevitably leads one to question just how many readers are consuming 50 or 100 e-books per year? Surely the massive growth in the number of available, inexpensive, e-books should be reflected in reader survey data by some level of increase in readership? Yet it’s not. Instead, Pew and other sources indicate a relatively stable level of demand for books, in both print and electronic format. In the words of Pew’s Rainie, “The number of book readers has shrunk a bit, and the number of non-book-readers has grown a bit. That’s there, and it’s meaningful, but it’s not hugely striking. So I think, overall, the story is that through this boom in the supply side of the story, the demand side has been relatively stable.”[xviii]
The argument made by “Data Guy” and others that the decline in major publisher e-book sales, and concurrent increase in print sales, is merely a response to pricing is also questionable. After all, if avid readers are truly migrating to e-books, then why such price sensitivity? If users truly preferred e-books as a rule, price should not make that big a difference. All the other perceived advantages of e-books, such as portability and immediacy of purchase/access, still apply. In other words, if e-book sales are this price sensitive, this would indicate that many users do indeed prefer print if prices are comparable. Perhaps, then, some of the other, more intangible factors that shape personal reading preferences should be considered as well.
According to several recent surveys in the US and UK, many readers, especially millennials, have actually come to regard print reading as an escape from the demands of the digital information environment. For example, an April 2016 survey of 4,992 book buyers by the Codex Group, a publishing industry research firm, found that 25% of book buyers expressed a desire to spend less time using electronic devices. Interestingly, it was the youngest demographic, 18-24 year olds, who most wanted to reduce their screen time, with 37% indicating such a desire. 19% of 18-24 year olds reported reading fewer e-books than before, again the highest response among all age groups. Perhaps the most telling piece of information from the survey was that, as Publishers Weekly put it, the “share of print books purchased was also the highest among the heaviest screen users, the so-called digital natives, ages 18–24 (83%), and lowest (61%) among 55-to-64-year-olds.” As Codex Group president Peter Hildick-Smith puts it, a sort of “digital fatigue” seems to have set in among many millennials; manifested, among other ways, by a desire to pursue linear, long-form reading primarily in print format.[xix] Similar findings have occurred in the UK. Nielsen Research UK, in its 2016 survey of British book sales and consumer preferences, found that, in The Guardian’s words, “young people were using books as a break from their devices or social media.”[xx]
Further evidence for this phenomenon is that sales of dedicated e-readers such as Kindles and Nooks have actually declined. The September 2015 Times piece, citing data from Forrester Research, reports that e-reader sales have dropped from almost 20 million sold in 2011 to some 12 million sold in 2014.[xxi] This trend away from dedicated e-readers is now supported by polling data as well as sales figures. In October 2015, Pew reported that only 19% of Americans own a dedicated e-book reader, a sharp decline from the 32% reported in early 2014.[xxii] The 2016 Pew reading survey noted that only 8% of respondents had read a book in the past year on a dedicated e-reader.[xxiii] This trend is also apparent in the UK, where, as The Guardian reported in March, “The UK reached peak e-reader in 2014, when a quarter of UK book buyers owned one. Three years on that figure is back to only just over one-fifth.”[xxiv]
Overall, then, there is substantial reason to conclude that the revival of the print codex is a real trend, powered at least in part by a genuine preference on the part of readers for the print format for certain forms of reading, and by a desire to escape the all-pervasive digital media environment. This, of course, does not mean that the e-book is going anywhere. Reading off digital devices, including book reading, is here to stay. Rather, what seems to be happening is an effort by many readers to strike a balance between print and digital. There is, however, likely another factor at play. There is growing evidence that the drop in e-reader ownership is due not only to a partial reversion to print, but also to a change in how people are reading electronic texts. The tendency in the digital era has been for single-purpose devices to be relegated to boutique status by general multipurpose devices, such as digital cameras being superseded by smartphones. This now appears to be happening in the digital reading environment.
Market research firm IHS noted back in 2012 where we were headed: “Single-task devices like the e-book are being replaced without remorse in the lives of consumers by their multifunction equivalents, in this case by media tablets.”[xxv] Digital reading in the US and UK is increasingly being done on mobile multipurpose devices such as tablets and smartphones, instead of on dedicated e-readers. In August 2015, the Wall Street Journal, citing Nielsen data, reported that “the percentage of e-book buyers who read primarily on tablets was 41% in the first quarter of 2015, compared with 30% in 2012.” Additional Nielsen research revealed that in 2014 54% of e-book buyers used a smartphone for at least some of their reading, compared to 24% in 2012.[xxvi] Nielsen found further evidence for this trend in its 2015 publishing year-end review, which reported that “e-book consumption via smartphone grew from 7.6% in 2014 to 14.3% in 2015.”[xxvii] The 2016 Pew reader survey found that 15% of respondents had read an e-book using a tablet in the last year, compared to only 4% in 2011. The percentage that had used a smartphone to read an e-book went from 5% in 2011 to 13% in 2016. By contrast, the percentage who read a book on a dedicated e-reader remained stagnant, going from 7% to 8% during the same period[xxviii] As Pew’s Lee Rainie told Publishers Weekly in October 2016, “There is a big uptick in people using tablets and phones, and not so much dedicated e-book readers.”[xxix]
Once again, the same trend can be found in Britain. Nielsen Research UK’s 2016 survey found, in The Guardian’s words, that “mobile phones and tablets overtook e-readers as the most common device used to read ebooks, with readers favouring multifunctional devices over dedicated e-reader brands such as Kindle and Nook.”[xxx]
Especially noteworthy is the increased use of smartphones for reading e-books. At first glance, smartphones seem like less than ideal reading devices, due to their small size. However, smartphone screen sizes have grown larger in the last several years, going from an average of 3.9 inches in 2011 to 5.1 inches in 2014.[xxxi] In addition, the convenience and portability of smartphones allow users to read e-books almost anywhere, without having to carry around a relatively bulky tablet or e-reader. Finally, the now ubiquitous availability of smartphones means that there are more potential readers carrying these devices. The more that users read on smartphones, the less need they feel to even purchase dedicated e-readers. In short, as the Wall Street Journal predicted in 2015, “it’s not the e-reader that will be driving future book sales, but the phone.”[xxxii]
The rise of mobile devices as the primary tools for digital reading does cause some concern. Digital skeptics worry about the impact that reading on smartphones, which are designed to gain our attention by distracting us with short bits of information, will have on our ability to engage in deep, linear, immersive reading. The New York Times’ March 2012 warning about reading off tablets seems just as valid for smartphones: “while a book in print or on a black-and-white Kindle is straightforward and immersive, a tablet offers a menu of distractions that can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks.”[xxxiii] Further cause for concern has been offered by NYU marketing professor Adam Alter, author of the recent book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. In a March interview with NPR, Alter cited research suggesting that the average human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to about 8 seconds in just the last decade, a phenomenon that coincides precisely with the rise of the smartphone and tablet.[xxxiv]
Regardless of the long-term implications of the rise of mobile reading, there seems to be an interesting, almost symbiotic relationship between it and the resurgence of print reading. With the emergence of the dedicated e-reader, it was widely believed that it was just a matter of time before e-books relegated print to the recycle bin of history. While e-readers are not going to disappear, their relegation to niche status has coincided with an intensified divergence between how people are reading in print and in digital formats. The parallel rise of both mobile reading and renewed interest in print seems to validate the arguments of digital skeptics, who argue that print books and e-books reinforce different types of reading and even thinking, and are best thought of as complementary, not interchangeable.
Some industry analysts have already begun to notice such a connection. At an April 2017 conference, David Walter of NPD BookScan cited two main reasons for the recent resurgence of large publisher print sales at the expense of e-books. As summarized by Publishers Weekly, these factors were: “a general rise in e-book prices…. and a general shift away from the use of dedicated e-readers to smartphones for e-book reading. Walter pointed out that publishers did not lose a significant amount of total sales; consumers migrated back to print rather than buying fewer books overall.”[xxxv] In other words, some readers, at least, preferred a print copy of a book to an e-version they would have to read off a smartphone.
While many readers are content to read off smartphones, others would much rather read in print. In the words of one British analyst, “for many consumers the screens on smartphones and tablets are not as conducive to reading, not as comfortable.”[xxxvi] . Readers are increasingly choosing either to read off a mobile device, or to read off the printed page. The length of a text, its reading level, whether one needs to read it at length or just glean key pieces of information, differences between monographs versus genre fiction, differences in reading patterns between academic disciplines, and simple individual preference, all suggest that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the future of the book, nor should there be. As one publishing executive told the Wall Street Journal, while “The future of digital reading is on the phone,” the future of reading as a whole is “going to be on the phone and it’s going to be on paper.”[xxxvii] Publishers, librarians, and others should be prepared to support both formats going forward.
[i] Alexandra Alter, “The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead,” New York Times, (September 22, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/23/business/media/the-plot-twist-e-book-sales-slip-and-print-is-far-from-dead.html (accessed August 7, 2017).
[iii] “Childrens and Young Adult Hardback Books up 95.2% in July 2016 vs. July 2015,” Association of American Publishers, (December 20, 2016), http://newsroom.publishers.org/childrens-and-young-adult-hardback-books-up-952-in-july-2016-vs-july-2015/ (accessed August 7, 2017).
[iv] “AAP StatShot: Book Publisher Trade Sales Flat for 2016,” Association of American Publishers, (June 15, 2017), http://newsroom.publishers.org/aap-statshot-book-publisher-trade-sales-flat-for-2016/ (accessed August 7, 2017).
[v] Alison Flood, “Ebook Sales Falling for the First Time, Finds New Report,” The Guardian, (February 3, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/03/ebook-sales-falling-for-the-first-time-finds-new-report (accessed August 7, 2017).
[vi] Mark Sweney, “’Screen fatigue’ sees UK ebook sales plunge 17% as readers return to print,” The Guardian, (April 27, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/27/screen-fatigue-sees-uk-ebook-sales-plunge-17-as-readers-return-to-print (accessed August 7, 2017).
[vii] Mathew Ingram, “No, e-book sales are not falling, despite what publishers say,” Fortune.com (September 24, 2015), http://fortune.com/2015/09/24/ebook-sales/ (accessed August 6, 2017).
[viii] Andrew Richard Albanese, “Print or Digital, It’s Reading That Matters,” Publishers Weekly.com, (September 16, 2016), http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/71500-print-digital-and-what-really-matters.html (accessed August 6, 2017).
[ix] See Data Guy, “AuthorEarnings Methodology,” Author Earnings.com (June 2, 2016), http://authorearnings.com/methodology/ (accessed August 6, 2017).
[x] See Data Guy, “Print vs Digital, Traditional vs Non-Traditional, Bookstore vs Online: 2016 Trade Publishing by the numbers,” Author Earnings.com (2017), http://authorearnings.com/report/dbw2017/ (accessed August 6, 2017).
[xi] Quoted in Rachel Nuwer, “Are Paper Books Really Disappearing?” BBC.com (January 25, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160124-are-paper-books-really-disappearing (accessed August 7, 2017).
[xii] Data Guy, “Author Earnings Methodology.”
[xiii] Statista.com, “Book consumption per capita in the U.S 2015, by format,” https://www.statista.com/statistics/222754/book-format-used-by-readers-in-the-us/ (accessed August 6, 2017).
[xiv] Andrew Perrin, “Book Reading 2016,” Pew Research Center (September 1, 2016), http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/01/book-reading-2016/ (accessed August 7, 2017).
[xv] Quoted in Andrew Albanese, “Frankfurt Book Fair 2016: PW Talks to Pew Research Center’s Lee Rainie about Reading in the Digital Age,” Publishers Weekly.com (October 21, 2016), http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/international/Frankfurt-Book-Fair/article/71787-frankfurt-book-fair-2016-pw-talks-to-pew-research-center-s-lee-rainie-about-reading-in-the-ditgital-age.html (accessed August 6, 2017).
[xvi] Daniel Berkowitz, “DBW Interview with Data Guy, Co-Founder, Author Earnings,” (February 23, 2016), http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2016/dbw-interview-with-data-guy-co-founder-author-earnings/ (accessed August 6, 2017).
[xvii] Perrin, “Book Reading 2016.”
[xviii] Quoted in Albanese, “Frankfurt Book Fair 2016.”
[xix] Jim Milliot, “As E-book Sales Decline, Digital Fatigue Grows,” Publishers Weekly.com (June 17, 2016), http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/70696-as-e-book-sales-decline-digital-fatigue-grows.html (accessed August 7, 2017).
[xx] Sian Cain, “Ebook sales continue to fall as younger generations drive appetite for print,” The Guardian, (March 14, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/14/ebook-sales-continue-to-fall-nielsen-survey-uk-book-sales (accessed August 7, 2017).
[xxi] Alter, “The Plot Twist.”
[xxii] Monica Anderson, “Technology Device Ownership: 2015,” Pew Research Center (October 29, 2015), http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/29/technology-device-ownership-2015/ (accessed August 7, 2017).
[xxiii] Perrin, “Book Reading 2016.”
[xxiv] Zoe Wood, “Paperback fighter: sales of physical books now outperform digital titles,” The Guardian, (March 17, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/17/paperback-books-sales-outperform-digital-titles-amazon-ebooks (accessed August 7, 2017).
[xxv] Jordan Selburn, “Ebook Readers: Device to Go the Way of Dinosaurs? Shipments are on a fast decline, overwhelmed by tablets,” IHS iSuppli, news release, (December 10, 2012), https://technology.ihs.com/417568/ebook-readers-device-to-go-the-way-of-dinosaurs (accessed August 7, 2017). Cited by Nicholas Carr, “E-reading after the e-reader,” Rough Type (December 30, 2012), http://www.roughtype.com/?p=2245 (accessed August 7, 2017).
[xxvi] Jennifer Maloney, “The Rise of Phone Reading,” Wall Street Journal, (August 14, 2015), https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-rise-of-phone-reading-1439398395 (accessed August 7, 2017).
[xxvii] “2015 U.S. Book Industry Year-End Review,” Nielsen.com (May 31, 2016), http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2016/2015-us-book-industry-year-end-review.html (accessed August 6, 2017).
[xxviii] Perrin, “Book Reading 2016.”
[xxix] Quoted in Albanese, “Frankfurt Book Fair 2016.”
[xxx] Cain, “E-book sales continue to fall.”
[xxxi] Maloney, “The Rise of Phone Reading.”
[xxxiii] Julie Bosman and Matt Richtel, “Finding Your Book Interrupted … By the Tablet You Read It On,” New York Times (March 4, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/05/business/media/e-books-on-tablets-fight-digital-distractions.html (accessed August 7, 2017).
[xxxiv] “’Irresistible’ By Design: It’s No Accident You Can’t Stop Looking at the Screen,” NPR (March 13, 2017), http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2017/03/13/519977607/irresistible-by-design-its-no-accident-you-cant-stop-looking-at-the-screen (accessed August 7, 2017).
[xxxv] Jim Milliot, with reporting by Ed Nawotka, “With E-books Down, E-tailers Are Still Far From Out,” Publishers Weekly.com (April 28, 2017), https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/73477-with-e-books-down-e-tailers-are-still-far-from-out.html (accessed August 6, 2017).
[xxxvi] Quoted in Sweney, “’Screen fatigue.’”
[xxxvii] Quoted in Maloney, “The Rise of Phone Reading.”