Print Books and E-Books: A Balancing Act

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Print Books and E-Books: A Balancing Act

The digital age has shaped much more than smartphones and social media. Digital music streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify make listeners less likely to buy physical copies of music. Digital entertainment streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have revolutionized how we watch TV, with 40 percent of U.S. consumers preferring Netflix over traditional television, according to analyst Barton Crockett. The digital takeover has also made its way into the publishing industry. Following the surge of e-book sales in the latter end of the 2000s, publishers and librarians feared that the days of physical volumes may have been coming to an end.

Despite the initial surge in e-book sales, differences in sales and availability between the two publishing formats are beginning to level out. Online library science degree students will enter an information culture that embraces a mix of print and digital because of this balancing act.
With the help of retrospection, we can now analyze what contributed to the e-book surge, how the print publishing industry has again found its foothold, and how booksellers and librarians will move forward while respecting the e-book–print book balance.

The Rise of the E-Book

An e-book reader.

While it’s difficult to point to one single cause of the surge of e-book sales, there are a few contributing factors that caused traditional publishers concern. In an interview with The Guardian, James Daunt, chief executive of British book retailer Waterstones, said that following the financial crisis of the late 2000s, publishers began cutting costs in an attempt to “boost profit margins.” As a result, publishers sacrificed production values for the sake of making up for lost money. This gave readers less of a reason to have a lower-quality physical copy when they could simply download a less expensive digital version.

Enter the e-reader. While publishers were still reeling from the financial crisis, digital e-readers such as Kindle and Nook took the stage, offering readers another way to read. According to The New York Times, e-book sales rocketed 1,260 percent between 2008 and 2010. Such a surge affected not only publishers, but booksellers as well. In 2011, popular bookseller Borders declared bankruptcy, which only exacerbated current fears.

Over the following years, the popularity of e-books continued to expand, and it didn’t only affect publishers and book stores. In Washington D.C., library print collections carry 39 percent fewer print books than they did in 2009, according to the Chicago Tribune. Author Christopher de Hamel compared the rise of digital publishing to the introduction of the printing press at the end of the 15th century. “Manuscript makers suddenly felt threatened by the printers,” de Hamel said in The Guardian article. In retaliation, manuscript makers tried doing things printers couldn’t, such as adding color to manuscripts. In the end, the printing press won, but it isn’t looking as if it will be the same for digital publishing.

The Current State of Publishing

When Borders closed its doors in 2011, many booksellers thought they would be following suit. Some analysts, according to The New York Times, predicted that e-books would completely overtake print by 2015, but that certainly has not been the case. Despite the recession and competition from Amazon, the American Booksellers Association had 1,410 more member stores in 2015 than it had in 2010. The Guardian mentions that in 2016, England’s Publishing Association found that sales of consumer e-books had dropped by 17 percent in the U.K., and the Association of American Publishers reported that e-book sales had dropped nearly 19 percent in the U.S.

As e-book sales have dropped, print sales have started rising again. The same studies showed that print book sales rose by seven percent in the U.K. and over 10 percent in the U.S. in 2016. What caused things to finally begin to level out? One reason may be the end of the e-reader trend. According to Euromonitor International, global e-reader sales dropped by 40 percent between 2011 and 2016.

Preferences also seem to have shifted back in favor of print books. Pew Research Center found that in the past year, 65 percent of Americans read a print book while only 28 percent read an e-book. Another survey found that only five percent of millennials read only e-books, 34 percent read only print, and 26 percent read an equal amount of both.

Despite their fears, publishers have continued investing in print publishing. Penguin Random House invested nearly $100 million in expanding and updating warehouses and accelerating distribution of books. Publishers also negotiated with Amazon to allow publishers to set their own prices, since Amazon originally set the price of e-books. After settling the negotiation, publishers began charging more for their e-books, and when the price became comparable to print books, consumers increased their purchases of physical volumes.

Libraries Find a Balance

While the majority of Americans read print books last year, a considerable number still prefer e-books, and libraries are searching out ways to meet consumer preferences. “We’re caught between two worlds,” said Darrell Batson, director of the Frederick County Public Libraries System in Maryland.

Carrying e-books requires libraries to pay for access. These permissions tend to be more expensive because publishers are afraid that databases of free e-books will hurt their business. As a result of this dynamic, libraries are adjusting budgets in order to provide readers with the convenience of e-books. In fact, a Library Journal survey found that the portion of library budgets devoted to e-books has grown from 1 percent to 7 percent since 2011.

But if print book sales are again on the rise, why tailor budgets to a minority of e-book readers? As the Public Library Association points out, the evolution of digital content has fueled reading in general. E-books are simply another way to enjoy the content, and libraries are more than willing to supply those resources to readers. Both publishers and librarians are working to meet the needs of readers across the spectrum.

Students who are interested in this ever-evolving subject should consider advancing their education and becoming actively involved. The USC Master of Management in Library and Information Science online degree is a unique program that prepares students to lead libraries and other information institutions into the continually changing dynamic of publication and book collection management.


The Plot Twist: E-Books Sales Slip, and Print is Far From Dead – The New York Times
How Real Books have Trumped Ebooks – The Guardian
Real Books are Back. E-book Sales Plunge nearly 20% – CNN Money
Master of Management in Library and Information Science – USC Online
Balance of Books & Technology: pBooks vs. eBooks – Public Libraries Online
Some Libraries Struggle to Find Balance between Print, Digital – The Chicago Tribune
Is Netflix more Popular than TV? – CBS News