Are People Sick of eBooks?

Are People Sick of eBooks?

Publisher’s Weekly reported a while ago that “digital fatigue” was growing among readers.

A pile of print books with an eReader on top.

Are eBooks no longer king of the castle?

Since 2014, many outlets have reported a seemingly growing digital “malaise” among readers. eBook sales seemed to peak and then slow off, followed by rebounds in the print market.

Publishers, generally, have been satisfied by proclaiming that print sales are rebounding, thus setting off declines in the digital market. This “big picture” stance ignores more worrying trends.

Examples include the recent report that publishers’ eBook sales fell 10 percent in 2017. eBook sales didn’t fall, however, which means that market share has been lost to indie authors and presses.

Another worrying trend is that the “rebound” in print comes almost entirely from two sources: children’s books and the rise of adult coloring books. Coloring books are generally more difficult to make into a digital product (although many have). And while it’s encouraging people are buying more print books for their children, this could reflect parental anxiety about overuse of electronic devices among kids rather than a true increase in the number of books kids are reading.

Why Are People Abandoning Digital?

While it’s inevitable that a growth market will eventually slow down—which precipitates dropping off—the trend has caused some concern among publishers. Why are people abandoning eBooks? They were hailed as the biggest revolution in books since, well, the book, and many thought the eBook would eventually replace print books altogether.

One of the largest difficulties has been the ability to replicate the print book experience. Most readers agree there is something about a print book that makes it “special.” Whether it’s the smell or the physical weight of it, or even the feel of the pages as you turn them, a print book has a particular appeal.

eBooks certainly have advantages. For one, they’re infinitely more portable. Load up several hundred eBooks on your device and carry them everywhere, without the physical labor of lugging a hundred books with you. eBooks are also often more affordable, and publishers can realize better profit margins on them. They also enable an entirely digital workflow, reducing the need for paper. They reduce the costs of warehousing and shipping. They’ve lowered the barriers to market, leading to a dizzying array of titles. And eBooks can be enhanced: they can have video and music added to them. Hyperlinks can show you sources. Interactivity is on the horizon.

For those with disabilities, eBooks have been a huge boon.

Publishers Won’t Invest

Perhaps the biggest problem in eBooks has been the fact publishers won’t invest in them.

Readers have never been fully enamored with the format. Looking at some publishers’ early attempts to digitize leaves little wonder as to why: eBooks were sloppy, poorly formatted, offered little in the way of additional digital content, and were often just as pricey as their print counterparts. While print sales dropped off as eBook technology improved, many still complained that eBooks have limited display capabilities. There’s still those who argue eBooks don’t take full advantage of the electronic format.

When eBooks are just as pricey as the print version, readers will opt for the tangible object. Publishers have been hesitant to treat eBooks as anything more than an afterthought. The last publisher I worked for in-house believed eBooks should be verbatim to the print book, and that print books didn’t need anything “fancy.”

Keep in mind, we published textbooks. The publisher still believed that textbooks didn’t need learning supports, even in text format. Reading a dissertation was a solid learning strategy, in their eyes.

Little wonder their eBooks did the absolute bare minimum then.

Technological Limitations

The issue of devices is another key dissatisfaction among readers. Not all eBook readers support, say, color; in fact, relatively few have color displays. Some may not even have graphic capabilities. And forget compatibility; very, very few formats work across all devices. Kindle, Amazon’s reading device, uses a .mobi format while others make use of the more generic .epub format.

The Amazon logo.

Amazon just can’t play nice with anyone, really.

Nonetheless, devices all display differently, so your book may look great on one device but not another. Authors and publishers aren’t really known for taking that into consideration—and then there’s the fact that plenty of readers will set their devices up to override publisher-mandated styling, according to their preferences. Of course, that has the potential to cause the eBook to stop functioning—or at least not look very nice.

Is Print Just Better for Reading?

Then there’s the argument that people just prefer print. Bibliophiles will tell you there’s nothing quite like having a physical book in your hand, the scent of paper and ink—or perhaps a musty library.

While some people would disagree with that, there is an argument for the print-is-superior crowd. Studies have shown that our concentration is improved by reading on paper, which means reading is easier, more engrossing, and faster. We retain more when we read on paper—which may help explain why students in particular prefer hard copies of their textbooks to digital. The fact that print sales rose in 2015 and that Amazon was foraying into bricks-and-mortar bookstores further strengthen the idea that the digital craze might be waning.

People Are Likely Buying Fewer Books

That, of course, requires us to dig a little deeper. While some people prefer print, there’s solid evidence that people aren’t giving up eBooks. First and foremost, when eBook sales dropped off in 2015, the corresponding rise in print sales occurred largely on the back of the adult coloring book phenomenon. Coloring books just don’t translate to a digital format very well. The second point to be considered here is that overall people were buying fewer books (excepting adult coloring books).

Books are generally considered forms of entertainment that are luxuries rather than necessities. When hard times hit, people buy fewer of these things. A drop in eBook sales could point us not to growing digital fatigue, but a sluggish market in general.

Next, we might consider another reason people are buying fewer books: People are reading less. When book sales go down, it means people are reading less—a cultural trend that has been observable for a while now.

Books have been negatively impacted by the introduction of movies and television as forms of mass entertainment, and with the internet and the rise of the web. People now do much of their reading in quick bites, absorbing freely available content through social media or on sites like Wattpad. We’ve also noted a rise in binge-watching television series, thanks to Netflix. Simply put, our culture is moving further and further away from books as other forms of media come to dominate our free time. A $10-per-month Netflix subscription is far more economical than buying movie tickets or spending $10 on a novel you may or may not enjoy.

Digital Isn’t Going Anywhere

Despite the fear-mongering, it’s unlikely books and eBooks in particular are going anywhere any time soon. What we can see is a more general trend where people are reading less. They’re also diversifying their reading. They’re reading less from traditional publishers and more from indies. They might also be buying more audio books! The audio book market has exploded in recent years. A drop in eBooks might be readers who prefer to listen migrating to this new format.

So are people sick of eBooks? Yes and no. Certainly, we’re refraining from buying them and we’re selecting different forms of entertainment—from coloring books to Netflix binges to audio books. And there are very valid arguments for preferring print and against eBooks. Overall, though, eBooks aren’t going anywhere. Those who love them, love them, and their detractors will always exist. But the eBook is here to stay.


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