Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, December 8, 2014

Will you ever buy mostly e-books? The results!

It seems that one-fourth of the population just really, really likes paper books.

For the fourth consecutive year we are seeing a steady number of people willing to risk the displeasure of our future robot overlords by reveling in the pleasures of paper. In fact, there was even a slight uptick in the number of people who say we can pry their paper books out of their cold dead hands (all caveats about different samples, non-scientific poll etc.):

2007: 49%
2008: 45%
2009: 37%
2010: 30%
2011: 25%
2012: 25%
2013: 25%
2014: 28%

And similarly, a slight reversal in the pro-e-book crowd:

2007: 7% (!)
2008: 11%
2009: 19%
2010: 32%
2011: 47%
2012: 47%
2013: 49%
2014: 44%

One thing that's interesting to note is the extent to which this could be a device-driven trend. The first Kindle, of course, was released in 2007 and gathered steam shortly thereafter, and Apple introduced the iPad in 2010. Since then we haven't seen technological innovation when it comes to e-books, and publishers have mostly successfully resisted a decline in e-book prices that could have spurred further e-book adoption.

What do you think is behind these numbers? Are some people just really never going to make the switch? Or is there a technological/economic explanation?


Michael Gunter said...

Fascinating... from the looks of the numbers, it seems an argument could be made that quite a bit of the appeal of e-books comes from the novelty aspect of the reading device, not the actual e-book.

Good post. ;)

David Kazzie said...

I disagree with Michael's comment - I think you're seeing the market simply stabilize. For a while I read e-books exclusively, but I've started to sprinkle print books back in. I'd say my e-book/print book ratio is about 75/25, which I bet is pretty common, so we are all a little microcosm of the reading society.

Gehayi said...

I think that it's down to the fact that;

a) a lot of books are not available in e-format, but are available in print;
b) out-of-print books can sometimes be found in print form through third-party sellers; thanks to DRM, the same cannot be done with e-books;
c) e-books that aren't on sale can cost more than print books that aren't on sale;
d) publishers do not always co-publish print and e-book versions of the same book; and
e) for poor people, who cannot afford the expense of an e-reader--and there are a LOT of poor people nowadays--a low-tech print book is more accessible.

I agree with David--the market is stabilizing. But I also think that currently, e-books are a luxury--an alternative to print, rather than a necessity.

Jaimie Teekell said...

I was one of the people that changed my vote from "e-books alone!" to liking paper books now and then. This year, some books were just easier to read in paper... for whatever reason.

I just read Flowers for Algernon solely on my iPhone, and I hate reading on the iPhone, so possibly I'm going insane.

Amalie Berlin said...

For me, the type of book matters. I can read tons of fiction on my tablet, but if it's a non-fiction book--especially one I want to learn from--I really need it to be in paper. I often flip back and forth, and no matter how user friendly, that's hard to do in eformat.

I would like to say though: If someone could invent a little tablet attachment that feels like the corner of a book... give me something to play with as I read, that would make me happy. I do miss that--the neurotic fidgety part of my personality wants to fiddle with the corners of the pages while reading.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

I can't remember where I read it, but someone recently pointed out that printed books are actually not a bad technology. They're (relatively!) portable, exceptionally easy to lend, look great indoors or out, and have a really long battery life. As several others have pointed out, I think that the market is stabilizing and that printed books will be around for the foreseeable future.

Lisa said...

This is so interesting! And reflects my personal change too.

I used to read far more ebooks. And then my kindle broke. That was a couple of years ago. Funny how such a small thing changed everything. I figure I don't need another electronic device to have to replace every few years, so for now, I'm happy not to have one.

dolorah said...

I think some people will just never give up the paper backs. they are still my favorite form of reading; but practicality and price have gotten me to rely more on my Kindle. Last weekend I gave away most of my paper books, tons of old fantasy novels. Ah, that hurt.

Sally said...

David and Gehayi make good points.

Depending on the title(s), I can sometimes buy several used paper books for less than the cost of one e-book. And sometimes (more rarely)a paperback version's actually cheaper than an ebook version of the same book, by 50 cents or so at the online bookseller. This has driven a lot of book-purchase decisions for me this year. There is also, of course, the intangible joy of holding the tangible object.

stacy said...

In some ways, ebooks are less convenient than real books.

1. You have to remember to update/sync the apps before leaving the house or work or wherever you have WiFi OR you have to be willing to use up precious data.
2. You have to remember to keep your devices charged.
3. The apps can use up a ton of battery power.
4. Sometimes the apps won't load.
5. Sometimes even when you update and sync, the book you're reading doesn't take and you have to figure out where you left off manually.
6. Devices break. Books don't. Or if they do, you can still read them, generally.

I always keep a spare book in my backpack just in case the ebook stuff doesn't work out for me that day. The only ways ebooks are more convenient for me is that they sometimes save me a trip to the library, and you can carry a ton of them around at once.

Susan Carpenter Sims said...

I'm one of the diehard paper book people, and it's not about price or ease of access, or because I'm a Luddite (I'm not). It's simply because for me one of the primary joys of reading is that it's a sensual experience: I love the smell and feel of the pages, the sound of the pages turning. It's also because I thoroughly enjoy the serendipitous and treasure hunting aspects of browsing and buying books at thrift stores. Plus, I spend enough time each day staring at screens; when I indulge in the pleasure of reading I want an escape from that.

Suilan said...

I'm one of the "You can pry my paper books from my cold dead hands" people. This year, I almost had a change of heart and actually considered the idea of getting a kindle. Than I read the many reviews of disillusioned customers whose kindle broke after a year or two. Books don't break. They don't become unreadable in a few years because publishers switch to new devices or formats.

I do like to reread my favorite books or at least I like the idea that I could reread them if I wanted to. I still have a few shelves full of books I read as a teen (that is, from the 80s :).

So, the idea of getting a kindle's off the table again. The only thing that could ever persuade me to buy one is if it became the books of my favorite authors were no longer published in any other way. Although, by then, I hope to have enough print books in the house to last me till my dying day. ;)

Lisa Brackmann said...

Lisa said: "Plus, I spend enough time each day staring at screens; when I indulge in the pleasure of reading I want an escape from that."

You said it! I'm a writer and I've gotten to the point where it's no problem for me to write on screen, edit on screen, even to do page proofs on screen, but reading books on a screen feels like work. Plus I find paper books a more immersive experience (and there are some studies to back me up on this).

I do use an e-reader, primarily when I travel. Most of the books I buy for it are on sale (thank you, BookBub!), books or authors I'm interested in but not at full cover price, or authors I want to support whose books are not in paper. But I buy a lot of paper. For me, a house isn't a home without books in it.

Bill Camp said...

I agree with Michael; I think the novelty is running off. Some will go back to sprinkling in some print book, and I think only very few will truly give up print for good, at least for a long time anyway. I also think your blog has mostly younger readers, because I don't know anyone who has sworn off print in my personal life, and I know a lot of readers. Not one person.

ADominiqueSmith said...

I'm a digital hoarder. I scoop up anything I can possibly grab on digital. I think I have roughly 20-25 books on my ipad. I've finished 1 and it took me nearly two years to do so. I just simply prefer books. They don't smack me in the face when I fall asleep reading them. I also enjoy turning pages. That said, when it comes to comics and graphic novels, give me my tablet. Looking at the pictures is so much more gratifying when I can zoom in. I guess I am a bit of a hybrid, but I certainly prefer my print.

Maya Prasad said...

Agree with Krista about the power of the "Book Book". Here's a tongue-in-cheek Ikea ad that explains its brilliance:

Cas Blomberg said...

Personally, I'm partial to printed books. But I read more ebooks. For me, other factors come into play. I live in a foreign country, with limited access to physical books in English. Ebooks are a nice substitute. If you had asked this question to an international community, expats, students studying abroad, frequent travelers, I'd be willing to bet the results come out in favor of ebooks.

Suilan said...

@ Cas Blomberg

What makes you think it wasn't an international community that responded to the question? You live abroad. So do I (from your perspective), nor am I a native English speaker. They do have kindles in other countries, y'know... Except, of course, in my native language, the name Kindle is a bit ridiculous. (=little child in a cutesy southern dialect) :)

Maybe we should have a poll asking where the readers of this blog are from? ;)

Marvin Waschke said...

Your samples to the contrary, I think eBook reading has increased and will continue to increase for a number of reasons. I am on a rural library board and I can tell you that in our system, total circulation has been rising a bit faster than the population, but paper circulation has been declining. eBook circulation has more than taken up the slack, even though the big publishers seem to be doing all they can to make library circulation of eBooks as expensive and cumbersome as possible.

Personally, I usually pick up my Kindle rather than paper because I have arthritis in my hands from 30 years at a keyboard and holding paper books is hard. We have so many paper books in our house, we have to get rid of a paper book for every new paper book we get. I love our books so much, getting rid of one is like killing a puppy. No problem for eBooks. You can carry a bookshelf of them in your pocket. And you don't need book marks to read an eBook.

I disagree that the market is stabilizing. There is new technology for reading devices in the pipeline-- lighter, thinner, more flexible, better resolution and color, improved navigation. There are folks staying up late working on those things, and they will succeed. Those changes will change the market.

Right now, eBooks are grossly overpriced, mostly because the publishers have not figured it out. The marginal cost of an eBook is almost nothing. After the file is created, the cost of putting an eBook in a reader's hands is next to nothing. That means that after the advance is paid off, the entire price of an eBook minus the author's royalty is pure profit for the publisher. Marginal cost of a paper book is much higher. Eventually, someone will figure it out and start publishing eBooks at a reasonable price. At that point, traditional publishers will change or die. Indie published eBooks may be a leading indicator there.

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

I am a convert to ebooks and generally prefer them — but l read paper books if there's something I want which I can't get as an ebook. It annoys me though; my house is overflowing with books already. I am gradually replacing those I can with ebooks.

Like an earlier commenter, I find reference books still work best in hard copy because of the beed to flip back and forth through the pages.

Also our local library sells off old stock cheaply, and we also have several op shops in town. If I see something wonderful going for 50¢ or $1, I'm going to grab it.

I wouldn't buy a Kindle on principle because originally Amazon tried to get a monopoly on new authors. I have a Kobo I like because of all the storage room. But I now also have an iPad, and did out a Kindle app on it, as well as a Kobo app and a Google Play app, and of course it already had iBooks, which is wonderful for reading those books which are still in pdf format.

E-reading is great when travelling, of course.

I guess it comes down to the fact that books on paper still have some advantages. The fact that one can give or lend one's old copies to others is a big one, too.

I once thought I'd switch entirely to ebooks, and I almost have, but have been forced to entertain some exceptions for the above reasons. The main reason is that not everything is available as an ebook.

I get really annoyed with contemporary publishers who don't issue an ebook of a new title — there are some — and I sometimes cut off my nose to spite my face by boycotting their paper books in retaliation. (This might be more useful if I actually told them so.)

Linda Brudz said...

I think the trend is a mix of what we are used to and the technology. If one likes reading, part of the pleasure is holding the paper, having your special way of marking the page, feeling the page, and all the other tactile stuff that goes with reading. It gets imprinted in our brains as part of the reading pleasure. As kids grow in an electronic age, they may have different tactile reading experiences, which may change their liking of electronic books. I also think the technology is currently limited, especially for reference and non-fiction books, where readers may want to highlight, quickly turn to a reference page, etc. Right now, I think that the human brain can adapt to how paper works for these types of books over e-books.

Anonymous said...

I've had a Kindle for about five years now. I have never bought it a book. For a while I downloaded free samples off Amazon, but if I decided I actually wanted the book, I went with paper. Now I don't even do that. It's been a year since I turned it on.

It's too difficult to flip back and forth while reading on the kindle. And too easy to accidentally hit a button, find yourself back at the menu, and then jump through all the hoops necessary to find your place again. Remember a phrase you recently read, search for the phrase, get a location number, search for the location number... maybe they've simplified this in the years since my Kindle was made.

So, count me as one less interested in ebooks than before.

Dan Absalonson said...

Weird. As soon as they came out I stopped buying paper and started buying only eBooks. They are so much more convenient. I actually enjoy reading on my phone more than reading a paper book now. A paper book feels clunky and heavy. I still buy them if I want to get one signed but otherwise I buy all eBook. I love having my whole collection in my pocket instead of clogging up a corner of a room. I still love paper books but I much prefer an ereading experience now. Tapping a screen is so much easier and faster than turning a page - I read faster on my phone and for all the people that say they enjoy taking their time and reading next to the fire - for me the more I'm enjoying the book the faster I read it. I still love the way paper books look, feel, and even smell. But nothing beats being able to change the font size, having a whole library in my pocket, reading with no light hanging off my pages etc.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm typical in the sense that I made the switch to e-books around 2007, started out with a dedicated e-reader (several), went to the iPad, and then the iPhone. Now it's mostly iPad and phone reading for me. I don't read print books often at all anymore because it's a better experience for me to read digitally.

I do know people who will never switch to digital, which is why I think the digital market has balanced out for the time being. But this is generational and those people who refuse to give up print usually aren't interested in any technology whatsoever. At least in my circles. They don't "get" GPS, and still have flip top phones. So I think it will take another 20 years before digital books completely dominate the market.

I'm curious, Nathan. And I don't mean to put you on the spot. But you were an agent working with a big agency and you decided to pursue a writing career and another career in a different field. I've been following you since you started blogging. So, with all the changes that have happened in publishing and one of those changes being the role of the agent in many cases, do you have any regrets about changing careers? Or are you glad you made the change at the time you did because the role of literary agent has changed so much? At one time literary agent blogs ruled in newbie and publishing circles. Many were satirical and funny, some were insulting. Many were your blog. But most agents blogs have either shuttered, changed drastically, or they continue to repeat the same old query jargon they were writing ten years ago. If you were an agent now, how would you have evolved? And, would you ever reconsider being an agent again with a new kind of perspective?

You don't have to answer all of that. But I am really curious about some things. :)

Nathan Bransford said...


No regrets about changing careers. My decision to leave publishing wasn't driven by publishing trends but rather a more personal desire to try something new.

I actually don't think the role of agents have changed much at all. It may look that way from the outside because blogging agents have declined and it seems like there's been a lot of change, but I don't know that the day to day has changed all that much. They might look for new clients in some new places and there are new people to negotiate with, but I don't know any agents who feel like their job is vastly different than it was five years ago.

There were things I liked about being an agent and things I didn't, but I don't have any desire to go back. Very happy in my new career.

InertialConfinement said...

I think last time I voted that I read only e-books, but now I've been adding print back in.

I would really love to see an open source device where you can read books with eink, but not buy into an ecosystem. Being able to check out ebooks from the library right on the device without having to hook up to a computer would be amazing. Also, I'd love to choose where I buy my ebooks right from the device and not be limited to one store.

Anonymous said...

In the unscientific sampling of my family, we all adopted e-reading and then after a year or two mostly went back to books. My mom switched to a Kindle when she couldn't read print, but that was a way station to all audio. My two teen daughters read voraciously on kindles for a year or two before they both started feeling like they didn't absorb much and switched back to books. This wasn't as much of a firm decision as a kind of unconscious drift. I read ebooks on an iPad, but only for research. I stick to paper for pleasure reading. Consequently we have a pile of unused Kindles in a drawer. None of them has been touched since around 2010. I'm not surprised I prefer paper since I grew up with it, but I am a bit surprised that my 18 and 20 year olds have abandoned e reading. They read a lot of other stuff on their computers, but never books. One does read on her phone sometimes.

Anonymous said...

To be honest, the flood of self-published ebooks has soured me on ebooks to a large extent. Many writers have gotten more savvy about making their self-pubbed books *look* slick and professional, concentrating their efforts on making the "preview" and book description appear promising. They've tried to fix micro-errors such as typos. But when I'm a significant way into a majority of self-published books, the macro-errors pile up (plot holes, implausibilities, dropped threads, and other serious and significant problems that a GOOD editor -- not mere "copy editor" -- would address). When I find one of these failed books, I go back to the product information page and inevitably discover that the book is self-published (it becomes evident when I discover, say, that the made-up publishing company only produces ONE writer's books, ever). I'm tired of wasting money on these books that needed far more work before seeing the light of day. So I try to avoid them, but it's getting a lot harder to do so without wasting time with all sorts of detective work -- because I don't want to rule out books that are produced by actual small presses and real "independent presses." The only way to be reasonably sure of getting a vetted, professionally crafted book is to buy books and ebooks from recognizable presses, or from brick and mortar bookstores. Sorry to the self-pubbers who will no doubt be offended by this -- and yes, I realize *some* of you write decent books -- but I'm just burned out on the unvetted stuff and will do anything to avoid it at this point, including eschewing ebooks if necessary.

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