Print books are successfully fighting off digital competitors

After years of seeming on the verge of critical mass, ebook sales are contracting. Why are books not digitizing the way other media have?

A Kobo ebook reader

(Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty)

Ebooks are once again under the microscope as numerous reports point out their supposedly declining sales. The New York Times, for example, says ebook sales fell by 10% in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers, which collects data from nearly 1,200 publishers.

Digital books made up about 20% of the market last year, roughly the same as they did a few years ago, a fact that has traditional publishers almost gloating.

“People talked about the demise of physical books as if it was only a matter of time, but even 50 to 100 years from now, print will be a big chunk of our business,” Penguin Random House chief executive Markus Dohle told the Times.

Several commentators have pointed out that the decline shouldn’t be surprising, given that the big publishers have managed to wrest pricing control away from Amazon. With prices heading upward – surprise, surprise! – ebook sales are going down.

The AAP numbers also don’t tell the whole story. As Fortune’s Mathew Ingram points out, the big publishers’ numbers—those represented by AAP—don’t take into account the rising tide of independently published ebooks. The whole market looks to be growing by about 1% a year when those are added in, he writes.

Duncan Stewart, Deloitte Canada’s research director, points out the obvious problem with that analysis—that slight growth at this stage in the game is not really a good thing:

“Does this really compare to what we have seen in other industries that have been digitally disrupted? US print newspaper ad revenues are down 78% from their peak; CD sales are down 92%, and film camera sales have fallen 99.5% since 1999. When we compare how eBooks have affected print book sales…well, ‘one of these things is not like the other.’”

It took digital music less than a decade to make up more than half of all music sales, whereas we’re now seven years past the launch of the Amazon Kindle—effectively ground zero for ebooks. And yet the U.S., the country furthest along in ebook adoption, is stuck at 20%.

The argument has been made that the copy protection that is rampant in ebooks is stunting the market—MP3 sales only really took off after Apple removed digital rights management restrictions, after all. But that too is probably not the whole story.

As Claire Fallon, the Huffington Post’s books and culture writer, points out, there are plenty of other reasons why ebooks may never catch on with a larger crowd. Simply put, physical books offer a tactile experience that most other forms of media don’t.

Books could indeed be the counter-point to the digital revolution – a physical experience that people want to escape to because they’re tired of looking at screens all day.

That jibes with what Stewart suggests, that certain kinds of books – genre stuff like fan fiction or romance – work better digitally, but print is still a more desirable way to digest the really good meaty writing.

As Fallon puts it, “certain books just feel more real held in our hands and paged through meditatively.”

‘There’s a tendency among the pro-print crowd to romanticize physical books, but in the long run I think they’re right for many of the reasons Fallon outlines in her article.

When I moved house two years ago, I couldn’t get rid of my CDs and DVDs fast enough. I held onto my books, though, and over the past year or so I’ve found myself gravitating back toward the printed page. Many of the people I know read both ebooks and printed books.

They can’t really explain why, other than to say that sometimes they’re just in the mood for something weighty that they can hold.

It just may be that Dohle, the Penguin Random House CEO, is right. Against the conventional wisdom of continual digital progress, printed books might very well be with us for the long haul for reasons that aren’t entirely logical.