When one searches the word “e-books” on Publishers Weekly, the results are not very encouraging. Even though we live in the so-called Digital Age, e-books are not exactly taking off. In fact, people are so overwhelmed by the multiple technological devices in their lives, they are eager to read an old-fashioned physical book rather than another screen.
When e-books and e-readers first came out–the Kindle was released in 2007 and the Nook in 2009–they were an exciting, new way to read. Technology was overtaking music and video, so books seemed like the natural next step in the progression. However, there is a big difference in books, music, and video. As the digital music and video industries thrive, a 2016 Nielson study reports e-book sales dropped 16% in 2016 from 2015.
After performing a 2016 study on e-books, Codex Group president Peter Hildick-Smith believes digital sales of books differ from music and video because of two factors. The first factor is that “electronic devices are optional for reading books,” meaning they are not the only form available. Regular books are still around, and their reading quality is much higher than e-books, which “have yet to [deliver] the quality long-form reading experience to supplant print.” Secondly, “digital fatigue” is spreading like an epidemic.
These days, people are attempting to cut as much screen time as possible. According to the Codex Group survey, book buyers spent five hours daily on screens. Approximately 25% of book buyers want to spend less time on digital devices, so these people turn to physical formats.
The Nielson study offers two more reasons why e-books sales are diminishing. The study found that many e-books are overpriced at about $8 per book. It is definitely hard to justify a nearly $10 purchase on a book that will never physically be held. The study also points out that people now use tablets and smart phones much more often than dedicated e-readers. Usage of multi-functioning devices affects reading because there is so much more to do on an iPad or iPhone than read; the devices feature games, videos, music, and general Internet access. Smart phones and tablets have more to offer consumers than plain old e-readers, but their many features distract from actual reading on the devices.
By April 2013, tablets overtook e-readers as the most popular devices to use for reading. The survey by BISG’s Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading found that 44% of e-book readers prefer reading on a tablet, while 42% prefer a dedicated e-reader. This is bad news for e-books, as the Codex survey notes that “[c]onsumers who use dedicated e-book readers have consistently been found to purchase more e-books than consumers who use other devices to read.” More tablets correlate to more gaming, social media, and video-watching–and less e-book purchasing. However, the decline in e-books does not mean people have stopped reading.
The Codex survey found that 59% of readers distancing themselves from e-books are doing so to return to print copies. People are still reading. In fact, millennials appear to be reading the most, with 18-24 year olds purchasing 83% of print books (Codex). These young people, whose lives revolve around technology, want to take a break from screens to enjoy the format that taught them to read. However, children provide a beacon of hope for the e-book industry.
While e-books are so unsuccessful that expensive hardbacks overtook their sales in 2016 (Nielsen), they still stand a chance. E-books’ problem could be that their audience is not yet old enough to realize their need for e-books. Children born beginning in the late 2000s have grown up swiping through their parents’ iPhones. Technology is second-nature to these children. Therefore, e-books have the potential to thrive when this audience grows old enough to purchase e-books and e-readers.
Some children are already obsessed with e-books. The children’s e-book subscription service, Epic, provides easy access to 14,000 titles through the web, iOS, Android devices, and Apple TV for only $4.99 per month. Since its January 2014 debut, over 40 million books have been read on the site–it is implied that the majority of these readers are children. If this generation has already read 40 million e-books in roughly three years, they will read more. E-books have a lot to offer children, more so than adults and young adults who grew up reading physical books.
Epic is used in more than 70% of U.S. elementary schools, so children are being exposed to e-books early on in life. After being surrounded by technology since birth, these children accept e-books as a natural way to read. Aside from being comfortable with screens, e-books also provide personal benefits to children. For example, in a classroom setting, children can easily feel embarrassed or judged by their choice of book; with e-books (and the safety of Epic), nobody else has to know what a child is reading. They are free to choose what they want to read, and they can read it from the privacy of their devices.
The future might not look bright for e-books, but their time to shine could be near. The next few years will be crucial in determining whether or not the format will prevail. For millenials and up, print books will never die. However, children who utilize services like Epic are already reaping the benefits of e-books. For them, there might be no turning back. For better or for worse, e-books have the potential to replace print copies; only time will tell.