Analysis: why ebook sales fell in 2015, and students prefer printed books

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This week has seen two bits of news that superficially paint a dark picture for digital publishing:

  1. Student’s “overwhelmingly prefer printed books” to ebooks
  2. Ebook sales are down since 2014

And much like with medical news that’s reported, I can’t help but dig into the data behind the headlines and connect the dots.

First, let’s look at that ebook sales data, as reported by The Guardian.

Ebook Sales data between 2012 and 2015 showing a drop between 2014 and 2015 for the big five publishers
Ebook Sales data between 2012 and 2015. Taken from the Guardian.

Now, let’s reformat this table of ebook sales data based on sales percentage change year to year.

Ebook sales data showing sales precentage change between 2012 sales and 2015 sales

For Macmillan, Harper Collins and Hachette, there is a clear upward trend in ebook sales until 2014.

And what happened in 2014 that affected ebooks across the big five publishers?

Screenshot of amazon.com in 2014 after publishers won the right to set their own ebook prices
Screenshot of amazon.com in 2014 after publishers won the right to set their own ebook prices

Yup. Price affects sales.

We’d need to see the profits data to know whether this strategy is paying off or not for publishers. In an ideal world, there would be an increase in sales and price, but it takes time for consumers to readjust to the value of a product being more than it was a mere month ago, and for some readers, price alone will be the deciding factor for some purchases. Next years data will be interesting.

Royalties vs Sales

Another event in 2014 that would cut into publisher sales data was the launch of Kindle unlimitedWith their all-you-can-eat subscription model that the big five opted out of, it’s quite possible people are working their way through their perpetual, never-ending reading list and buying other books less often.

True, Oyster and Scribd were there before kindle unlimited, and do feature books by the big five, but- profit from these services would be reported as being from royalties and not sales. When you consider that about 4% of book buyers are using at least one of these services -10% if you include Amazon prime subscribers- a 2.4% dip in sales overall seems pretty modest.

A commodity more valuable than sales

What’s not reported in this data is that publishers on these subscription platforms are getting something that’s valuable for their future strategies: reader behavior metrics. Is it possible that the dip in sales indicates a lack of direction in how to interpret and use this data for maximum advantage?

“Students prefer ebooks”

This topic interests me because there have been reports suggesting that paper books provide better learning experiences, but in the cases I’ve seen so far, this amounts to either software user experience (UX) issues or poor content strategy. What am I talking about?

In students aged 7-14, interactive ebooks where the animations did not support the content of the text were found to cause less reading comprehension, as the students were distracted by “entertaining” animations or games instead of the text. When interactive content reinforced the text, however, comprehension was found to go up. The headlines imply the technology is the problem, but it’s the content strategy for that medium that was poor.

And the UX-related issues? When we talk about students and ebooks, we need to consider how these ebooks are read. The data for the revealed this week was conducted in 2010, only a year after the second generation kindle was released and the same year the first ipad was released. These high-end items that most students just didn’t have yet. They were reading on their computer, which if you’ve ever tried reading a 70 page pdf at work will know, is a terrible user experience, so I’m not surprised they voted the way they did. Similarly, studies indicating that the ebooks result in more eyestrain compared to paper books were also conducted by students on monitors, not e-reader or tablets.

Today we have $40 and $27 tablets. e-readers more accessible than ever, and the software interface more important than ever.And what students are telling us about this software, is that:

Today we have $40 and $27 tablets. The UX of e-reading software is more important than ever. Share on X
  1. They need more help monitoring their time studying.
  2. They want effortless, regular feedback for the amount of progress they’ve made in study session. Studying is a lot like running, and you need regular, unprompted encouragement to keep going. When I think of running apps, they do a great job of asking individuals how often they want to be notified and what they want to be notified off. This would also help point number 1, and encourage break taking.
  3. They need notifications to be switched off on devices to focus on their reading. There are standalone apps that do this for user specified time slots, but I would like to see a “Study mode” switch included in e-reading software that takes care points 1-3.
  4. Note taking needs to be easier. Tablets or kindles don’t make this a comfortable experience yet, and there is evidence that hand writing that reinforces learning, so I think this an interesting UX problem to solve, perhaps in a more streamlined way than evernote links handwritten notes to digital pages.
Evernote's camera and note pad link handwritten notes to digital notes
Evernote’s camera App and notepad link handwritten notes to digital pages.
  1. Printables should be bundled with ebooks. Flashcards, cheatsheets, and for note taking.

I’m optimistic that there is an immense opportunity for growth for well thought out content and improved reading software features.


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