Why have e-books not proven more popular?

The predicted demise of print as we know it appears premature

The obituary for the printed book has been written many times since the advent of electronic books (e-books) – titles that can be read on a dedicated device such as a Kindle, a tablet such as an iPad, a laptop, or even a phone.

Former small business minister Nick Sherry wasn't alone when he said in 2011 that by 2016 bookshops would be all but wiped out because e-book sales would reach a tipping point.

"I think in five years, other than a few specialty bookshops in capital cities, you will not see a bookstore. They will cease to exist," Sherry said.

Yet Australians are still buying printed books – and local booksellers have recorded increased printed book sales during the past two years, according to Nielsen BookScan. Figures have dipped since five years ago, but the 2014 sales of A$937 million were up on the A$918 million from 2013.

With e-books, fiction sells better than non-fiction, but even in that category less than one-half of sales are in e-book form. Works by popular authors such as US crime writer Michael Connelly, American Jodi Picoult or Australian women's fiction author Kate Morton can generate one-quarter to one-third of their sales in e-book form, according to Allen & Unwin, which publishes those authors.

Non-fiction sells even less in e-book form, though books that have a strong narrative, such as a popular biography, may sell at a similar level to fiction.

It's a long way from the obliteration of print as we know it, and raises the question of why with all that e-books have to offer, they have not proven more popular.

They like the graphics on the cover. They like the feel of books. Often, some people refer to the smell of a book

John D'Ambra

An attachment to hard copy

John D'Ambra, an associate professor in the school of information systems, technology and management at UNSW Business School, has been researching what readers like about e-books.

According to D'Ambra, the main reason people read e-books is for convenience, not necessarily because they find the reading experience more enjoyable.

E-book readers are often lighter than traditional books, an e-reader can hold many books so can be more handy for travel, and the type size can be increased, making it easier for people with vision problems to read.

D'Ambra and his colleagues analysed reaction to an online article about e-books in The New York Times to gain an understanding of readers' perceptions of the practicality of e-books.

"Our focus in this particular work was on people reading for recreation. So, e-readers enable them to do more of what they love to do," says D'Ambra.

Yet many still have an "attachment" to hard copy books.

"They like the graphics on the cover. They like the feel of books. Often, some people refer to the smell of a book," says D'Ambra.

"The other issue about paperback hard copy books is that they can actually pass those on to people, they can share them with people, which is difficult to do with the e-books."

Learning and navigation

If there were any group we could expect to embrace e-books, it would be the present cohort of tertiary students, who – aged in their late teens and early 20s – have grown up with computers. Yet these students still use hard copy books for study, often in conjunction with e-books.

They like the convenience and portability of e-books, but "in terms of their learning they prefer to use the hard copy because they can make notes. They find them easier to navigate; with hard copy books, they have a better feel for the structure of the book," D'Ambra says.

This is particularly true of novels. "If it's a complex book which is quite long, they might want to just refresh some attributes of a particular character in the book, they might want to flip back to another section of the book and they find that easier with hard copy," he says.

While the result is somewhat surprising, D'Ambra notes that this cohort would have still used hard-copy textbooks at school.

"I don't think that they have been immersed enough in electronic books. They're not really the digital natives," he says.

"But this might change into the future as we find the electronic smart devices like iPads are becoming much more ubiquitous in high schools. High schools are actually phasing out hard copy textbooks and they're only available on smart devices like iPads."

Students who read a text on paper perform significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally


Tactile sense of progress

For the time being, however, there is some empirical data backing up students' and others' perceptions that it's easier to follow and absorb a hard copy book than text in an e-book.

In a study published last year, researchers at Norway's Stavanger University found that readers using a Kindle were "significantly" worse at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story than those who read the story in paperback.

The researchers suggested this may have to do with the lack of tactile feedback of a Kindle.

"When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right," researcher Anne Mangen is reported as saying. "You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual.

"This very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story, is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you're reading. Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader's sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story."

Other tests have shown that students who read a text on paper perform significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally.

 After the boom

Christmas 2010 was the point when e-book sales in Australia really accelerated as e-readers became more functional and Amazon aggressively priced e-books.

"[The] combination of convenience, low price point, and just sort of sex appeal meant that a certain sector of the book market – heavy readers of fiction in particular – suddenly were offered a proposition for purchasing and reading books which offered some genuine advantages for them," says Elizabeth Weiss, digital publishing director at Allen & Unwin.

But once those people with a compelling reason to buy e-books acquired an e-reader, the growth rate plateau-ed, as it has overseas.

Also, as already noted, it's hard to give an e-book as a gift. We still like giving and receiving physical objects.

Despite the plateau-ing, Weiss believes e-books will continue to take market share from "P", as the publishing industry calls the printed book segment.

"I'd also say this is still early days but market shares that e-books have now is not necessarily where we're going to be in five years' time or 10 years' time," Weiss says.

In November 2013, the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) forecast that by the year 2020, half of all library collections would be e-books. But in March this year, it revised that forecast, saying "the e-book phenomenon will plateau at around 20% to 30% of books sales, with print books remaining the dominant format".

"Those born in 1990 grew up with print, studied with print, and are the last print-only generation. This final print-only generation will be 80 in 2070. For the next 50 years a significant proportion of the population will have lived with print books, and while they may embrace the opportunities of e-readers, there is no sign that they will convert to a fully digital reading experience," says ALIA CEO Sue McKerracher.


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