Books are Back

After being written off as just another victim of the digital media revolution, it is both surprising and heartening to see physical books sales thriving again.

By Zeid Nasser

After all these years of digital proliferation, which saw a big slump in newspaper and magazine sales, it’s surprising to see physical books thriving.

A recent study published by the Codex Group showed a drop of 35.9 percent in e-book units sold by trade publishers between 2015 and 2016. Supporting this trend are figures announced by the Association of American Publishers, which found that sales of e-books fell 14 percent in 2015 and experienced a 23 percent drop in overall trade book revenue. Also in the UK, the five biggest general trade publishers reported that their e-book sales collectively fell in 2015 and then again in 2016.

So, how can this phenomenon be explained? There are various factors ranging from ‘digital fatigue’ felt by users to the inability of e-books to replicate the experience of physical books.

Apparently, the Codex Group study shows that 37 percent of book buyers between the ages of 18 and 24 want to spend less time on digital devices. It’s a backlash by the very generation that was thought to spell the doom of print. Even older millennials, aged 25 to 34, feel the same way, with 32 percent of them seeking less digital device exposure.

This suggests a clear trend for a more physical customer experience, in this stage of our digital era. It explains why Amazon is opening bricks and mortar bookstores across the United States. It’s surreal to watch this return to the old bookstore, by the company whose online model caused many stores to close.

Another reason emerging in studies is the availability of the option to buy the same book in print. Again, the Codex Group study shows that 59 percent of e-book buyers are now saying they are reading fewer e-books in general, due to a growing preference to switch to print books if available. It seems print books have hung on long enough to see the turn in the tide.

A less cited but also reported reason by book buyers is the limitations of e-reading devices. For some, the book reading experience is simply not satisfactory enough on devices compared to a dependable paper book. Whereas music and TV content lives up to consumer expectations when delivered through digital devices, books still don’t.

The most dominant e-readers, the Kindle by Amazon and the Nook by Barnes & Noble, have specifications dedicated to replicating the visual comfort of physical books which means they will continue to change the perception that devices cannot replace print books. But the problem is that they only represent 28 percent of digital reading devices in use; whereas the majority of the remaining book buying households use tablets and smartphones, both of which have screens that are too bright, reflective and uneasy on the eye. It’s all about the lack of visual comfort prompting some analysts to go as far as saying that tablets are killing the future of e-books. Smartphone screens also have the added disadvantage of being too small compared to even the smallest books.

It also makes sense not to expect every consumer to invest in a dedicated e-reader in addition to also buying the more necessary devices like a smartphone and a tablet. So it seems that e-books can’t beat print books until smartphones and tablets get an e-reader screen mode. Perhaps this will be an upcoming feature from Apple or Samsung.