It’s official: Printed book trumps eBook

As we take stock of the achievements and failures of the year gone by, here is one bit of information that leaves us happily surprised. Physical books are selling more than eBooks.

25 Feb 2015 | By Dibyajyoti Sarma

According to Nielsen BookScan, a retail sales monitoring service, number of paper books sold globally went up 2.4% last year, including at bookstores and online retail. The Nielsen BookScan service collects the retail sales information from point of sale systems in more than 35,500 bookshops around the world.

According to Publishers Weekly, the international news website of book publishing and bookselling, on the other hand, the global sales figures of physical books never looked so good, as it did in 2014, since sales of eBooks exploded in 2010. Books in its classical form hit rock-bottom in 2012. Since then, Publishers Weekly tells us, physical books are seeing resurgence, in all categories, from children’s books to adult non-fiction, and formats from trade paperback to hardcover.

Same is the story with textbooks. Even the millennial readers, who grew up with digital devices, seem to be rediscovering paper. Several recently studies, including one conducted by tech giant Hewlett-Packard, found that most college students, who have tried both physical books and eBooks, seem to prefer printed books now. In the HP survey, 57% preferred print; only 21% preferred an eTextbook.

While the printing industry can rejoice, eight years after the first Amazon Kindle and five years since the first Apple iPad, this, by no means, is the death knell for eBooks. It’s more like both the formats are going to thrive in harmony. The good news, though, is, we can now stop writing those obituaries about the death of printed books.

Worldwide, the growth in eBook revenues, according to the Association of American Publishers, was a mere 3.8% in 2013, compared to “unprecedented” growth in 2012. The first three quarters of 2014 showed another nice, modest uptick of 5.6%.

At the same time, everything was not hunky-dory in the publishing world either. The sale of mass market paperback continued to slide, and went down 10.3% during the time period when every other format was going up.

Pen mightier than silicon

The eBook technology has its advantages. For one, eBooks are easy to carry and easy to browse. However, the argument that paper book and eBook are mutually exclusive was a misguided one. While eBook will continue to have a market, it cannot hope to replace printed book.

There have been numerous studies which argue that people read differently on a printed page and on a screen. Researchers argue that the comprehension level goes down on screen, as readers are easily distracted, and they tend to skim the pages quickly. Again, an iPad, or an eBook device like Kindle, comes with various other tools, including mails and social networking apps, which can distract even the most serious of readers.

Another reason why paper book will survive is the very quality of it being a book. Printed books are the part of the human existence. People still like how a book looks, how it feels when one picks it up, the rustle of the paper, the smell of the glue. All these are part of the appeal of a printed book, which is missing in the eBook format.

Ownership of a book also plays a role. When one purchases a physical book, the person owns the book. One can have the book and browse it anytime, without the intrusion of technology. There is a feeling of permanence about it, which is missing in eBooks.

The Indian scenario

In India, eBooks never reached the potential to threaten the business of printed books. While the digital devices like iPad and Kindle remains the prerogative of the urban upper/middle class, even they are unwilling to spend money on eBook. They prefer free downloads.

At Jaipur Book Mark 2015, organised on the sidelines of Jaipur Literature Festival, on 21-22 January 2015, the organisers estimated that Indian book market is worth $20 billion, while noting that eBook sales have contracted by as much as 20% this past year.

There is, however, contention about the numbers. According to Vinutha Mallya, who runs the Indian book industry website Booksy, the Indian book market is estimated to be $2 billion (numbers released by FICCI/FIP, etc), not $20 billion. “Also, eBook didn’t go higher than 1-2% of total sales in the last 3-4 years,” she said.

Whatever the number may be, there is no denying the fact that India remains a huge market for printed books. The responsibility now is on printers, publishers and to a certain extent, on authors, to exploit the market.

There are number of things the industry must look at, including quality of the finished product, better advertising, giving importance to the stories, lobbying for government-run public libraries, and so on. There is also a need for the book industry to be a part of the national literacy drive.     

During a discussion between printers and publishers held in Kerala last year on printed book publishing, Sunil Kumar of Elsevier said, in India, eBook is helping publishers identify the untapped book market. “The initial eBook sales are resulting in printed book sales. The challenge still remains in print quantities. Digital printing can play a major role in producing low quantities at remote locations and help publishers in getting to new markets,” he said.

Atul Bahal of MBD Group suggested other ways. “Publishers and authors need to do more promotions for the products. There should be book clubs at school level so that the children get into the habit of reading. Parents should also be made a part of the book clubs,” he said.


Reading in print

In a recent research, Anne Mangen, associate professor, the National Centre for Reading Education and Research, University of Stavanger, Norway, explored the effects of technological interface on reading comprehension.

As part of the study to understand reading comprehension on paper and computer screen, 72 students of 10th grade in two Norwegian schools were given a particular task. They were asked to read two four-page texts (one narrative, one expository) on either paper or computer screen, and then answer comprehension questions on computer.

Mangen found that those students, who read in print, as opposed to on screen, had a better comprehension on the subjects. They also had more emotional response to the materials in question. Mangen said the main findings of the study show that students who read texts in print scored significantly better in the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally.

Mangen offered a possible explanation for the students who scored poorly. It may be because of multitasking during the reading, like shifting between windows and scrolling. There also may be visual fatigue for the students owning to the screen glare and lack of fixity on screen.

According to findings of the study, students reading the text as a news story on paper reported highest level of empathy with the characters of the story. They also said they were ‘transported’ to the story. They revealed that the medium – paper – did not interfere with their immersive experience.


Meanwhile in China

According to the website,, in China, eBook consumption has increased dramatically along with the development and popularisation of smart phones. The ratio of eBook sales to hardcopy sales rose from 10% to 30%. In 2014, 60 million eBooks were downloaded, which is equal to 20% of hardcopy sales. That figure is 10% higher than that of 2013.