Digital Book Sales Plummet—Did Paper Books Win?

Spoiler—they never really lost

Key Takeaways

  • Paperback and hardback books sales surged in May, while e-book sales dropped almost 25%.
  • Paper books aren’t going anywhere.
  • The digital book offer was never very compelling.
shallow focus photography of a stack of books

Kimberly Farmer / Unsplash

E-book sales are falling, while paper book sales—already surprisingly strong—are steadily growing. 

Paper books have avoided the fate of most other physical media. Vinyl and tapes are popular and growing, as is film photography, but these are tiny niche markets compared to life before digital. Meanwhile, newspapers and DVDs have been replaced by digital alternatives, and even magazines are now more of an art object than something to read. So what is it about books?

"Having a book that is both digital and print, I have noticed in my own experience that print book sales have always been stronger," writer and filmmaker Daniel Hess told Lifewire via email. 

That New Book Smell

Ask a book lover why they read paper books, and they might tell you they love the smell of a book. Others—including several respondents to requests for comments for this article—said they thought books let you get away from the screen. 

But nostalgia isn’t enough to compete with the convenience of instant purchases, and an almost infinite library in your pocket. That equation has tipped far in the digital direction in all other media. We might be nostalgic for Polaroids, but we don’t buy a camera and film. We download an app that makes our photos look like Polaroids.

woman reading a book in a library

Eliott Reyna / Unsplash

And as any e-reader fan knows, the whole point of something like a Kindle or Kobo is that it doesn’t have a screen—not like a phone or computer screen. An e-reader uses a non-glowing, reflective white page with black e-ink. It relies on reflected light to view it, just like paper. This is what makes it way more comfortable to read for hours on end than any tablet or phone. So the anti-screen argument doesn’t make much sense either. 

The majority of responses I got romanticized the book as an object. I was hoping for some objective insight as to why people still prefer paper to e-ink or pixels, but almost everybody I spoke to focused on the book-as-object.

"The experience is incomparable. It‘s like eating in a Michelin star restaurant vs Subway. You touch quality paper when turning pages, look at the beautiful cover—it all contributes to the experience," app developer Alexey Chernikov told Lifewire via Twitter. 

Shopping Experience

The main difference between e-books and other digital media is you have to buy a dedicated e-reader device, whereas for news, music, taking and sharing photos, and all the rest, you can use your phone. You can read e-books on your phone, but it’s a poor experience. 

So, if reading on the phone is out, then you have to convince someone to buy a Kindle or similar, or an even more expensive tablet, like an iPad. Perhaps this alone is a big enough barrier to e-books?

Digital Fatigue

We may also be sick of ephemeral nothings, and books are not only somethings, but beautiful somethings. In the early days of e-books, they took off just like all other digital media. According to a Publishers Weekly article from almost exactly 10 years ago, sales of paper novels dropped by a quarter, "while e-book sales from 16 publishers jumped 169.4%."

Instead of jumping onto e-books, publishers put their weight behind paper.

Chart showing May 2021 sales of hardback and paperback books, ebooks, and more

Association of American Publishers

Early on, publishers seemed almost reluctant to embrace e-books, perhaps because they saw how Amazon would come to dominate and dictate the market. Instead of going all-in on digital, like music companies eventually did, it seemed to this writer that publishers never really considered e-books as a legitimate medium. 

Today, books really are beautiful objects. The paper is good, typography clean and clear, and the covers—one of paper’s biggest advantages over those tiny thumbnails on e-books—are fantastic.

"Publishers stepped up after 2010 or so to make covers better and improve quality," publishing MA Nick Santos Pedro told Lifewire via message. 

"You touch quality paper when turning pages, look at the beautiful cover—it all contributes to the experience."

Another advantage of paper over digital is that the bookshop experience is so much better than trying to find a new ebook to read. But whatever is keeping paper not only alive but healthy and growing, there’s room for both digital and paper. 

"While I do like the convenience of ebooks, whenever I read an ebook that I really like, I can't help but purchase a paper copy for my collection," book lover Roy Lima told Lifewire via email.

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