Why Books Never Experienced a Digital Revolution

eBooks Should Have Dominated


Michael Beausoleil

3 years ago | 6 min read

When it comes to media consumption bamong young adults their older counterparts, what do they have in common? They like physical books.

The past decade would probably paint a picture telling a contrary story. Borders closed, the eReader craze came, Barnes & Noble started looking like a toy store, and every YouTube creator advertises Audible.

It seems as if the world is trying to kill books, but they remain a form of physical media that won’t die.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Technology should have given us a better solution. Streaming has replaced the process of buying and renting movies. Video games can be downloaded in a matter of minutes.

Music is on its second digital iteration with streaming replacing digital downloads. Yet text, the simplest of mediums, still lives on physical pages.

At this point, it’s clear eReaders are part of the past, not the future. Sales peaked in 2012 and have declined each year since. Of course, iPads and smartphones are fully capable of reading digital books. That doesn’t mean people are actually using them to read, the percentage of Americans who have read an eBook has been pretty flat since the peak of eReader sales.

Despite all of the benefits and the conveniences, physical books reign supreme. How has this one form of media thwarted away digital competition when no other form of media could do the same?

eBooks Should Have Dominated

When you think about the experience of reading an eBook and the limitations of reading a physical book, eBooks should be the superior product.

I recently read a book on my iPad and there was a lot that should have made the experience great. I can highlight important text, but unlike a physical book, I can remove the highlight. My iPad can be rotated in either orientation and the eBook adapts. If the text was too small I could make it larger. When I came across an unfamiliar word I could look it up in the Books app.

Most of these benefits cater to an older demographic, but they’re not the only one who can benefit. I think of how much better my high school experience would have been if I had an eReader instead of physical books.

I could have taken notes on the book, I wouldn’t have to make a special effort to order my text books, and the eReader is so much lighter. I shudder at the thought of thirteen year olds lugging around 40 lbs. of text books, a reality I was all too familiar with while in school.

There are also areas where pros and cons depend on the person. If you like to read outside, glare can be an issue on an eReader. If you read in bed, having a lit screen is clearer than a lamp. You never have to worry about tearing an eBook, but replacing your iPad is far more expensive than replacing your copy of Twilight.

Plus, there’s the environmental benefits. It should be obvious that eBooks avoid the use of paper while barely making a dent in the storage space on your iPad. Walking into a Barnes and Noble should be evidence enough that books use a lot of paper, but estimates has placed the consumption around 16 million tons.

Despite all of the conveniences, eBook never caught on. In 2012, when eReader sales peaked, it seemed like physical books took a hit. In the years after that sales slowly rebounded.

US Sales of Printed Books via Statista
US Sales of Printed Books via Statista

With iPad, smartphones, and laptops, it seems almost any American can buy and eBook, but for some reason they’re not.

Why Physical Books Still Dominate

Studies have reflected the preference for physical books, often finding a people prefer paper to pixel by a landslide. Spending habits can be measured by dollars spent or units sold, but motives behind the dominance of physical books isn’t quite as measurable.

I’ve asked people who read books why they prefer paper.

The answers vary, but it’s usually for sentimental reasons. They range from a sense of comfort and familiarity to a perceived convenience and tranquility associted with physical books. People learn to read on paper, so their habits form at a young age and revolve around paper products.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

Physical books allow you disconnect from the world. It’s not uncommon to see people consuming other media while engaging in another tasks, but it’s really hard to multi-task while reading.

If you read on your iPad or iPhone, you’re subjecting yourself to notifications and background noise. Physical books are simple, without distractions, and can transport readers away from technology.

Readers also judge books by the cover, because many view the physical copies as a work of art. It’s certainly true that many books have visually captivating covers and can be displayed with pride. The majority of books will not get this treatment, being regulated to a bookshelf where they remain untouched.

Despite the fact that they consume space and collect dust, readers assume a sense of ownership when they own a physical book. This is missing from the eBook experience, despite the fact that you do own content when purchasing an eBook.

Yet the lack of ownership rings true when it comes to movies and music. There is no physical products through iTunes or Netflix, but theses services essentially transformed industries.

In fact, the older population tends to be the ones who recognize the conveniences of eBooks when compared to physical. They may not change behaviors because of these benefits, but they at least acknowledge eBooks have perks. Digital text can be zoomed and modified in ways print cannot.

If I had to summarize why physical books are more popular, it’s because people are creatures of habit. They never saw faults with traditional books, and if they did, they didn’t see solutions in eBooks.

Are eBooks Dying?

As of now, the eBook market still exists. It seems pretty stagnant, but it’s not going to disappear in the next few years.

There’s also no evidence physical books are going to disappear. There is evidence supporting the closure of major book retailers like Barnes and Nobel, but books themselves still have a strong market.

Consumers will find major releases at stores like Walmart, Costco, and Target. For more niche selections they’ll need to go to Amazon or an independent book store.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

When it comes to digital literature, audiobooks may be the real competitor. Thanks to services like Audible, more Americans are listening to Audiobooks than they were five years ago. That number seems to continue to grow, reflecting another potential competitor for physical books.

eBooks never became the revolution people anticipated, but there’s no need to kill the industry. Converting text to a digital file and making it available for online purchase is a relatively simple process.

If a book is ready for print, it’s worthwhile to make it available for the eBook market, even that market is a third of the physical market.

There’s also potential for eBooks to gain steam in the future, as student are no longer learning to read on paper.

Schools are making tablets or Chromebooks a requirement for students, and children are more comfortable with technology than ever before. It’s quite possible children will enjoy the convenience of eBooks before they embrace the tradition of print.

A few years down the road, when these students are ready for the Twilight of their generation, they’re likely to embrace pixels before make a special trip to Walmart.

For the time being, paper isn’t going away. Somehow books have withstood the test of time. Readers have maintained a sentimental connection with their favorite novels that technology cannot replace.

Even millennials have rejected eBooks, paving a road for physical books to remain dominate for years to come. Other media mayy try to remove books from shelves, but it’s quite possible we’ll need to phase out people before we phase out paper.

Originally published on medium.


Created by

Michael Beausoleil

Product designer, educator, content marketer.







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