Shift from e-books to print

Sales of digital books have dipped as avid readers return to physical copies of books

A young man reading at a book store in Taipei. According to surveys, young readers who are digital natives still prefer reading on paper.
A young man reading at a book store in Taipei. According to surveys, young readers who are digital natives still prefer reading on paper. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

NEW YORK • Five years ago, the book world was seized by collective panic over the uncertain future of print.

As readers migrated to new digital devices, e-book sales soared, increasing 1,259 per cent between 2008 and 2010, alarming booksellers that watched consumers use their stores to find titles they would later buy online.

Print sales dwindled, bookstores struggled to stay open and publishers and authors feared that cheaper e-books would cannibalise their business.

Then, in 2011, the industry's fears were realised when Borders declared bankruptcy.

"E-books were this rocket ship going straight up," said Mr Len Vlahos, a former executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, a non-profit research group that tracks the publishing industry. "Just about everybody you talked to thought we were going the way of digital music."

But the digital apocalypse never arrived or at least not on schedule. While analysts once predicted that e-books would overtake print by this year, digital sales have instead slowed sharply.

Now, there are signs that some e-book adopters are returning to print or becoming hybrid readers who toggle between devices and paper.

E-book sales fell by 10 per cent in the first five months of this year compared with the same period last year, according to the Association of American Publishers, which collects data from nearly 1,200 publishers. The latest figures showed US e-book sales - excluding educational titles - of US$610 million (S$869 million). The group said it was the largest drop since the beginning of the e-book market.

Digital books accounted last year for about 20 per cent of the market, roughly the same as a few years ago.

E-books' declining popularity may signal that publishing, while not immune to technological upheaval, will weather the tidal wave of digital technology better than other forms of media such as music and television.

E-book subscription services, modelled on companies such as Netflix, have struggled to convert book lovers into digital binge readers and some have shut down. Sales of dedicated e-reading devices have plunged as consumers migrated to tablets and smartphones. And, according to some surveys, young readers who are digital natives still prefer reading on paper.

The surprising resilience of print has provided a lift to many book- sellers. Independent bookstores, which were battered by the recession and competition from Amazon, are showing strong signs of resurgence. The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 members with stores in 2,227 locations this year, up from 1,410 members with 1,660 locations five years ago.

Publishers, seeking to capitalise on the shift, are pouring money into their print infrastructures and distribution.

Hachette added 66,400m to its Indiana warehouse late last year, and Simon & Schuster is expanding its New Jersey distribution facility by 18,500 sq m.

Penguin Random House has invested nearly US$100 million in expanding and updating its warehouses and speeding up distribution of its books. It added 365,000 sq ft last year to its warehouse in Crawfordsville, Indiana, more than doubling the size of the warehouse.

"People talked about the demise of physical books as if it was only a matter of time, but even 50 to 100 years from now, print will be a big chunk of our business," said Mr Markus Dohle, chief executive of Penguin Random House, which has nearly 250 imprints globally.

Print books account for more than 70 per cent of the company's sales in the United States.

Higher e-book prices may also be driving readers back to paper.

As publishers renegotiated new terms with Amazon in the past year and demanded the ability to set their own e-book prices, many have started charging more. With little difference in price between a US$12.99 e-book and a paperback, some consumers may be opting for the print version.

On Amazon, the paperback editions of some popular titles, such as The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, are several dollars cheaper than their digital counterparts. Paperback sales rose by 8.4 per cent in the first five months of this year, the Association of American Publishers reported.

Some publishing executives say the world is changing too quickly to declare that the digital tide is waning.

"Maybe it's just a pause here," said Ms Carolyn Reidy, president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster. "Will the next generation want to read books on their smartphones and will we see another burst come?"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 27, 2015, with the headline 'Shift from e-books to print'. Subscribe