Books in a digital world

Kindle against a mountain backdrop

These days, it seems as though virtually everything is rapidly going digital. But, as it turns out, not so much when it comes to books.

That is not to say that ebooks and downloaded audiobooks have not enjoyed significant success in recent years.  But, despite all this, the fact remains that paper formats remain highly popular.

Paper remains king

Figures from the Association of American Publishers show that ebooks and download digital audio combined to account of just 16.5% of book revenues (for consumer publications) in September 2021.  The market, in cash dollar terms, is still dominated by paper.

Some have pointed out that such figures probably exaggerate the position of physical books.  AAP figures come from major publishing houses that tend to be more paper reliant.  The self-published/indie market generates a higher proportion of digital sales that is not represented in their figures. 

Also, digital format books are usually sold for a significantly lower revenue per unit than paper.  So, volume share and revenue share will be very different animals.

However, even if we take account of these factors, print still accounts for the largest share of the market.  Estimates from the bookseller place ebooks as accounting for something closer to 19% of the market value and 36% of the volume in 2019.  You would need to add to that the share taken by the growing audible market.  Nevertheless, it’s still clear that paper remains very popular.

Why do paper books remain so popular?

Given so many other sectors have ‘gone digital’ so quickly, the ongoing resilience of the paper book market requires some explanation.

An obvious question to ask is whether this is a generational thing?  In many aspects of modern life, the older age groups have proven more reluctant to move to digital.  The same factor is likely at work here – but that does not fully explain why the non-digital option remains so popular in this market compared to others.

Others might point to the fact that there are people who struggle to read books in digital form.  Some people don’t like screen reading and some even some find that screen reading gives them headaches.  No doubt this is an issue for some but surely not that many.  Also, screen issues would not serve as a barrier for download audio.

Another factor is the fact that you rent digital books – you don’t own them.  Some people may object to this on principle and stick with paper as a result.  But how many people are even aware that they don’t own the books stored on their ebook reader? 

Of course, practically speaking, a paper book requires no battery and as you can only read one book at a time, it is almost as easy to carry around as a digital version.  So, in that sense, the e-version offers only a minimal advantage.

Emotional appeal

People do take practical considerations into account when making buying decisions, but much of our consumer behaviour is driven by emotional need rather than simple logic.  So, perhaps paper books continue to have appeal because they are, in and of themselves, appealing as a physical product.  Fans of the format like it because it has a tangibility and an aesthetic appeal in and of itself. 

The pleasure of storing a book on a shelf or of building a physical library may provide an emotional motive for preferring paper to digital for some.  The satisfaction of signposting your literary tastes to others on a train or in a coffee shop, by displaying the cover of your chosen read may also be a factor.  Even the sensory feel of a physical book may provide a subconscious motive for sticking with paper.

Preference is not an either/or choice

We asked 119 fiction readers about their preferred formats for fiction this autumn.  The results revealed that, for many people at least, it is not always an either-or choice when it comes to buying ebooks vs print.

68% say they enjoy reading fiction in ebook form but 71% also expressed an affinity for paper.  There is considerable overlap here.  Indeed, 42% of readers say they enjoy reading both ebooks and paper books.  29% express a preference for paper but not for ebooks and 26% prefer ebooks to paper.

Clearly then, 42% of the market would happily consider buying a book in either format depending on the book and the situation.

Younger readers are more open to new formats

It is true that younger readers are more willing to try newer formats.  80% of the under 45s enjoy ebooks, compared to 62% of the over 45s.  Younger readers are also more likely to be willing to try audio books (30% of the under 45s like this format, compared to 19% of the over 45s).

Paper remains a highly popular format regardless of age.  Younger readers remain significant fans of paper books and show no signs of abandoning the format any time soon.  Indeed, they are no less likely to express a fondness for paper than older readers.

Higher volume readers rely more on ebooks

If we take a look at people who say they ‘love’ reading ebooks and compare them with other people who are less keen we see some behavioural differences worth considering.

eBook lovers do tend to read more (although it is important to note that some of this will be consumed in paper form as well as digital).  71% said they read ‘very often’ as compared to just 44% of other readers. 

Naturally, if you are consuming a higher volume of books then opting for an ebook format makes more sense.  For one thing, ebooks are less expensive, so acquiring them in volume would work out at a significant saving vs paper. 

Also, if you are reading more then you are likely to be getting through more books in a shorter time frame.  Hence, whilst you are travelling, ebook readers make it easier to carry more books with you.  If you are reading less, then it’s unlikely you need to carry more than one book with you.  In fact, an infrequent reader might not see the need to carry books around at all, opting to read only when at home in bed.

The desired reading experience

However, we did find evidence to show that format preference may well be influenced by emotional/aesthetic appeal of the format rather than practicalities or demographics.  The kind of reading experience a reader is looking for influences whether they might choose to read a book in a paper or ebook form.

ebook lovers were more likely to say that they enjoyed reading books with comforting themes (32% expressed a preference for this experience, compared to only 16% of other readers).

On the other hand, ebook lovers were much less likely (7% vs 27%) to express a strong attraction to books that covered unsettling themes that really made them think. 

Could it therefore be that the electronic form exerts a greater appeal for situations where readers are looking for a relaxing and comforting reading experience?  By contrast, could the desire for paper have greater appeal in situations where a more thoughtful and challenging reading experience is desired?

There may, of course, be other emotional drivers that may cause a reader to pick paper over digital (or vice versa) that we have not yet had the opportunity to fully explore.  But it is nevertheless clear that consumer choice is dictated by factors other than practicality and function.

Digital won’t replace paper any time soon

Paper format books remain highly popular.  Significant numbers of younger readers (the majority in fact) continue to enjoy reading paper books.  So, we can safely say that we won’t be seeing any rapid migration to digital led by younger readers any time soon.

Paper continues to have enduring appeal – an appeal that may well transcend any practical advantages of the digital format and which is actually more deep rooted in the emotional experience of engaging with a paper book.

For these reasons any migration to purely digital consumption is likely to be slow.  Maybe, in time, it will accelerate.  Perhaps concerns of the environmental impact of consuming paper books might eventually tip the balance in favour of digital. But that’s something for the longer-term future.  For the immediate future, paper looks set to remain a key format.

About Us

Synchronix is a full-service market research agency.  We believe in using market research to help our clients understand how best to prepare for the future. 

You can read more about us on our website.  

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Association of American Publishers


The Bookseller

Synchronix Market Research

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