Fans of print books, who have long lived in fear that their neighborhood bookstore will be rendered obsolete by the ubiquity of ebooks in a matter of years, can take comfort in new numbers from Nielsen Books & Consumer showing that ebooks were outsold by both hardcovers and paperbacks in the first half of 2014.
According to Nielsen’s survey, ebooks constituted only 23 percent of unit sales for the first six months of the year, while hardcovers made up 25 percent and paperback 42 percent of sales. In other words, not only did overall print book sales, at 67 percent of the market, outpace ebook sales, both hardcovers and paperbacks individually outsold ebooks.
Given the explosive growth of ebook sales since the launch of the Kindle in 2007, with increases in the triple digits for several years, many expected the paper book industry to remain in retreat for the foreseeable future. Recently, however, ebook gains seem to have stabilized with hardcover and paperback books still comfortably dominant. In 2013, sales growth for ebooks slowed to single digits, and the new numbers from Nielsen suggest the leveling off was no anomaly.
At Electric Literature, Lincoln Michel theorizes that this anticipates a future in which paper books and ebooks will coexist peacefully. This hope was also expressed to Publishers Weekly last year by industry insiders, including Perseus Books Group CEO David Steinberger, who commented that: "A healthy, diverse marketplace with multiple format, price point, and channel choices for the consumer is generally a positive for readers, authors, and publishers overall.”
Author Stephen King told HuffPost Live recently that he also believes print books have a long and bright future ahead of them, saying, "I think books are going to be there for a long, long time to come." King compares books' prospects positively with those of CDs and vinyl."[A]udio recordings of music have only been around for, I'm going to say, 120 years at the most," he said. "Books have been around for three, four centuries ... There's a deeply implanted desire and understanding and wanting of books that isn't there with music."
This continuing variety in format doesn’t only appeal to choice-conscious consumers. It may be a boon for those worried about the possible downsides of ereading, given growing, though still preliminary, evidence that print books may allow for deeper reading and stronger understanding and memory than digital books. Advocates of more engaged reading have often warned that the increasing omnipresence of ereading might erode our capacity to read deeply.
If the new trends continue, such warnings of the death of print books, and their potential benefits, may prove to have been greatly exaggerated.