Physical books continue to massively outsell e-books every year
— UberFacts (@UberFacts) March 17, 2021
It said, “Physical books continue to massively outsell e-books every year.” The tweet was a simple statement with no link to any context or corroboration.
Discourse on Physical Versus Digital Books
On Facebook, the “Little Free Library” page included a photograph of an open book; the March 17 2021 @UberFacts tweet did not appear to include the image. In Twitter and Facebook replies, commenters provided opinions about physical and digital format books.
On Reddit’s r/Libraries, a link about digital book sales and physical book sales was submitted at least eleven times — the most popular of the links was cross-shared from Reddit’s r/todayilearned in January 2021:
“It might have something to do with most e-books being the same price as buying a physical copy. If I’m paying the same I might as well have something I can actually hold.”
“This is something that bothers me too. If a physical book is $30, I see no reason that the e-book should be more than about $10, since the price of the physical book is bound up in paper, binding, the labour to put it all together, shipping to the store, warehousing, etc.; whereas the ebook should not have any of that overhead. The other thing that chaps me about ebooks – people can take them away. Amazon has famously done this in the past. It’s hard to take away someone’s physical books.”
The Initial Move Toward Digitized Books
If the claim was true in 2021, that might not have always been the case.
In May 2011, the New York Times published an article about the phenomenon in an article headlined, “E-Books Outsell Print Books at Amazon,” reporting:
In the latest chapter in the unfolding tale of the book evolution from ink to pixels, Amazon.com said [in May 2011] that its customers now buy more e-books than print books.
Since April 1 , Amazon sold 105 books for its Kindle e-reader for every 100 hardcover and paperback books, including books without Kindle versions and excluding free e-books.
“We had high hopes that this would happen eventually, but we never imagined it would happen this quickly,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, in a statement. “We’ve been selling print books for 15 years and Kindle books for less than four years.”
But people should not exile their bookshelves to storage quite yet, many analysts warned. Over all, e-books account for only about 14 percent of all general consumer fiction and nonfiction books sold, according to Forrester Research.
Amazon’s latest milestone was unsurprising to industry observers. The company said last July  that sales of e-books outnumbered hardcover books and it said in January  that the same was true for paperbacks. For Amazon, though, the milestone is proof that it has successfully leapt from a print business to a digital one, a transition that has challenged most companies that sell media.
That article mentioned a then-upcoming Amazon-branded e-reader, and included several statistics about publishing trends in 2010 and 2011. One factor cited was the increase in access to digital books, both in the way of devices (like e-readers) and digitization of older works:
Even if e-books overall do not outsell print books outside of Amazon, the online bookstore is certainly a strong indicator of a trend. E-book sales in March  were $69 million, an increase of 146 percent from the year before, the Association of American Publishers said [in May 2011]. Sales of adult hardcover books grew 6 percent while paperback sales decreased nearly 8 percent.
E-books have become vastly more accessible to consumers in the last year [2010 to 2011]. Across the industry, publishers have been rapidly digitizing their catalog of books, making older titles available in e-book form for the first time. Even smaller independent houses that had resisted selling e-books have changed their position and discovered a new way to sell their older books — traditionally a large part of many publishers’ revenues.
Do ‘Physical Books’ Really Outsell Ebooks Every Year? It’s Complicated
On March 17 2017 (four years to the day before the @UberFacts tweet was published), British newspaper The Guardian reported slowing ebook sales..
In that article, Bezos’ quote from the 2011 Times piece appeared. The Guardian‘s piece compared publishing industry trends in 2011 with 2017 sales numbers, adding that e-readers fell to the wayside in favor of phones and tablets for reading digital books:
At the start of this decade [in 2010] publishers feared the death of the paperback. Britons abandoned bookshops at an alarming rate, seduced by e-readers and cheap digital books.
Even Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, was shocked by the speed of readers’ defection when Kindle downloads outsold hard copies on the website for the first time in 2011. “We had high hopes this would happen eventually, but we never imagined it would happen this quickly,” he said at the time.
But the ebook story has turned out to have a twist in the tale. Sales of physical books increased 4% in the UK last year  while ebook sales shrank by the same amount. Glance around a busy train carriage and those passengers who aren’t on their phones are far more likely to have a paperback than a Kindle.
The e-reader itself has also turned out to have the shelf life of a two-star murder mystery. Smartphones and tablets last year overtook dedicated reading devices to become the most popular way to read an ebook, according to the research group Nielsen.
The story also described the influence of reader preference on ebook sales:
Another reason why digital book sales declined [in 2016] is because cookery and humour are simply better in print – and last year’s  bestseller lists were populated by books by the fitness guru Joe Wicks, the Ladybird Books for Grown-ups series and Enid Blyton parodies.
“When we first started the business there was an expectation we would see 50% print/digital within five years [from 2012],” said [Michael Tamblyn, chief executive of Kobo]. “Instead the ebook market has been plateauing in the 25-30% range.”
Ebooks perform best, he said, with “blockbuster fiction bestsellers and young adult crossover books like Hunger Games and Insurgent”.
A September 2019 CNBC article (“Physical books still outsell e-books — and here’s why”), to which the r/todayilearned post linked, began:
Do you prefer reading an e-book or a physical version? It might be a surprise, but for most people, old school print on paper still wins.
Publishers of books in all formats made almost $26 billion in revenue last year  in the U.S., with print making up $22.6 billion and e-books taking $2.04 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers’ annual report 2019. Those figures include trade and educational books, as well as fiction.
While digital media has disrupted other industries such as news publishing and the music business, people still love to own physical books, according to Meryl Halls, managing director of the Booksellers’ Association in the U.K.
“I think the e-book bubble has burst somewhat, sales are flattening off, I think the physical object is very appealing. Publishers are producing incredibly gorgeous books, so the cover designs are often gorgeous, they’re beautiful objects,” she told CNBC.
People love to display what they’ve read, she added. “The book lover loves to have a record of what they’ve read, and it’s about signaling to the rest of the world. It’s about decorating your home, it’s about collecting, I guess, because people are completists aren’t they, they want to have that to indicate about themselves.”
CNBC quoted a publishing industry source, Meryl Halls, who offered that part of the reason for declining ebook sales was because many people prefer to display physical books. As The Guardian reported in 2017, specific genres like photography and culinary books were referenced as formats better suited to print than a tablet.
The CNBC story included industry data suggesting that younger people appeared to be popularizing print over digital books:
While millennials are sometimes blamed for killing industries, it’s actually younger people who appear to be popularizing print. Sixty-three percent of physical book sales in the U.K. are to people under the age of 44, while 52% of e-book sales are to those over 45, according to Nielsen.
It’s a similar picture in the U.S., where 75% of people aged 18 to 29 claimed to have read a physical book in 2017, higher than the average of 67%, according to Pew Research.
Vox.com’s December 2019 reporting on print sales (“The 2010s were supposed to bring the ebook revolution. It never quite came”) was part of a larger 2010s retrospective, and it also began by contrasting the predictions of 2010 and 2011 with books sales in that decade:
At the beginning of the 2010s, the world seemed to be poised for an ebook revolution.
The Amazon Kindle, which was introduced in 2007, effectively mainstreamed ebooks. By 2010, it was clear that ebooks weren’t just a passing fad, but were here to stay. They appeared poised to disrupt the publishing industry on a fundamental level. Analysts confidently predicted that millennials would embrace ebooks with open arms and abandon print books, that ebook sales would keep rising to take up more and more market share, that the price of ebooks would continue to fall, and that publishing would be forever changed.
Instead, at the other end of the decade, ebook sales seem to have stabilized at around 20 percent of total book sales, with print sales making up the remaining 80 percent. “Five or 10 years ago,” says Andrew Albanese, a senior writer at trade magazine Publishers Weekly and the author of The Battle of $9.99, “you would have thought those numbers would have been reversed.”
And in part, Albanese tells Vox in a phone interview, that’s because the digital natives of Gen Z and the millennial generation have very little interest in buying ebooks. “They’re glued to their phones, they love social media, but when it comes to reading a book, they want John Green in print,” he says. The people who are actually buying ebooks? Mostly boomers. “Older readers are glued to their e-readers,” says Albanese. “They don’t have to go to the bookstore. They can make the font bigger. It’s convenient.”
Furthermore, Vox.com observed — as Reddit users did — ebooks were typically not saving readers money. In fact, ebooks occasionally cost more than a print version:
Ebooks aren’t only selling less than everyone predicted they would at the beginning of the decade. They also cost more than everyone predicted they would — and consistently, they cost more than their print equivalents. On Amazon as I’m writing this, a copy of Sally Rooney’s Normal People costs $12.99 as an ebook, but only $11.48 as a hardcover. And increasingly, such disparities aren’t an exception. They’re the rule.
Vox also cited a 2012 lawsuit and how it shaped book sales in the 2010s:
To figure out the answers, we’ll have to dive in deep to a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice in 2012 against Apple — newly entered into the ebook market with the advent of the iPad — and five of what was then the Big Six publishing houses. The Department of Justice accused Apple and the publishers of colluding to fix ebook prices against Amazon, and although the DOJ won its case in court, the pricing model that Apple and the publishers created together would continue to dominate the industry, creating unintended ripple effects.
Pricing and its relationship to major players in publishing (Amazon and Apple) emerged as a major theme of that story, along with a chain of events that served as something of a death knell for the “ebook revolution”:
… Apple couldn’t enter the ebook market while charging consumers five dollars more per unit than its biggest competitor [Amazon] was. It needed some assurance that no one would have a cheaper product than it had. So it made a deal with five of the Big Six publishers (Simon & Schuster, Penguin, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan; Random House, then the biggest trade publishing house, abstained): They could all sign on to Apple’s agency model, as long as they guaranteed that they’d also use that same agency model with every other retailer they worked with. That way, Amazon, too, would be forced to sell its ebooks for $14.99 — and if it refused, publishers could withhold their ebooks from Amazon and make them exclusive to Apple.
Publishers agreed to the deal. And just like that, everything changed.
“That’s the kind of thing that’s very clearly illegal”
“Overnight, because of this conspiracy, ebook prices went from $9.99 to $14.99,” says Albanese. “That set the tone for the future of the ebook right there.”
Another publishing industry source provided context to Vox:
“Amazon can still discount whatever they like on the print side,” explains Jane Friedman, a publishing consultant and the author of The Business of Being a Writer. On the ebook side, however, Amazon now lists publisher-mandated prices, often with the petulant italic addition “Price set by seller.” “So the market is very weird, and often the ebook costs more than the print,” Friedman says. “Sometimes it feels like Amazon is trying to make the publishers look ridiculous.”
And because ebooks are often more expensive than Amazon’s heavily discounted print books, traditional publishing’s ebook sales seem to have fallen off — and Amazon is more dominant than ever in the print book market. “It’s so much cheaper,” says Friedman.
Friedman told the outlet that the intricacies of publishing and pricing was somewhat of a barrier to debut novelists, whose initial efforts might be priced a bit high for new readers. But she also echoed one of the Facebook comments quoted above about a segment in publishing to whom digital publishing was a boon — self-published authors.
Independent authors do not have to contend with the restrictions placed upon the publishing industry for ebooks, and are therefore able to leverage the pricing restrictions to sell a large volume of ebooks at a relatively low retail price:
Self-published authors, meanwhile, are flourishing. They’re allowed to set their own ebook prices just like publishers are — and consistently, they set their prices very, very low. “It’s a shadow market,” Friedman says. “Novelists with huge backlists go and put them out as ebooks independently. And if a reader has a choice between reading this great series at $2.99 a pop or a $12 novel, what are they going to pick?”
As the 2011 coverage above indicated, there was a time when ebooks were poised to take over the market — but publishing industry agreements and lawsuits influenced the trajectory of ebook sales.
In October 2020, FrontEdgePublishing.com quoted sales figures for ebooks and print, and described the reason as “preference”:
Americans are buying more books than ever before—especially in the midst of this global pandemic—according to coverage of the industry by Publishers Weekly magazine, PW. The latest PW report in the October 16, 2020, issue says: Unit sales of print books rose 7.9% in the week ended Oct. 10, 2020, over the comparable week in 2019. That dramatic increase has been led by adult trade nonfiction, which is the primary focus of Front Edge Publishing.
What surprises many of our authors and readers is this: Most people continue to prefer ink-on-paper books. Over the past month, as Editor of Front Edge Publishing, I’ve had this conversation repeatedly with journalists, community leaders and authors nationwide. I explain that the boom in book sales is causing some shipping delays from the printing plant, then I often hear: But aren’t people mostly buying eBooks these days?
In January 2021, WritersWeekly.com did a roundup of publishing industry news pertaining to the dominance of print books over ebooks:
Here is a compilation of articles covering print and ebook sales for 2020:
Print Book Sales Rose 8.2% in 2020
“BookScan said the 8.2% gain was the largest annual increase since 2010. The year certainly turned out much better than many in the trade side of publishing expected in the early spring, when pandemic-induced store lockdowns and some supply chain issues caused deep concern. But a prolonged decline never came, as online sales and sales through nonbookstore outlets more than offset declines at physical bookstores.”
Print Units Post Surprising Increase in First Half of 2020
“In what is perhaps the biggest surprise in publishing since the Covid-19 pandemic began roiling the U.S. economy this spring, unit sales of print books in the first half of 2020 were up 2.8% over the same period in 2019 at outlets the report to NPD BookScan.”
In the UK:
Print sales – 39%
Audiobook sales – 34%
Ebook sales – 27%
Two of the linked articles covered an “ebook revival” in 2020, as well as a 60 percent year-over-year increase for the Kobo platform. Factors such as distance learning were also mentioned as influencing publishing sales in 2020.
A March 2021 @UberFacts tweet claiming “Physical books continue to massively outsell e-books every year” spread on both Facebook and Twitter, prompting discourse about reading preferences; similar claims were the focus of reporting from 2017 onward. It is true that physical books remained dominant over ebooks in 2020, but the market split was often misleadingly framed as simply reader preference. Factors such as display and format (for cooking and photography, for example) were frequently cited, but arguably the pricing of non-independent ebooks (commonly higher than their physical counterparts) rarely rated a mention in articles about digital versus print sales. It is also true that ebooks from publishers lagged below initial sales expectations, but their often-higher price tag was infrequently cited as a factor influencing the publishing industry.