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Print Books vs. Ebooks: Who's Up, Who's Down, and Where Are We Headed?
Posted On June 20, 2017
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For more than a decade, print books and ebooks have been locked in a fierce competition for the attention of the reading public, market share in the publishing business, and the hearts of librarians and their patrons. A few years ago, there was talk that the disruptive digital upstarts would put print out of business. But times change. A roundup of recent news and data shows that print is still going strong and provides a few hints about how marketplace developments and librarians’ collection development plans are evolving.

Market Trends

Recent reports from major industry sources show that ebook sales have been falling. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) reports that during the first 9 months of 2016, ebook sales in the U.S. declined by a dramatic 18.7%, compared to the same period in 2015. Measured by dollar revenue, ebook sales fell to about $877 million, while hardcover and paperback sales grew slightly to account for more than $1.7 billion and $1.6 billion respectively. In the U.K., the Publishers Association reports nearly identical results—a 17% drop in ebook sales over the same period. Likewise, NPD BookScan data reported in Publishers Weekly show that during 2016, ebook sales dropped almost 15% to about 179 million units.

There have been indications for the past few years that the public’s love affair with ebooks was cooling off. The long-term history of the struggle dates to Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle just in time for holiday gift-giving in 2007. The Kindle was followed by the Nook, the Kobo e-reader, and others, and by January 2011, Amazon announced it was selling more ebooks than print books. All the signs seemed to point toward a win for the disruptive upstart format. Publishers Weekly cites NPD BookScan data showing that ebook unit sales exploded from 69 million in 2010 to 243 million in 2013.

But just when the ebook’s dominance seemed assured, things started to change. Ebook readers began to lose out to smartphones and tablets, and AAP data began to show a leveling-off of ebook sales after 2013. A CNN report finds that sales of e-readers declined by more than 40% between 2011 and 2016, according to consumer research group Euromonitor International. The recent NPD BookScan data reported by Publishers Weekly shows that hardcover print unit sales held steady over the past 5 years while ebooks declined, and hardcover books outsold ebooks in 2016 for the first time since 2011.

Of course, not all observers accept the validity of these industry statistics. Some point to the growth in sales of self-published ebooks. Often sold through platforms such as Amazon and Smashwords, these titles generally don’t carry International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) and aren’t included in the industry reports. Others point to special circumstances propping up print book sales, such as the popularity of adult coloring books, which can’t be replicated in digital media. Others mention the role of free content for digital reading. In an editorial commenting on the drop in ebook sales, the blog No Shelf Required asserts that “numbers like this do not confirm that people don’t want to read and access content in digital format. Instead, they confirm that they simply do not want to pay for it.”

Library Experiences

Meanwhile, librarians have invested heavily in ebook collections—and the results have been highly rewarding. Kathleen Teaze, director of the Prince George’s County (Md.) Memorial Library System, notes that patron interest in ebooks has been an eye-opener, with circulation increasing as much as 100% per year as the collection has been expanded. And the expansion of collections and usage has been widespread. According to “The State of America’s Libraries 2016,” only 35% of school librarians indicated they were acquiring digital content in 2010—but by 2015, that number had increased to 69%.

In its “2014 Digital Inclusion Survey,” the University of Maryland reported that more than 90% of all U.S. public libraries offered ebooks. Library Journal’s “Materials Survey 2017,” which tracks budgets and circulation at public libraries, found that in 2016, 27% of library materials expenditures went to media other than print—the first time that their share exceeded a quarter of the overall materials budget, and an increase of almost 10% since Library Journal began tracking media breakdowns in 2006.

Circulation has kept pace, with strong digital circulation in public libraries largely compensating for a drop in print circulation over the period. Library Journal found that while media circulation was down slightly in 2016, it accounted for 31% of total circulation, while print circulation dropped to 57% of the total—its share dropping 10 points in just 6 years.

Still, there are signs that ebooks haven’t achieved total acceptance among library users. Pew Research Center’s “Libraries 2016” survey reported that borrowing print books was still the most frequent activity of visitors to public libraries, beating computer use by 64% to 29%. In a Publishers Weekly survey conducted at the 2016 BookExpo America, 94% of public librarians responding put the proportion of library users who were checking out ebooks at 25% or less. Evidently, ebooks have room to grow in public libraries—if they can.

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Dave Shumaker is a retired clinical associate professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former corporate information manager. He is also the author of The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed (Information Today, Inc., 2012), and he founded SLA’s Embedded Librarians Caucus in 2015.

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