Why some think that the sale of e-books is flattening

Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows has underlined a few points in his recent blog post about why the growth of e-books is overrated and the conventional, paper books, consequently, are underrated. According to the US data that he cites, only 25 percent of the books sold are e-books:

E-books are still taking share from printed books, sales of which declined by 4.7 percent in the quarter, but the anemic growth of the electronic market calls into question the strength of the so-called “digital revolution” in the book business. E-books now represent a bit less than 25 percent of total book sales. That’s a healthy share, but it’s still a long way from dominance. The AAP findings are backed up by a remarkable new Nielsen report indicating that worldwide e-book sales actually declined slightly in the first quarter from year-earlier levels – something that would have seemed inconceivable a couple of years ago.

I think this data is based on many presumptions and constraints. The first constraint is that it is highly U.S.-based and I don’t know what story the data from other countries tells. Second, the price of an average e-reader is still prohibitive considering the fact that people already don’t spend much money on books. Carr rightly says that there isn’t much difference between paper books and e-books in terms of pricing. If the prices are more or less the same, why do people still prefer to buy paper books? There might be two reasons:

  1. Since they have already spent a good amount of money on the e-book reader they want to hold back on spending more, despite the fact that they are defeating the very purpose of purchasing the device. Many good books can be downloaded from websites like Project Gutenberg and converted to various formats.
  2. Many people still read books for the purpose of showing that they are reading books. They want to be seen reading books and this is not possible with an e-book reader that almost looks like a tablet and most people think tablets are for browsing the net or playing games – a nonserious occupation. Reading books on electronic devices isn’t considered to be as cool as reading paper books. Conventional paperbacks and hardcovers look good on bookshelves and tables.

These are of course cultural attitudes, but they seriously impact the sale of e-books in one way or another. I’m sure over the time this attitude will change and there are many people, including yours truly, who are reading more and more books simply because they’re available in e-book formats.