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Don’t count out printed books just yet

When ebooks first rose to popularity after the 2007 release of the Amazon Kindle, many wondered if they’d kill the print publishing industry. Fast forward to 2024 and ebook sales in the U.S. account for 12% of consumer book sales, while hardback and paperback books combined represent 69.3% of total sales in the latest monthly report by the Association of American Publishers. So why haven’t ebooks rapidly taken over the industry? One reason is the rising nostalgia for traditional media formats, such as vinyl records. Here are a few other reasons print books are still dominating the market.

#BookTok

Social media has impacted many industries and publishing is no exception. The sub-community #BookTok on TikTok, where users share book recommendations and connect with other readers around the world, has had a particularly notable impact on physical book sales since it began in 2020. In a recent survey by the Publishers Association, 59% of participants noted that #BookTok and book influencers “helped them discover a passion for reading” and more than half looked to #BookTok for book recommendations.

In addition to giving book recommendations, #BookTok encourages readers to go out and support their local bookstores by purchasing physical copies, which some refer to as “trophies.” Many bookstores have embraced this trend by creating product displays in-store to highlight the titles seen on #BookTok.

Holding something of value

Ebooks were once considered a cost-effective alternative for consumers, but that is no longer the case. Most people assume that ebooks are going to be cheaper because they don’t require paper, binding, or shipping, but there are production costs associated with ebooks, including the same designing, editing, and formatting that print books go through. Although ebooks are generally cheaper than newly released hardcover books, they are commonly more than or similarly priced to paperback versions.

Ebooks also lack a resale market, so readers can’t turn around and sell books they didn’t like or no longer want to hold on to. The cost difference can also be very different for readers who prefer to purchase used books, which can be anywhere from 20% to 50% cheaper than their original listing price.

Although ebooks still have a potential margin of savings for readers on new releases, the fact that the ebook market has become flooded by self-published works and AI-generated material can dissuade readers from choosing an ebook when looking for their next book. And since digital media is not a tangible item, many prefer to simply have a physical copy they can turn the pages of  – without seeing ads or notifications – and share with their friends.

Making room for ebooks in libraries

Although data has shown alternative publishing formats like ebooks and audiobooks are still no match for physical copies overall, these formats have been able to shine in other ways. Digital collections have given libraries a new way to provide the people in their communities with more varied titles. Digital collections are great for individuals who may not be able to physically visit a library but still want to utilize the free resources it offers, or for individuals with accessibility needs, such as those with visual impairments.

While there is a lot of interest and room for growth for digital collections, it is still often easier for libraries to obtain physical copies of popular works, commonly through donations that don’t cost them a dime. Additionally, libraries often have to pay more for the rights to digital versions of titles than printed copies. Some groups have spoken out about how unsustainable the cost of ebooks has become, making it harder for people to read, and harder for libraries to stock new books. This has sparked new discussions on how the rights to digital content are handled in the publishing industry – especially for libraries.

Author

  • Aryn Kodet

    Aryn Kodet is responsible for managing The Reynolds Center’s social-media strategy and outreach to the broader community of business journalism professionals. Born and raised in Arizona, Aryn Kodet is a graduate of Arizona State University and Barret...

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