Print Books Aren’t Dying, But They’re Definitely Changing

printbooksalesIt’s a new year. We’re humans, so we love the endless art of speculation.

If you’re a writer, an avid reader, or both, there’s probably one big question on your mind in particular: are print books going to stick around or are eBooks going to replace them?

What’s a bookshelf going to look like in the next few years?

Well, the data is in and the answers may surprise you:

eBooks aren’t going to replace print books

It’s official.

People read eBooks, but they don’t read a ton of eBooks.

The Pew Research Center recently released data that showed that 23% of Americans had read an eBook in the past year.

But, as The Wall Street Journal notes, people are still reading print books at a pretty healthy rate, too.

Let’s see what Americans had to say about their reading habits in the past year:

  • 89% of regular book readers said that they had read at least one print book (Pew)
  • 30% said they had read an eBook (Pew)
  • 16% of Americans have bought an eBook (Bower)
  • 59% of Americans don’t even want to buy an eBook (Bower)

In effect, we’re seeing eBooks and print books achieve a healthy balance as the novelty of reading a book on a screen wears off.

That’s even more apparent when you consider that the sales of eReaders like Kindles and Nooks dropped by a dramatic 36% in 2012.

What are eBooks? 

The Wall Street Journal goes on to speculate that eBooks have more or less embodied “disposable” fiction, a la Fifty Shades of Grey: 

“Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks.”

That trend is obvious if you skim the titles of Amazon’s best seller list for Kindle eBooks. Genre fiction, like thrillers and romance, make up the vast majority of these titles.

WSJ even goes so far as to say that the Fifty Shades phenomenon wouldn’t have been possible without the relative secrecy readers have when enjoying eBooks.

That’s true, too – for the past few years, eBooks have fueled a big spike in the sales of romance novels.

But wait…

Okay, so the future of books isn’t as clear-cut as we thought it would be… or is it?

In 2012, print book sales fell by 9%.

As a commenter in that article points out, of course, Hurricane Sandy could have dramatically impacted bookstores on the East Coast.

But 9% is 9%. And, from 2010 to 2012, print book sales have fallen by nearly 16%.

So, someone, somewhere isn’t reading.

Despite the rosy picture sold by The Wall Street Journal, book sales are suffering and it’s because of eBooks.

While eBooks won’t replace print, they will have an impact on the overall publication process

In fact, we already see this happening: it’s becoming much harder for mid-list authors to make a living from publishing books the old-fashioned way.

So, they go to eBooks. Meanwhile, blockbuster authors can still generally command good sales via print.

As eBooks and print books give and take from one another, I think there’s going to be one important takeaway:


Yes, I know you’re the exception to the rule.

I know that you’re going to finish your novel and publishers will be shoving agents and editors out of the way for the honor of giving you a six-figure contract.

I know that those thoughts are in no way symptoms of Snooty Artist Syndrome.

But take a breath and think about what this emerging picture of eBooks means: anyone can publish an eBook, but that doesn’t mean that it’s something you shouldn’t do.

As publishers continue to scale back on print books, I think print is going to become the ultimate hallmark of validation. If, by validation, we mean good sales and popular writing.

Publishers won’t take a risk on an unknown author who doesn’t already have an established following and an established platform, because sales are no longer guaranteed and marketing budgets are tight.

That means that, no matter who you are, you need to try to publish something digitally before you try to publish something in print. You need to build up that following until you can convince a publisher to take that risk or circumnavigate the publisher altogether.

In 2013, it’s going to be a battle to not be labeled “disposable fiction.”

How do you stand out tall in a flooded eBook market? How do you convince publishers to take that chance?

The breakdown 

1. eBooks are going to become more and more important in terms of building your author platform.

2. Author platform is going to mean a lot of different things in 2013 and beyond: social media presence, website, active blog, eBooks, followers, followers, followers.

3. Publishers will try to monetize both print & eBooks by creating different channels for both, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll do this successfully.

4. It’s up to you to give your work the promotion and admiration that it deserves.

5. Build your platform and keep building it. 

First Photo Credit: Incognito Nom De Plume

9 thoughts on “Print Books Aren’t Dying, But They’re Definitely Changing

  1. Great post 🙂 I dislike when people start doomsaying about the apocalypse of print books. They’re not going anywhere, but ebooks are definitely shifting the focus of book publishers. I read this somewhere (don’t remember where) that there were 45 self-published authors out there who were offered six-figure book deals (out of a couple of hundred authors who earned the same amount, I believe). Not too shabby 🙂

    1. Thanks! And yeah, I think it’s a little short-sighted to talk about the death of print books. It’s going to be a really interesting balance — and as tablet devices continue to evolve, I think “ebooks” will start evolving, too. There are a lot of crazy new start-ups that are experimenting with things like games, interactive books (where you decide what happens w/ the the characters via polls, etc.), and subscriptions:

  2. I’m happy to see someone confirming the co-existence of ebooks with paper books. We buy both in our house and quite happily switch from one to the other. With the popularity of tablets amongst young people, I’m hoping this will develop an increase in reading via reading apps. Kids like technology. An increase in reading interest will lead to more paper books being sold too. All good.

    1. Exactly! I think when everyone stops panicking either way, the smoke will clear and we may… just may… see a golden age of reading. “Books” may get a little different, but they’re here to stay, in many different forms.

  3. If you read a book, you can lend it to your friend; if you read an e-book, you can’t give it to your friend, without giving them your reader. I only thought about this the other day; kind of makes the idea of e-books more appealing for authors, I reckon. I personally don’t like reading on e-readers, though i’d not care if someone wanted to read my work on an e-reader. And I’d have to agree with you in that I don’t think that e-books will replace regular books, either. Well, not for a long while, at least.

    1. Thanks for reading!

      Here’s the crazy thing – you can lend people ebooks if they have an e-reader. At least on Kindle, if the author “enables” lending:

      I’m not really sure how it works, I haven’t tried it.

      And true, in a very long while, I wonder about print books, also. If kids are all given, say, tablets (because the govt is trying to save money by banning textbooks: then they’ll just never have a notion of what a print book is in the first place.

      That’s a serious trend to watch.

      1. Absolutely. South Korea is still on track to replace all print books with textbooks in all public schools within the next few years, last I heard. Several US states are attempting to follow the same path. The US is going to be slower to adopt this tech than some Asian nations will, I think, but it’s coming.

        For our colleges, too. Tablets are already replacing laptops as the “homework device of choice” for many college students. It’s not a big leap from there to simply giving each new student a tablet as part of their tuition, billing them for textbooks as part of their bill, and downloading the textbooks for each student direct to their tablet. This would make publishers more money (since there would be no reselling of used textbooks), and save money for both students and colleges/universities.

        I suspect we’re in a lull at the moment, for ebook growth, but I do not think that can last. The next catalyst for massive ebook growth will be when B&N closes their brick and mortar stores, which I suspect is 24 months away or less.

  4. You pose an interesting argument, but it is slightly flawed. There are a few pertinent questions missing. As to the 23% who read an eBook last year (Pew), how many of them read one four years ago? For the 59% who say they will never read an eBook, how many of them own a device that could at least give them the option?

    The key to the eBook phenomenon is platform. Even if you pose the argument that eBook reading devices have peaked (for which the Nook may have but others haven’t), the tablet revolution is just getting started. Laptops are being replaced by tablets at an amazing rate. Very few people will read a book on a laptop, but give them a tablet, and watch the eBook landslide begin.

    Akin to this argument is the 1998 poll that showed over 65% of consumers who said they would never use a credit card online. Hmmm, gives the adage, never say never, a new meaning.

    All this is to say that eBooks are like cell phones. As soon as people get use to them, the usage will skyrocket. eBooks are convenient. Print books are romantic. eBooks are more mobile than a backpack of books. Times change and so have our habits. Print books will live on, possibly in obscurity and less prolific, but the billions of books out there will stay on some shelves.

    1. Great points, definitely!

      Although there’s actually some good data that e-reader sales, whether it’s the Nook or Kindle, actually HAVE peaked:

      People are definitely hesitant to adapt to ebooks, that’s true, too. As I said above, I think that this will be a generational thing, a slow phasing out of books as kids only become familiar with ebooks. The rates of adoption are really modest — this year it was 23%, last year it was 16% of Americans who had read an ebook (with a 2-3% margin of error).

      But I’m also hesitant to embrace the tablet form of reading, for the same reason it’s hard to read a book on a computer: more instantly gratifying material is just a click away.

      I think people will read SOMETHING on tablets, a kind of mutated version of what we now think is a “book,” but I think it will be shorter, more interactive, and have some multimedia elements.

      It’ll be really interesting to see what happens!

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