The rise of the e-reader was supposed to symbolize the tech sector's dominance over traditional media, but after a few years with an upward trajectory in profits, the devices seem to have lost traction in the publishing market. It appeared that e-books were beginning a slow but inevitable climb to eventually overtake print books in popularity, but sales have stagnated and users do not seem to be too enthralled with electronic reading anymore.
Statistics show that print books are dominating in Canada
Financial Post contributor Hollie Shaw cited recent market statistics as evidence that the e-book fad is dying down: Canadians overwhelmingly prefer hard copies, as according to the most recent available quarterly data, 79 percent of all books sales in the country were the print edition. E-books accounted for 18 percent of the market, but this figure has scarcely grown since 2013, when it was at 17 percent but supposedly growing. For comparison, Shaw noted that in 2008, e-books only composed less than 1 percent of the industry.
So while electronic sales skyrocketed between 2008 and 2013, in the past couple of years, they have stabilized – a term that is particularly morose for a supposedly booming and expanding industry.
Shaw interviewed Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books & Music Inc., who suggested that reading books simply provides a different, more engaging feel for consumers. While music and videos are almost exclusively sold in electronic formats today, print books have a certain lasting power due to the general human inclination to form a bond of intimacy with the texts they are reading. Digital alternatives do not offer the same level of closeness to the source that a real book can.
Reisman admitted that e-books do probably have a long-term future in the market, but not as a dominant medium. She said this is because people are constantly consuming digital media – on smartphones, tablets, laptops and other interactive devices – and they view reading as a relaxing way to get away from the volatile and fast-paced e-world. With e-books, it is harder to achieve such levels of relaxation because focus on the text more difficult to come by. And for those who use the e-reader function on tablets, it might be hard not to get distracted by the device's other capabilities – like email notifications, gaming apps and social media accounts.
Shaw also spoke with Noah Genner, president of Booknet Canada, who projected that the e-book industry will continue to be sustainable, growing at a clip of a couple percentage points each year. However, this small growth is not indicative of any sort of widespread transition toward e-reading. Rather, it suggests that e-books will find a niche either in a complementary role to print books, or simply as a lesser-used format.
High prices are deterring potential consumers
Other than the inherently less stimulating nature of e-readers, the fact that they are, as a whole, not significantly cheaper than print books is a problem for the industry. Ethan Lou of The Toronto Star pointed out that publishers are charging too much for the average e-book, especially as far as libraries are concerned.
Genner supported that sentiment by noting that the average cost of an e-book – in Canadian dollars – is about $20, while new hardcover books are generally sold at $33. Given the relatively nominal difference, Genner said that consumers are not finding enough value in spending hundreds on an e-reader just to save $13 per book purchase. In many cases, people prefer to pay a little bit more for a tangible product over which they can truly claim ownership.
Lou also argued that libraries are getting slighted by publishers, as they are charged 1.5 times the price that consumers pay for e-books. In some cases, Lou reported that the differential was as significant as an $85 asking price for libraries on a product that cost consumers $16. Some publishers also enforce stipulations that the e-books can only be checked out a predetermined number of times within a time period, or that there is a maximum number of reads that the library can use, or that access to the e-book function like a subscription and expires after a year.
All of these disparities in the prices e-book publishers charge libraries, not to mention the terms to which they require adherence, lead Lou to believe that the current scenario is unsustainable. If this is true, it might not be uncommon to see libraries pull out of e-book deals at the behest of financial departments – a situation that would be unfavorable for publishers, to be sure.
After an initial movement that expanded blindingly fast, the e-book market seems to have stagnated, due in large part to readers' gravitation toward physical books. Down the road, e-book publishers will likely continue to carve out a nice niche for themselves, but they do not appear as if they will ever truly challenge print as a medium.