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Insights from Hawthorne Publishing

E-books: Flash in the pan or a role well earned in the book industry?

When e-books first became popular and began to be widespread about eight years ago, the fad for them made observers predict that these convenient books in electronic form, transmitted to your e-book reader (generally Kindle from Amazon) would take over the reading market.

And indeed, releases purchased in e-book form quickly went up to 20 and even 30% of the book market in the heady days of 2014 and 15.

E-book or print softbound?

Readers remarked on the ease of having a book transferred in a moment from Amazon to a Kindle or Nook reader, the convenience of using the device to read in a car or on a trip, the advantages of having electronic storage instead of an overloaded shelf of books that will never be read again.

By 2017, though, e-book sales had begun diminishing. Market share of children’s books in e-book form fell sharply and adult e-books were declining—both markets taken together declined 12 %.

What has happened to the book format that was so touted as able to replace the book held in the hand? It turns out that the average reader actually still likes the book in the hands. There’s something comforting and leisurely and artistically pleasurable about holding a book, being able to physically turn a page ahead or behind to check something, stopping to instantly look at the photo of the author as the last page.

And it is of course softbound books that are preferred these days. Some statistics, (which are hard to interpret because they vary a lot) say that paperback books are outselling e-books last year by 20%.

But hardcover and gifting softbound books are one reason print books are holding their own and making a comeback. In the first place, publishers have been featuring stunning and beautiful graphics in many books for sale on Amazon. Illustrations throughout a book, or even a striking cover, done imaginatively can make a book a pleasant aesthetic experience, an appreciated gift, or even a keepsake. Christmas still comes and birthdays still appear, and wrapping up or packaging a book with an arresting or beautiful cover often beats giving someone a gift card to buy the dull electronic book online.

In the first flush of the fad for e-books, libraries rushed to stock them through the company Overdrive, which held an exclusive hold on the market and had technology to allow patrons to take out tiles and read them on their Kindles. The books then disappeared from their e-book systems after a reasonable amount of time.

Vincennes Indiana library director Emily Bunyan said recently, “All our patrons were so eager for us to stock e-books for them to take out, and we did that. Then the demand began to cool and they are not particularly popular these days. Our readers enjoy print books still.”

Electronic formats for books will always be a factor in reading. Readers now have choices.

Eighteen percent of the electronic book market is audio books. More on that next time.


Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing