It’s not news that ebook reading surged during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Library ebook borrowing, in particular, saw an increase in 2020 and 2021. Though ebooks have not eclipsed print for a long time, they still enjoyed an ounce of quiet popularity.
At the start of the year, however, it looks like that’s changing.
In 2020, ebook sales rose by 11%. But in 2021, sales declined by 3.7%. Ebook sales also plummeted from January to March this year, according to the Association of American Publishers. In January, it was a 10.1% fall from last year. In February, sales dropped by 6.9% as that trend continued. In March, it went down again as sales dipped by a whopping 12.2%.
Meanwhile, in the UK, ebook sales are down in 2021, the “lowest point since 2012,” according to The Bookseller. The UK magazine reported that 80 million ebooks were downloaded in 2021, which is a disappointment next to its 95 million in 2020.
As this phenomenon continues to play out, it raises a question the general state of ebooks in 2022: are they on the decline again after a dramatic comeback? Before we unpack what’s going on, let’s take a shallow dive into a brief history of ebook pricing.
Amazon vs. The Big 6 Publishers
Ebook reading rose in the late 2010s when Amazon released its Kindle ereaders; ebooks back then were as low as $9.99. During that era, there were even predictions that ebooks would eventually kill print, shutter bookstores, and that ebooks would be the future of reading. But those forecasts missed the mark, obviously.
The interest in ebooks started to plateau when the drama between Amazon and the then Big 6 publishers happened in 2012. The publishers wrestled control of ebook pricing from Amazon, raising it so that people would have reasons to read in print. This led to a collusion with Apple, which got all of them sued by the Department of Justice. Unfortunately, the pricing scheme set by the publishers stayed on.
Since then, ebooks have enjoyed a decent popularity. Sales are down, and sometimes up. But they have never killed print. People moved on from the digital and went back to physical eventually, for the most part.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic froze everything, preventing people from easily buying physical books. This made many readers turned to ebooks once again. But as the world is opened up again in 2022, people are going out and dropping by the bookstores again. And so starts the dipping sales of ebooks.
“Digital books have fallen all year long, but the trend really started to happen in the last two quarters of 2021. Digital books were one of the big beneficiaries of the pandemic. This was during a time when all the bookstores were closed for, like, six months and Amazon was basically the only game in town to get books delivered,” said Michael Kozlowski, the editor of Good e-Reader, a publication that covers ebooks.
Kozlowski said that when pandemic restrictions lifted and bookstores started reopening, ebook sales started to decline, and sales of hardcover and paperback started to increase. “I think more people who were buying ebooks are now buying a mixture of ebooks and print books, and not buying so many ebooks,” he told me.
The Case of Ebook Sales
By the looks of it, the future of ebooks looks grim. However, one important thing unbeknown to many is that the AAP’s reports don’t include Kindle sales, “so the data might be skewed,” as Kozlowski put it. Amazon’s Kindle obviously has a larger market share than its competitors such as Kobo and Barnes & Noble, and so it leaves a lot of numbers on the table.
Mark Williams, the editor of the publication The New Publishing Standard that covers publishing news, said that AAP’s 2021 report fails to account for tens of millions of dollars in ebook revenue. “We simply don’t know the true scale of the impact ebooks have on the U.S. and global book markets, either in revenue terms or in consumer engagement, but we can say with absolute certainty that the AAP numbers only paint a partial picture,” he wrote in May 2021.
He also said that many of the uncounted participants do not report to the AAP, including Amazon Publishing, a slew of small presses, and thousands of self-published authors. That definitely leaves a lot of figures, and it suggests that ebooks may not be in a nosedive after all. AAP’s 2021 report, according to Williams, “warps the picture in favor of print.”
So are ebooks losing their shine again? Are they in decline thanks to the “disappointing” sales, and maybe, because of the extreme dislike by many?
Data suggests that the ebook market may actually be a lot bigger. The adoption of e-textbooks in classrooms is one thing, and the uncounted Kindle sales are another. Although things might have plateaued, and enhanced formats like interactive ebooks didn’t catch on, ebooks still haven’t run their course. They may not be as relevant as print these days compared in the last decade, but they still enjoy steady sales flow. Unless there’s a full accounting of ebook sales from various sectors, it’s still early to tell that ebooks are on the decline again. And as long as there are readers who want immediate gratification (and who doesn’t?), there will always be a space for ebooks.