The printed book is not dead. In 2016, The Publishing Association, the leading body of UK publishers, released a report showing e-book sales falling by 17% and a parallel rise in print book sales of 8%. Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, believes these results highlight that “there’s no getting away from the tangible delights of reading in a format that has remained relatively unchanged since the printer Aldus Manutius pioneered the portable, hand-held book.”
He makes a great point. The concept of the ‘book’ has not changed since the mid-fifteenth century when the Gutenberg Press made it possible for Manutius to invent the ‘book’ as we know today. Such a format has proved so endearing that, although the words may have moved from print to digital, e-readers today try to mimic printed books by using skeuomorphic techniques to make readers more comfortable with the new technology. Skeuomorphism refers to the practice or idea of taking something from an older technology and placing it in a new technology. For instance, when you turn the page of an e-book on an iPad, it looks like you are turning a real page. The programmers and designers behind e-books and e-readers knew that their audience was already accustomed to the printed book, and so they sought ways to mimic that style. Nevertheless, the introduction of the e-book in 1991 was a huge innovation that threatened the publishing industry’s very existence.
The early 2010s were a trying time for publishing houses. Teicher credits this to a pervasive fear that digital publishing was going to replace the traditional role of a publishing house, including how books are distributed. Some feared that this technology might potentially even lead to a take-over of the publishing business themselves. As we now see from recent data, those predictions were overstated. Indeed, the e-book, while here to stay, will not fully replace its physical counterpart, given stagnating sales in major markets such as Europe, and slower than anticipated growth rates leading to a renaissance of the printed book.
Why, then, are e-book sales plateauing while print sales are on the rise? Phil Stokes, head of PwC’s UK Entertainment and Media division, believes the resurgence of the physical book is not only due to its greater appeal, but also because certain genres are better suited for the print format. For example, most people prefer hardcover cookbooks. Stokes also notes the upsurge in adult coloring books, which lend themselves to print. Allen Lindstrom, CFO of Barnes & Noble, reported that in 2016, 14 million adult coloring books were sold, compared with 10 million in 2015 and 1 million in 2014. While the growth of adult coloring books is not sustainable due to market saturation, the popularity of the genre and rapid increases in sales are positive reflections of people’s continued enthusiasm for the printed book.
Additionally, Brian O’Leary, the executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, points out that e-book prices have risen over the past few years, and are now almost comparable to those of printed books. Jonathan Stolper, Senior VP and Global Managing Director for Nielson Books, a company that provides book data to publishing houses, explains that this is a result of the Big Five Trade Houses – Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan – increasing their e-book prices by about $3. This resulted in each e-book costing an average of $8, driving the prices of self-published books down to around $3 per e-book. Carolyn Reidy, President and CEO of Simon & Schuster, also credits the rise in e-books sales to the increased number of e-reader platforms, like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad. The increased diversity of e-readers allows publishing houses to raise the prices of e-books to over $10 because e-books are licensed. For example, if Amazon wants to provide an e-book to their customers, they need to buy the rights from the respective publishing house to do so. Accordingly, a publisher could choose to withhold a book from Amazon. This applies to Apple iBooks as well. For consumers, if the e-book version is the same price as the printed version, why not just buy the preferred physical text?
Markus Dohle, CEO of Penguin Random House, highlights another reason that print books have remained so dominant: hildren’s books. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2017, he explained how children and young adult genres have been the fastest-growing categories within the book market for the past ten years. Similarly, Kristen McLean, the Director of New Business Development at Nielson Books, announced at the 2016 Children’s Book Summit that the children’s book market has grown by 52% since 2004. In addition to the growth of the children’s market, the young adult segment has also grown significantly, with grown adults comprising many of the genre’s readership. Some estimates figure that as much as 70% of young adult book sales are comprised of individuals ages 18-64. This wide age range of readers illustrates the popularity of the genre. Since the children’s book market is the fastest growing book genre, many publishers feel like the future of the publishing industry is safe.
The publishing industry will continue to expand and innovate in order to keep up with technology. Publishers expect that audiobooks will experience high growth as they attempt to stay ahead of the e-book market. Today, both print books and e-books appear to be sustainable mediums, and thankfully, it looks as if printed books will remain an integral part of our world for the foreseeable future.
 Professor Whitney Trettien at the University of Pennsylvania. ENGL 210: The Art of the Book