« Discussion

Ebook Sales Are Flattening Out: Are Tablets to Blame?


By Dennis Abrams

At roughtype.com, Nicholas Carr continued his examination of the decline in ebook sales growth, a trend that started in 2012 and seems to be continuing this year. According to an Association of American Publishers report, e-book sales in the U.S. trade market for the first quarter of 2013 grew by just 5% over the same period in 2012. Meaning, according to Carr, “the explosive growth of the last few years has basically petered out, according to the APP numbers.”

Carr points out that while ebooks are still taking still taking share from printed books (sales of which fell by 4.7% in the quarter), “the anemic growth of the electronic market calls into question the strength of the so-called ‘digital revolution’ in the book business.”

And another report from Nielsen shows that worldwide ebook sales in fact declined in the first quarter of this year from last year’s levels – something that Carr says “would have seemed inconceivable a couple of years ago.”

The report states that:

“Nielsen’s data for the UK market mirrors recent statistics published by the Association of American Publishers in early July. This reported that the days of double or even triple digit growth for the market might now be gone, with ebook sales growing by only 5% to $393.6 million in the first quarter of 2013. It also suggested that the huge success of The Hunger Games in 2012 may have been a one-off event that helped to skew expectations of the market this year.”

As ebook sales look set to take just under half of the total fiction market in the UK and more than a fifth (22%) of the overall UK book market, according to recent Bowker Market Research, it is only natural that the rate of growth would slow. As the overall market for ebooks gets bigger, publishers will need to sell ever greater volumes of ebooks in order to report significant growth, which is harder to achieve in a larger market.

In a post from January of this year, Carr speculated on a few of the reasons that ebooks might actually fall short of expectations:

1. While e-books are suited to some kinds of books (such as genre fiction) they’re not as well suited to other kinds (such as nonfiction and literary fiction); and while they’re perfect for some reading situations such as plane trips, they’re less well suited to everyday situations like lying on the couch at home. “The ebook may turn out to be more a complement to the printed book, as audiobooks have been, rather than an outright substitute.

2. Early adopters were enthusiastic adopters, further converts might be harder to come by.

3. Early buyers of e-readers immediately filled them up with more books than they needed. (For which I’m guilty as charged).

4. The shift from e-readers to tablets is having a seriously negative impact on ebook sales. (As Carr observes, “On an e-reader, the e-reading app is always running. On a tablet, it isn’t.)

5. Ebook prices haven’t dropped as much as many anticipated — there’s just not that big a price difference between an ebook and a paperback.

Carr concluded by saying, “Those still seem reasonable. Most intriguing, to me, is the possible link between the decline in dedicated e-readers (as multitasking tablets take over) and the softening of ebook sales. Are tablets less conducive to book buying and reading than e-readers were?”

This entry was posted in Discussion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Claire Curtis
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think tablet v. dedicated reader is much of a factor. In fact, I think tablets are more conducive to reading than the dedicated readers. At least mine is for me. First, I am more likely to have it with me, and secondly, it gives me a wider selection of reading matter, since dedicated readers are usually tied to a particular seller. With my tablet, I can check the price on a number of sites, while my Nook only allows me to shop at Barnes and Noble, and I’m stuck with whatever they offer.

    No, I suspect the flattening of ebook sales is far more due to 3, 2, and 5, in that order.

    #3 – Yes, I have a surfeit of ebooks. If I am at loose ends and just want to read something, I already have ample resources to hand. In pre-ebook days, I might have picked up a cheap paperback at the corner store in those circumstances – not because it was something I particularly wanted to read, but because it was available. A year ago, I might have logged onto the online store to find an ebook. Today, I open a reading app and am immediately presented with my “bookshelf”, which reminds me that I have many books that I have not yet read. Perhaps publishers or app makers should make an app that does NOT immediately show me I do not need to buy more books.

    #2 – while I am an enthusiastic ebook reader, I have friends who are not. They will be slow adopters.

    #5 – price is definitely a factor. If an ebook is half the price of the paperback, I will almost always buy the ebook. But if the price is the same, I have to decide. How likely I am to want a print copy in the long run? If I want it right now, if I do not want to clutter my already-full bookshelves, I may still buy the ebook. But if I am not in a hurry, if it needs to stay open while I follow directions, or if I might want to lend it out a lot, I will go for the paperback.

    This is similar to the dialog I engage in when considering the purchase of a paperback versus a hardcover book. Is it worth the shelf space? Do I need something durable enough for repeated readings? Or do I want portability?

    Another possibility is that ebook sales are not flattening at all. Where did the data for this graph come from? If from the “Big Six”, I would be skeptical. I would say about a third of my ebook purchases are now direct from the authors or from small publishers. The prices are often better, and a greater percentage goes directly to the author, so I feel I am supporting them better and more directly. If I am at all indicative, there may be a huge market that is unreported in this graph.

  2. Posted August 9, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    First, this makes absolutely no sense:

    While e-books are suited to some kinds of books (such as genre fiction) they’re not as well suited to other kinds (such as nonfiction and literary fiction); and while they’re perfect for some reading situations such as plane trips, they’re less well suited to everyday situations like lying on the couch at home.

    How can a device that shows words on a screen be less suited for nonfiction and literary fiction? Do the words look different? Does the screen render “literary ” sentences in a hard-to-read font? I read plenty of nonfiction and literary fiction as well as horror, science fiction, and fantasy. It all looks the same to me.

    And maybe an e-reader or tablet is not a good choice in the bathtub or on the beach, but on the couch? I do 90% of my reading on the couch or in bed, and my iPad is no less suited for it.

    • angelaS
      Posted August 9, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

      Maybe the meaning was that people who buy literary fiction may want to retread or lend out those books and like to have them in print, e.g. Members of book clubs.

    • flo
      Posted August 13, 2013 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      The problem with non fiction books is that they often contain tables, diagrams, etc that are difficult to display properly in the epub format. Also the same file has to be readable on tablets such as the ipad, or on mobile phones screens. See the difference in screen sizes! The new-ish fixed layout epub format can be used but the result vary, and the files don’t display very well on small screens either. So the issue for non fiction/text books isn’t so much the words, but the structure and all the other elements they contain.

      • Christina
        Posted August 14, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

        This is exactly the problem. I recently purchased books from O’Reilly Media (beautifully done), but reading code on an eReader is not easy, nor is it easy to use as a resource. When using a resource book people tend to flip over to the page they need, flip back to a previous page, compare charts on two different pages, write in the margins, highlight, dog ear, etc. Trying to even mimic this behavior on a Kindle or other eReader becomes a frustration. Yes you can bookmark, but slowly and with difficulty. Yes you can leave notes, if you don’t mind typing them out character-by-character. Some make this easier, but an older gen Kindle is simply painful.

        eReaders are quickly becoming the “light reading” book. Even books that should be doable on an eReader, like non-fiction with no tables or figures, if it’s for a book club I find difficult (as a group we read a section at the end of a chapter, now flip back two pages and re-read another section – by the time I get there the group has moved on).

  3. joe sixpak
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    the fad is over

    now people are realising that 99.999% of all ebooks are truly krapp
    and not even downloading the free ones
    or if they do that, they still are not reading them

    readers are being more selective so ebook sales will be dropping for a while

  4. Posted August 9, 2013 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    It seems Michael Hughes has not seen the studies that show more challenging material is harder to retain/absorb in ebook format.

    Also, I think tablet use makes ebook sales less likely as the device is used for many other things, so they don’t feel they must put it to use as an ebook reader. It’s thought of in a different way, without the direct associations to books–more associated to web and surfing.

  5. Posted August 9, 2013 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    I am most likely to buy literary fiction in e-book form. These are the books I will probably revisit later, perhaps repeatedly. I buy paperback books I am likely to lend to others; genre fiction falls in that category. I find that even when I lend a book to a close friend or relative, it seldom comes back. And I have book cases all over the house, so if I’m looking for a paper book it may be hard to find it. My e-books are always available and neatly organized, ready to look at again at any time. As for nonfiction, there is no question that most people prefer paper. I publish nonfiction, and sell about one e-book for every hundred paper books. I am constantly surprised by that, but come to think of it, when I buy a nonfiction book I also tend to choose a paper version. I have no idea why.

  6. Michael Drakich
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    From what I understand, the sale of tablets is growing at a phenomenal pace. This should have led to a comparable increase in ebook sales.

    And I believe it has.

    I suspect the truth is not one of sales decreasing, but what is reported as sales decreasing.

    Let’s face it. The Amazon Kindle Select program has been running for some two years now. I know, from my own experience, that the free sales are not recorded by Amazon the same as paid sales. The world has gotten wise to the plethora of free books available every day. Why buy when you can get a similar product for free? If Amazon reported all sales the same, regardless of whether they were free or not, I believe the sales numbers would be through the roof.

    An old adage comes to mind when I read this report. Figures don’t lie, liars figure.

  7. Clare
    Posted August 10, 2013 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    The price is definitely a factor – I find it amazing that something that a paper back and ebook can be the same price.

    Publishers / authors need to be a bit more realistic and then people will buy more books

    • Posted August 12, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Publishers have to make a profit in order to publish, and authors have to earn money or they won’t continue to write. E-books are not profitable and the sales are much lower than hard copies. If you want the convenience, you need to realize that you have to pay for it.

    • Christina
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      It also takes a different skill set to create a usable ebook. How many times have you received a book and the TOC didn’t work or paragraphs and lists were wonky? Although there are tools for creating ebooks that look simple, the publishers really need to hire an ebook developer to create (and maintain given new formats & devices).

  8. Posted August 10, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I’d love me a share in a market that grows 5% reliably annually. What has slowed down is the rate of growth, which is hardly surprising since it started from zero, but growth is growth. What, someone thought something could double every year? 10% growth doubles your money in 7 years.

    Anyone care to plot this against Vinyl vs CD, or CD vs MP3? Did vinyl win in the end?

  9. Posted December 23, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your
    next write ups thanks once again.

  • Get Publishing Perspectives in your inbox each day and stay up-to-date on international publishing.