Why e-book sales are declining? – It’s more than just an increased price

According to the Pew Research Center, printed books are hanging on and remain significantly more popular than e-book in 2016 (Perrin, 2016). It is welcome news for publishers, who have suffered from the drastic change in the e-book landscape for over five years. Perrin (2016) reports, “When people reach for a book, it is much more likely to be a traditional print book than a digital product. Fully 65% of Americans have read a print book in the last year, more than double the share that has read an e-book (28%).” Media remarks that the deceasing in e-book sales is resulted from increasing of its cost: “The biggest reasons why e-book had such a bad year … [is] the return agency pricing. This dramatically increase[s] the cost in e-books by 10 to 30 percent and people [buy] less” (Kozlowski, 2016), “the big 5 publishers, which includes Penguin/Random House, Macmillan, Simon and Schuster, Harper Collins and Hachette implemented a new pricing mechanism that has seen the price of e-books increase from $9.99 to $14.99, or even $17.99″ (Kozlowski, 2016). However, a decrease in sales is not just resulted from the increased price. The recent articles, which are published over the last 4 months, have revealed that the lack of concentration and comprehension on e-book and its digital text, the use of multi-purpose devices, and the experience of digital fatigue are reasons for readers’ major transition to the print book. From the experience of reading an e-book, readers have realized that reading a print book helps concentrating and comprehending the texts better. The lack of concentration is the major issue of reading an e-book because more readers are now tending to choose smartphone, tablets, and computers, which are considered as multi-purpose mobile devices, to read the book. Lastly, many e-book readers have noted that they are suffering from digital fatigue. These three consequences have not only led e-book to be a fad but also changed consumers’ preference back to print books.

Throughout their experiences in digital reading, readers have realized that reading an e-book on a digital device results a lack of concentration and comprehension. Kozlowski (2016) highlights, e-books are inherently flawed because they have fewer spatial landmark, making it harder to concentrate. Numerous studies have revealed that it’s hard to concentrate when reading an e-book and this inhibits reading comprehension, because our brains cannot properly pause and digest what we are reading on digital devices. The chairman of National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia states that reading a book requires a degree of active attention and engagement (Albanese, 2016). This is possible with the print book, but not with the e-book. Andrew Piper, the author of Book was There (2012), illustrates how reading a print book is at variance with an e-book. He first argues, “Books, like hands, hold our attention” (p. 7). The margins of the book give authors and readers a space to pinpoint the important information. It enables readers to concentrate more on highlighted information. However, it is hard to know where its contours are when reading a book with digital text. Piper remarks that digital texts are somewhere, but where they are has become increasingly complicated, abstract, even forbidden (p. 15). This shows how readings that are available on the digital have made harder for readers to decode texts whereas print books are grasping readers’ attention. On top of that, Piper also claims “the book’s handiness is a sign of its reliability. Books are things that can be trusted, a fact that has much to do with the nature of their tactility” (p. 5). The book has a strong ability to conjoin the different faculties of touch, sight and sound into a single medium and its ability helps residing within a more diverse ecology of information (p. 7). He strongly believes that these three senses are the best guarantee that a message will be received, that individuals will arrive at a sense of shared meaning. On the other hand, readers cannot feel the impression of the digital: “The touch of the page brings us into the world, while the screen keeps us out” (Piper, 2012, p. 15). Although digital devices have enabled readers to access to a book more convenient, the e-book and its digital text are making harder to concentrate and decode text compared to the print book.

Moreover, Perrin’s critical analysis of the book reading and its trend in 2016 has uncovered that Americans increasingly turn to multipurpose devices which include smartphones, tablet and computers rather than dedicated e-readers when they engage with e-book content (2016). Between 2011 and 2016, the use of tablet computer has increased by 11 percent and smartphones has increased by 8 percent. On the other hands, dedicated e-readers only increased by 1 percent. Unlike the e-reader, which is primarily designed for the purpose of reading books, smartphones, tablets and computers are mainly designed for multi-functionality such as listening, socializing, communicating, and gaming. Mike Shartzkin, the founder and chief executive of the Idea Logical Company argues, “As more and more people are reading on multifunction devices, there are all kinds of temptations that intrude on book-reading time” (Alter, 2016). Peter Hildick-Smith, the president of Codex also claims that electronic devices are optional for reading books. He uncovers that the current range of e-book reading devices, including smartphones, tablets, and dedicated e-readers, has not delivered the quality long-form reading experience needed to supplant print, even with e-books’ major price and convenience advantages (Milliot, 2016). Piper (2012) also comments, “reading devices become tools of mobilization rather than iteration. Reading is nomadic rather than domestic” (p. 55). These evidences indicate that books that are available on digital devices can interrupt the flow of reading. For example, when reading a book on the smartphone, you will be easily distracted by notifications from your social media and emails as well as phone call. Multifunctional devices are not made for reading, but American readers still prefer reading on their mobile devices, which they carry all the time.

Lastly, Milliot (2016) exposes that a new e-book consumer phenomenon has remarkably emerged, which is called digital fatigue. Piper (2012) depicts fatigue as one of the basic conditions of the digital: “when we look at screens, we become prematurely tired, the optical equivalent of carpal tunnel syndrome” (p. 36). According to the survey that was conducted by the Codex (Milliot, 2016), among book buyers who spends almost five hours on their daily personal on screens, 25% of book buyers, including 37% of those 18-24 years old has stated that they want to spend less time on their digital devices. Consumers always have the option to choose physical books, they indicate a preference to return to print book. 59 percent of those who said they are reading fewer e-books cited a preference for print as the main reason for switching back to physical books. Reading a book in a smaller screen, brightness of the screen and movable text have led readers to a mental fatigue, which makes it harder to read and concentrate. Peter Hildick-Smith exposes that consumers tiring of their digital-device experience will have further digital fatigue, leading to continued e-book sales erosion (Milliot, 2016).

Majority of people predicted that the print book will be soon deteriorated as the e-book, which was initially launched by Amazon and Barnes and Noble in 2007 and 2010, emerges and changes the reading behaviour. However, the study conducted by Pew Research Center reveals that it is a false assumption. PRC’s survey conveys that readers are predominantly turning to printed books over digital books and e-book sales are gradually dropping because of the increased price. However, recent articles unveil that people tend not to read the e-book as a major reading format due to the lack of concentration and comprehension, the increased use of multi-purpose digital devices, and the sign of digital fatigue. Unlike print books, which grasp readers’ attention, e-books are much harder to focus and comprehend its text due to its spatial landmark. E-books which make it easy to download and read instantly on digital devices and readers’ preference to read books on digital devices starts to expand due to its mobility and convenience. This has resulted reading to become an optional activity and get easily distracted by the notification from the email, text message and social media. The increased number of readers suffering from a digital fatigue is also the case in decline of e-book sales. Readers who report the experience of tiredness are more likely to return to print book. It is interesting to see what will happen to the e-book in 2017.


Work Cited

Albanese, A. P. (2016, Sept 16). Print or digital, it’s reading that matters. Publishers Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/71500-print-digital-and-what-really-matters.html

Alter, A. (2016, Sept 23). Audiobooks Turn More Readers Into Listeners as E-books Slips. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/business/media/audiobooks-turn-more-readers-into-listeners-as-e-books-slip.html

Kozlowski, M. (2016, Aug 9). HarperColins reports e-book sales are down. Good e-Reader. Retrieved from http://goodereader.com/blog/e-book-news/harpercollins-reports-e-book-sales-are-down

Kozlowski, M. (2016, Sept 17). E-books are on the decline and people are switching back to print. Good e-Reader. Retrieved from http://goodereader.com/blog/electronic-readers/e-books-are-on-the-decline-and-people-are-switching-back-to-print

Milliot, J. (2016, June 17). As e-book sales decline, digital fatigue grows. Publishers Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/70696-as-e-book-sales-decline-digital-fatigue-grows.html

Perrin, A. (2016, Sept 1). Book Reading 2016. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/01/book-reading-2016/#the-share-of-americans-who-have-read-a-book-in-the-last-year-is-largely-unchanged-since-2012-more-americans-read-print-books-than-either-read-e-books-or-listen-to-audio-books

Piper, A. (2012). Book was there: Reading in electronic times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


  1. Overall, I found this paper to be very informative and covering a topic that is very important, and one that I touched on myself in my own paper. It was very clear in your opening paragraph the points that you were going to bring up. However, I felt overall that it lacked cohesion at some points in your argument. I think the paper would have been better served if you had been able to put in some personal experience with this topic in there as well.

    I enjoyed the first paragraph regarding the discussion of concentration and comprehension. I liked how you brought up that tactile element of books, and how people still have an attachment to it. It reminded me of what Hannah brought up in class, how you can’t rotate and touch an e-reader in the same way that you can a print book. Although you talked in depth about the tactile elements of the book, you only briefly mentioned why eBooks don’t have the same. I would have liked to see more of this, and I feel this was a missed opportunity.

    In the next paragraph, the discussion turns to the role of multipurpose devices. It concludes that people use devices such as smartphones and iPads to read and that e-readers don’t really serve a purpose because of this. However, the paragraph appears to contradict itself when it states that “smartphones, tablets, and dedicated e-readers, has not delivered the quality long-form reading experience needed to supplant print, even with e-books’ major price and convenience advantages.” This paragraph leaves me confused as to what the relationship is between smartphones are the e-reader is. Do people not like e-books because they can read on smartphones? Or do people just not like to read on digital devices in general.

    Finally, the paper moves on to discussing digital fatigue. The argument is that since we spend so much time looking at a screen for our computers and smartphones, we don’t want to look at another one to read a book. Print books give us a sense of a break from constantly looking at a digital screen. It includes some eye-opening statistics as well as some excellent arguments. Personally, this is the most relatable reason for not buying an e-book, as I enjoy taking a break from the screen of my computer to read a print book.

    In general, I feel however that this paper could have used with fewer quotes from external sources. At times, it felt like a literature review, and I didn’t really get the sense that your own personal opinion came through. And while the statistics were great, I would have liked to see some of your own personal opinion on the subject, at least in the concluding paragraph. I also would have liked to seen perhaps how all of these points are connected. It felt like each point you made was independent of each other, and didn’t really connect. Other than that, it was well written and had a nice structure to it.

  2. This is a thorough and well-research essay that takes on the technological reasons why ebook sales might be declining. I appreciate your focus on the question of how our interfaces actually work — why it’s hard to pay attention on ebooks, why multi-purpose devices pull us away from reading, why we’re exhausted by screens. I would have appreciated a little more balance in the form of some of the benefits of ebooks, including accessibility (not ALL readers have a harder time reading screens than pages). And I agree with Nick that some stronger sense of your own perspective on the issue, beyond your note of curiosity in the final sentence, would have been interesting. A final, thorough copy-editing would have also helped to make the essay more readable by eliminating typos (especially within quotations!). All in all, though, this is a balanced and thoughtful essay.

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