Why Are Americans Buying Far More Paper Books than eBooks in 2020?

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Photo by Vladimir Pustovit, shared via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.

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Americans are buying more books than ever before—especially in the midst of this global pandemic—according to coverage of the industry by Publishers Weekly magazine, PW. The latest PW report in the October 16, 2020, issue says: “Unit sales of print books rose 7.9% in the week ended Oct. 10, 2020, over the comparable week in 2019.” That dramatic increase has been led by “adult trade nonfiction,” which is the primary focus of Front Edge Publishing.

That’s not news. This jump in sales has been consistent since summer and news reports have popped up nationwide—including in The New York Times—about the production backlogs this dramatic rise in book shopping has touched off.

What surprises many of our authors and readers is this: Most people continue to prefer ink-on-paper books. Over the past month, as Editor of Front Edge Publishing, I’ve had this conversation repeatedly with journalists, community leaders and authors nationwide. I explain that the boom in book sales is causing some shipping delays from the printing plant, then I often hear: “But aren’t people mostly buying eBooks these days?”

“No,” I say. “While it’s true that lots of people are buying eBooks every day—the vast majority of readers still prefer ink on paper.”

Often, the response I hear is a simple: “Wow.”

As Editor of Front Edge Publishing, I’ve found myself describing this trend in emails to curious colleagues—so I decided to share it publicly, as well, this week.

3 Reasons People Prefer Print Books to eBooks

  • THEY FEEL SO GOOD! The physical experience of reading a well-designed book is a pleasure. That’s why our team pays so much attention to the look and the feel of the books we produce. Readers often describe the matte finish on our covers as “a pleasure to hold.” They also love our colorful, inviting cover designs, most of which are developed by our Art Director Rick Nease.
  • THEY’RE SO SIMPLE TO USE! It’s actually easier to access favorite portions of a real book, when compared fairly to an eBook. Sure, eBook proponents can set up a demonstration to show how tapping on an icon pops up a bookmark instantly—but the fact is that paper books are super easy to open at a physically bookmarked page. I can grab a favorite book off the shelf and open it to one of my bookmarks in the time it takes a friend to wait for a Kindle to “power up.”
  • THEY TELL MY STORY TO THE WORLD. Among the other top reasons print books are preferred: Owning a book is a visual sign to family, friends and co-workers that you aspire to read that particular book. You’re defined by the books you carry with you—and display on coffee tables or shelves. Research shows that Americans hate to throw away or recycle books, even though everything else in our lives seems disposable these days. We keep these visual symbols around us for many years. “Oh, you enjoy baking?” a friend might say when she sees a copy of Lynne Golodner’s Flavors of Faith on your shelf. And a whole new conversation begins.

Then, There’s Digital Fatigue

Perhaps more important than all those other reasons driving preferences for paper books is screen weariness—what Publishers Weekly first described as “Digital Fatigue” in a 2016 headline: As E-book Sales Decline, Digital Fatigue Grows. The sub-headline was: “Limitations of e-reading devices and ‘digital fatigue’ are cited as causes of decline in sales of the format.

Jim Milliot reported for Publishers Weekly, in part:

Though various sources have reported a decline in e-book sales for traditional publishers in 2015 compared to 2014, no one has come up with a clear reason for the drop. To gain some insight into the trend, the Codex Group devoted a recent survey of book buyers’ shopping preferences to looking more deeply into the question. The book market has taken a different path from the music and home video markets, where research from industry associations shows that consumers continued to increase digital spending last year.

What was astonishing in that 2016 PW report was the group most likely to report digital fatigue as a factor in their book buying. Leading the charge away from reading on digital screens were young adults 18-24 years old, closely followed by adults 25-34. 

In 2016, other reports confirmed what PW and Codex reported. The venerable Education Week magazine headlined its story: Do ‘Digital Natives’ Prefer Paper Books to E-Books?

Reporter Kate Stoltzfus answered that question: “Most students still opt to turn actual pages. In the Scholastic survey, 65 percent of children ages 6 to 17 agreed they would always want to read in print, up from 60 percent in 2012.” Why? Among the leading reasons was the pleasurable “tactile experience” of a book.

Want a more recent citation?

CNBC from 2019: Physical books still outsell e-books — and here’s why

This is terrific news for all of us who love reading—and love books themselves!

Want to see some of the gorgeous covers we’ve published over the years? Check out our Front Edge Publishing Bookstore. (Want to order a book but prefer to buy on Amazon or elsewhere? All of our books are offered online via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart and a host of other online retailers.)

About David Crumm

David Crumm is founding Editor of Front Edge Publishing. Nationally, he is known as a veteran journalist—a top writer and editor—with experience both in the U.S. and overseas. He is based in Canton, Michigan, where he also serves as Editor of Read the Spirit online magazine. His columns on trends in media appear twice a month on our Front Edge Publishing website.