Is this perhaps the most important time in the ebook vs print book debate?
This morning I saw a post from The Guardian about the decline in sales of print books and it really got me thinking – are physical books on the way out? This is such a complex and multifaceted argument, and obviously I am not the authority on this, but let’s have a discussion.
This year was unprecedented. As we rang in 2020 (with some of us accidentally pouring a full cup of Disaranno and Coca Cola over their own head during Auld Lang Syne… ahem) none of us could have predicted where we would be today in November. With more people staying indoors and adhering to the guidelines, they have been turning to new or different forms of entertainment. Enter the digital book.
Over the years ebooks have had a bit of a rough time, with results going up and down. Sales had been on the decline for a number of years now. However, this year, digital books by British publishers are set to have their best year since 2015*, with sales of both ebooks and audiobooks reaching an all time high. There are around 15.6m users of ebooks within the UK, and a forecast that this will increase by almost another million in the next few years!† Wow.
While this sounds great, it comes hand in hand with some not so good news: sales of print books in the first half of the year were down by £55m*. FIFTY FIVE MILLION POUNDS. And clearly the pandemic has played its part in this decline, particularly with the local lockdowns that have massively affected the high street and local, independent booksellers.
So, I’ve been thinking. What is it about ebooks that is turning the tables right now? Sit back, grab a lil snack and get comfy ’cause this is a long one.
Ebook vs Print Book
I’m a lover of both physical and digital books and have been for years. I love collecting physical books, especially my favourites and effectively making shrines. But at the same time, I often find myself glued to my Kindle, particularly at night when really I should be asleep. Especially if I want to be semi-conscious for work in the morning but bookworm problems, you know?
The ebook vs print book debate is a tough one, but here are some of my thoughts.
- Searching online for recommendations and then browsing the aisles of a bookshop trying to find it
- Wandering around bookstores and stumbling across your next favourite read or falling in love with a cover
- THE SMELL OF A BOOK! Honestly
- The pleasing aesthetic of a well put together bookcase
- Being able hold the book in your hands, write notes on the pages or tab away to heart’s content
- The creativity of making a little shrine to your favourite book, series, or author
- Taking your physical copy to get signed by the author at an event
- Passing a book around a friendship group or book club
- I personally find it easier to read larger/more complex books in physical format
- The motivation it gives you when you can physically see how far you have come and how many pages you have left
- Beautiful book covers, end pages, SPRAYED EDGES!
- The anticipation of ordering a new physical book and waiting for it to arrive, (carefully) ripping away the packaging and admiring your new baby
- You can support local and indie bookshops who rely on the sales of physical books
- The convenience! If I’m reading at night in bed, I can turn the light off so my boyfriend isn’t disturbed and I can stay up late reading, and even turn the pages and hold the e-reader with the same hand
- The synchronicity is a huge one for me. I can be reading on my Kindle and then later on grab my phone, open the Kindle app and pick up where I left off
- Highlighting on my Kindle is much easier than highlighting in a physical book
- There are lots of different ebook platforms. iBooks is available for iPhones, you can download the Kindle app to smartphones, Kobo and more. This makes it possible for most people to access to ebooks.
- The speed at which you can find a new book you want to read, download it and actually open it
- Usually ebooks are cheaper. There are lots of deals available, usually daily, where you can pick up new reads for less than £1. Sometimes this even applies to new books! But even if they are not 99p, more often than not they are still less expensive than the physical edition
- Ebooks give you easier access to self published authors who otherwise you might not have come across or been able to read
- I read a ton of romance on my Kindle. Especially thanks to Kindle Unlimited!
- I can often read a book much quicker when it’s an ebook
- With self published books you can support indie or smaller businesses such as cover designers, editors etc
- Self published ebooks mean that authors can can release their work in a way that may be more accessible to them, as they may not be in a position to publish a physical book
What do other people say?
Obviously there are also lots of other things that could factor into people’s preferences such as accessibility, age group, socio-economic status and more. So I asked some pals, peers and family members to share their views on the ebook vs print book argument with me too!
So many people wanted to get involved which makes me so happy, and they make some fab points too.
KirstyReadsBlogs says: “I still love physical books because I often find I struggle with reading denser stuff as an ebook. So like fantasies and literary fic is just hard for me to read on ebook. Whereas with romance I read that so fast on ebook. I love buying like 99p ebooks. And I think the growth of ebooks seems like it’s really helping smaller authors (especially from minority groups) get their work out there.”
JessMegan_Reads told me that the main reason she likes her Kindle is due to the backlight, as she prefers reading in bed and can fall asleep easier. She uses her e-reader for mainly intimidating fantasy and romance. This is partly due to a lack of physical storage space but also because the smaller font some physical books use give her a headaches. Kindle books have also helped her discover new authors and ebooks through review platforms such as Netgalley are invaluable with her job as a bookseller.
Alison from Antari Reads says “as much as I love to collect physical books and see their beautiful covers and spines on my shelves, I personally prefer to read e-books. an e-reader is so light in my hands, it allows me to read more comfortably, but the most important reason why love my kindle is because I find so many cheap e-books that I wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.”
Bec says that “I’ve always had a preference for physical books over ebooks and audiobooks – I think that, although I appreciate that books have so many different accessible formats now, I generally struggle to read ebooks myself (however, I’ve recently discovered that I can read romance ebooks without any trouble!). I think if I’m reading a fantasy, or anything with lots of world building where I may want to flip forwards to look at a map or just to check something, I’ll always choose a physical book.”
Lorin adds that she would always read chunky fantasy physically so she can flip back and forth easily, but when it comes to thrillers and novellas she much prefers ebooks, and she’s definitely partial to an ebook spree!
ConnieReads says in the ebook vs print book debate she 100% prefers physical books, especially as she spends all day staring at a screen for work so she likes being able to rest her eyes with some non-reflective paper.
Imi shares her thoughts: “I think the ebook vs physical copy debate is one that isn’t going to go away. I will always prefer the reading experience of a print book, but I’m unsure if I could survive without ebooks anymore. As someone who likes to constantly have reading material at my fingertips, having an ebook on my phone, ipad and kindle means that I can maximise my time reading as well as never been caught without a book when I’m looking for something to do.”
She continues with, “At the same time, there’s nothing better than the smell of a new book and curling up in front of a fire and sinking into those pages. It’s not a case of one against the other, but instead finding the balance between the two that works for you.”
Kate tells me, “I’d actually find it hard to choose between ebooks and physical books, as I think there are merits to both formats. The sensory elements of holding a physical book are so satisfying and, after a full day of looking at a screen, it’s nice to sit down and read off the page to give your eyes a break. Plus, it’s lovely to own a physical copy of a book you love. But ebooks are so portable and don’t take up any shelf space, which is great for me since I have none.
Kate also says she is “far more likely to whip out an ebook than a physical book while queueing for the post office or eating dinner, and ebooks can’t get damaged in the same way physical books can. So, she’s a big fan of both!
Hannah Kaye feels that “the whole argument of ebook vs print books is kind of redundant as no format is better than the other. No matter which format someone prefers they are still getting to experience the story and the authors work. Although there has been a distinct increase of ebook sales over physical sales, I don’t think the physical format of a book will ever truly die out. Ebooks are reliant on many things. If your device runs out of charge physical books are always available. Who knows what the future holds? But we should embrace all manner of reading and find joy that everyone can experience a story in the best way for them.”
Lauren says that she “absolutely loves the accessibility that ebooks can offer, however I think a lot of people forget that for many readers the accessibility comes in the form of physical copies too. Personally I land somewhere in the middle as my migraines are manageable and infrequent enough that I can choose to read ebooks, though not for long periods of time. But knowing I can always have a selection to hand is a great help for moments of free time or trouble sleeping. My preference though will always be with physical copies as I find them easier to get stuck into and lost amongst the story (perhaps knowing the chances of eye strain and headaches being a lot less plays into this). There’s just something extra engaging about the smell, feel, and look of a physical book!“
Lauren also makes a fantastic point that accessibility extends past health and into the location of readers the availability that their countries offer, which is tied into affordability and privilege and should be considered in these discussions.
Beth tends to swap between both formats, but definitely prefers physical books and finds that she does read more of them. However, she feels like she reads ebooks faster though.
Joshua makes an interesting point, saying that he uses both formats and particularly loves maps in physical books, but that he would love to receive a digital download of the ebook after buying the physical edition, like with vinyl records!
One of my best friends who isn’t really a big reader says that while an ebook is easier to get hold of, she prefers print books because it feels more real, and that if she did have an ebook she would end up looking at other things on her phone.
George, my boyfriend, agrees. He only really tends to read on holiday, but would rather pick up a physical book because it provides more escapism and gets him off his phone or stops him looking at a screen.
My Mum says that after trying digital books does prefer a physical book as she “loves to see the cover and the feel of the pages“. My Dad, whom is largely responsible for my love of books says he would rather have physical but due to lack of storage he has gone digital in many areas.
A summary of everyone’s thoughts
Clearly there are aspects of both formats that appeal to different people, or like me, some love both.
You could argue that those who aren’t regular readers say they would prefer a paperback to give them a more immersive, distraction free experience. More seasoned readers say that in many ways ebooks work better for them, due to accessibility, affordability and comfort. I also found, and agree, that genre is a deciding factor too.
Print books aren’t forgotten though, for sure. Many people love the experience of reading a physical book, the smell, the feel of the pages and the aesthetics and larger books are preferred in a print format.
It is also important to consider that for some people this isn’t necessarily a choice. Not all books are published in every country, and as Lauren mentioned, privilege is a huge component in this debate.
Is there a winner in the ebook vs print book debate?
I think that despite what the stats are saying, it’s not as clear cut as picking just one winner in the ebook vs print book debate.
Sales of physical books may be on the decline now as a result of the pandemic, but who is to say the numbers won’t rise again once we get back on our feet? On the other hand, maybe this is the catalyst digital books needed to get themselves ahead of the competition. Are we seeing a market shift that is here to stay?
Buying physical books has been a huge form of self care for me during lockdown, and I will continue to expand my collection for years to come. At the same time, I don’t see my fondness for ebooks declining either. Both almost serve a different purpose for me and I am excited to continue supporting both formats.
I’d love to hear what you think on the ebook vs print book debate, there are so many different arguments for and against each format and the discussion is HUGE. I wish I could have covered more here, so if you want to chat about it drop me a message or comment below.