Books In The Digital Age: What Are People Reading?

Posted: Jun 25 2019, 9:09pm CDT | by


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Books in the Digital Age: What Are People Reading?
Books in the Digital Age: What Are People Reading?

Print Books, Ebooks, and the State of Reading in the Digital Age

Years ago, many publishers, authors, and professionals in media and mass communications were heralding the death of books. In their opinion, physical books — the kind with paper pages and cloth or paper binding — would soon be obsolete. Were they correct?

The Battle of Digital vs. Print Books

Ever since the first ebooks entered the marketplace in the late 1990s and early 2000s, publishers, authors, educators, and entrepreneurs have indulged in speculation with regard to what the digital revolution would do to print books. Now, with roughly 20 years to look back on, we have some answers.

According to recent insights gathered by Pew Research, roughly 39 percent of American readers only read print books. Approximately 7 percent read just digital books, while 29 percent read both types.

Age plays a clear role in a person’s willingness or desire to read a digital book. Only 5 percent of people ages 50 to 64 and 4 percent of those 65 and older read digital formats exclusively, while 10 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds would classify themselves as digital-only readers.

The implication is that the data indicates print is still leading the way. However, digital ebooks have taken a considerable chunk of the overall market. This becomes especially evident when you look at sales figures.

Separate research shows that, as of 2015, ebook sales grew to comprise 20 percent of all book sales. But that may have been the peak.

Just a year later, in 2016, the sale of traditional print books rose by 5 percent in the U.S., while ebook sales fell by a striking 17 percent.

Why Print Books Have Staying Power

Although ebooks have carved a rather impressive niche in the publishing industry, it’s clear that Americans aren’t ready to give up on print. The reason could be attributable to any number of factors, such as:

  • According to a recent study on the topic of “consumer interpretations of digital ownership in the book market,” there’s a significant difference in feel between owning an ebook versus a physical copy. Research participants “described being more emotionally attached to physical books, and said they use physical books to establish a sense of self and belonging.”
  • To the chagrin of digital readers, there really isn’t much of a price difference between print and ebook copies of a particular work. If a hardcover copy of a new release costs $25, the paperback retails for $14, and the ebook sells for right around $12. It may be half the price of a hardcover copy, but it’s essentially the same cost of a paperback. This is largely due to the lower cost of printing books. From stand-alone online printing services to Fulfillment by Amazon, books can be printed on demand by publishers, which means the savings are generally passed along to customers in the form of lower price points.
  • Studies have identified an emotional connection to print books … something that doesn’t exist with digital books. When given a digital copy, book lovers lament the loss of the classic “book smell.” There’s also the inability to curate a physical bookshelf, in which many book owners take great pride.
  • One of the pleasures of owning books is that you can share them with friends, resell to a used book store, or quickly flip through and find a passage from a book you’ve read previously. Ebooks often have significant restrictions in place that prevent people from sharing copies with friends. You also can’t resell an ebook. This limits the versatility and makes it a more self-centered act of consumption.
  • “Multiple studies show that digital screen use may be causing a variety of troubling downstream effects on reading comprehension in older high school and college students,” The Guardian explains. One of these is a phenomenon known as skim reading, in which people actually train their brains to scan content and pull out quick bits and pieces. The problem is that skim reading is a hard habit to break with a digital device. Even when reading an ebook, the brain has a difficult time differentiating between a novel and a Buzzfeed article. The result is lower reading comprehension. Skim reading appears to be less of a factor with traditional print volumes. The simple act of excising the screen seems to make people better readers.

This isn’t to say ebooks are evil or impractical. In fact, it’s easy to see their appeal. Older books that have been in circulation for years can often be purchased for just a dollar or two.

Then there’s the practical benefit of being able to carry an entire library’s worth of books on a single device that slips into a purse or briefcase. In the end, it comes down to a simple matter of preference.

The Future of Reading

Nobody has a crystal ball that can tell us what the future of reading will look like, but it’s become difficult to imagine a world that has no physical books. The share of the ebook market will inevitably increase over the decades to come, but for the moment, American readers seem content to enjoy the crisp smell of paper.

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The Author

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/68" rel="author">Larry Alton</a>
Larry is an independent business consultant specializing in tech, social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.




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