Publishing: Here's Why Print is Winning the Battle Against E-Books

It’s been a decade since the Amazon Kindle was released. The company’s first ever "e-reader" was light, portable, easy on the eyes, and able to hold up to 200 titles at one time. In short, the e-book seemed to spell doom for both the print book and the publishing industry.

Flash forward to March 2017, and the future doesn’t look quite how everyone imagined. While nearly every person in the street is equipped with a smartphone, it looks like fewer and fewer people are turning to e-books for their literary fix.

Bookshops Back in Black

As reported by The Guardian, sales of e-books in the UK declined by 4% in 2016. By contrast, sales in bookshops rose by 7%. To get specific, 2015 saw sales of £563 million for e-books, and £2.74 billion for print books; the following year, there were sales of £554 million for e-books, and £2.76 billion for print books.

Not only are e-books sales already swamped by print sales, but the division between the two appears to be steadily growing. The knock-on effect this has had on the publishing and bookselling industry is already apparent; in 2016, UK chain Waterstones returned to profit after six years of losses.

The trend has been attributed in part to the behaviour of children and young adult readers. As referenced in that same Guardian article, a 2013 survey indicated that younger readers simply hold a preference for print books over e-books. It’s also been suggested that teens, a generation that has grown up surrounded by technology, are now actively seeking respite from screens. Other factors which seem to have influenced this shift include popular new trends like the adult colouring book – which, by its very nature, requires a print format – and clean eating cookery guides.

Catching the Eye

But something else seems to be going on too. Take a look at recent bestsellers like Sarah Perry’s "The Essex Serpent" or Eimear McBride’s "The Lesser Bohemians" and you’ll notice that the hardback cover designs are particularly entrancing.

In an effort to combat the convenience and affordability of e-books, publishers have upped their game by creating print books that boast more and more aesthetic appeal – and, with hardback sales up by 5.4% this year, it seems to be working. Richly illustrated children’s books like Coralie Bickford-Smith are also contributing to this trend. Simply put, consumers increasingly want to spend their money on books that will look beautiful on their shelves or coffee tables.

Going forward, publishers will need to continue negotiating the book buying market, trying to anticipate – and perhaps in some cases, instigate – consumer behaviours. But with smartphone detoxes and tech-free retreats becomingly increasingly popular amongst people of all ages, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a further downturn in e-book sales over the next few years.

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