Neilsen recently reported that sales of ebooks were down 16% in 2016 from the year previous.

Unlike other entertainment industries, such as music or television, consumers appear to be turning their backs on digital in favour of traditional books.

Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be a generational trend.

People under 30 are just as likely to disregard ebooks - a fact reflected by a 35% drop in digital sales of young adult fiction during the first half of 2016, and cemented by an increase of 7.4% in paperback sales of the same genre.

So, what’s behind the ebook decline?

A switch-off from social media

Despite being known as the ‘always on’ generation, millennials don’t actually want to be glued to a screen 24/7. 

In fact, a large proportion of young people are feeling inclined to switch off due to the constant pressure to be active on social media. Ofcom recently found that 34% of internet users have voluntarily gone offline at some point for this very reason.

In line with this is a greater desire to spend less time on digital devices as a whole.

Despite advancements in technology making ebook screens thinner and lighter than ever before - mimicking the paper-thin nature of print - the very concept of reading on an electronic device is still a step too far for some. 

Unlike watching a film, having the option to read print over digital means that many people will naturally revert back to the latter, thereby stemming the sales of ebook devices and digital books.

Desire for a physical customer experience

Research has shown that the implicit understanding of how far along you are in a story increases the enjoyment of reading a physical book. In contrast, the inability to visualise progress arguably makes using an ebook a somewhat shallow and unsatisfactory experience.  

Similarly, the tactile element, not only of reading a physical book, but browsing and buying within a real bookstore is also preferable.

We’re constantly being told that consumers crave an immersive, interactive shopping experience. As a result, more and more online retailers are meeting the demand by entering into the physical realm.

Amazon – a retailer that has dominated the book industry in recent years – opened its first ever bricks-and-mortar book shop in 2015. Waterstones has also stopped selling the Kindle in its UK stores, instead choosing to use the space for hardback and paperback books.

It’s not just large or established brands that are noticing the demand for print either. The trend has trickled down to new and startup businesses, with many combining the best of both digital and traditional publishing.

Meanwhile, with just 32% of people trusting mainstream news media, companies like AuthorHouse and Print on Paper are tapping into this distrust (and the simultaneous demand for print) by allowing anyone to self-publish books and print their own newspapers.

Popularity of audiobooks

It’s not just a resurgence for print that has contributed to less interest in ebooks. Alongside an increase in physical book sales, interest in audiobooks has also skyrocketed in recent years. 

Audiobooks are said to be the fastest-growing format in publishing, with sales rising 35.3% in the first half of 2016. So, why the sudden surge?

Meeting the desire for less screen time without compromising on the immersive nature of storytelling, audiobooks are the perfect solution for the aforementioned digital fatigue. 

Moreover, with cars now including Bluetooth as standard, plus smartphones overtaking laptops as the primary device for getting online – consumers are increasingly turning to audiobooks in place of reading or even listening to music. 

Lastly, it’s also been suggested that we’re are moving towards an ‘agnostic’ channel experience, whereby consumers see little difference between audio, visual and textual platforms, as long as they are able to become fully immersed in the story.

In conclusion…

While there is still a place for ebooks in certain contexts, such as travel or in spontaneous need, it’s hard to foresee digital book sales bouncing back to where they once were.

Of course, this does not mean that consumers are forgoing digital text entirely – rather that the onslaught of online news, magazines, social media and messaging is more than enough.

When it comes to reading a good book, this spells great news for traditionalists.

Nikki Gilliland

Published 27 January, 2017 by Nikki Gilliland @ Econsultancy

Nikki is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Kris Hunt, Director at Of Colour & Code

While there might be a touch of screen fatigue appearing, I think one of the biggest reasons might be that ebooks are now VAT chargeable, whereas printed books are not. I think this came into force two years ago and a 20% price increase will no doubt have had a negative impact on the sector.

10 months ago

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