Print books are surviving—even thriving—in the e-reader age

Publishers are finding the public—especially young people—just aren’t that interested in e-books

Woman surrounded by books

(Peter Macdiarmid/Getty)

A growing body of evidence suggests print books may be here to stay, which goes against the conventional wisdom that digital everything is the new normal.

In January, U.K. bookseller Waterstones reported that paper book sales actually rose 5 per cent over the key Christmas buying month. Sales of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, meanwhile, dove off a cliff.

This is resulting in the previously unthinkable: the book store chain is planning to add new outlets in 2015 – at least a dozen of them.

While anecdotal, Waterstones’ experience is supported by lower profits recently at Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. The cited culprits were fewer blockbuster titles and declines in ebook sales.

A number of recent studies also suggest that the public – especially young people – aren’t as enamoured with digital reading as might have been expected.

A Pew Research study last year, for example, found that more than three quarters of people between 18 and 24 had read a print book in the past year. Only 21 per cent had read an e-book. Two-thirds of kids between 6 and 17 polled preferred print books.

A recent University of Washington study also found that about a quarter of students who were provided e-textbooks for free went and bought the physical book too.

A linguistics professor at American University found that 92 per cent of college students polled said they concentrated better when studying with paper books.

A Chicago Tribune editorial on the topic has a hilarious quote from a university graduate that captures the issue perfectly: “It’s my worst nightmare that some Christmas I’ll get a Kindle and have to pretend I like it.”

E-books, it seems, are the modern-day equivalent of a pair of socks or a bottle of Old Spice: the gift that’s a real let-down. Never mind the studies that suggest they’re bad for your health.

Digital proponents may blame the failure of e-books to catch on, at least so far, on publishers’ various efforts to resist them. Whether that has taken the form of copy protection or pricing disputes, publishers certainly haven’t embraced the format to the same extent that television and movie producers have, or even record labels.

But a good part of it also likely boils down to what many of the studies are finding: when it comes time to settle down and really immerse oneself in some knowledge, old-fashioned print books just can’t be beat.