E-books Sales, Especially Kid’s Titles, Continue to Fall Off

The e-book slump continues for traditional publishers. 

According to Jim Milliot writing in Publishers Weekly, traditionally published e-books were down 10% in 2017 over 2016 levels.  Milliot cites figures from PubTrack Digital that tracks sales from around 450 publishers, and notes that “e-book unit sales hit 162 million last year, down from 180 million units in 2016.”

This continues the slowdown we first saw back in 2015 and again in 2016, when print book sales grew as electronic titles fell off. 

Interestingly, the steepest drop last year was in the children’s category, down 22% over 2016 figures. 

“In children’s, the digital format accounted for only 5% of all sales last year,” Milliot notes. “E-book sales were down 8% in the young adult category, falling to 4 million units sold. The format comprised 18% of all young adult unit sales last year.”

That’s probably a good thing, based on recent research on children and digital devices. They might be captivated by the bright shiny screens, but when it comes time to read, youngsters gravitate toward print books. Margaret Kristin Merga and Saiyidi Mat Roni presented research last summer that peaks inside the habits of our youngest readers.

“In a study of children in Year 4 and 6, those who had regular access to devices with eReading capability (such as Kindles, iPads, and mobile phones) did not tend to use their devices for reading—and this was the case even when they were daily book readers,” they wrote in Quartz.

Kids, the researchers asserted, clearly prefer paper books over screens. And apparently parents – who we assume are doing most of the buying of these kids books – do too. 

Milliot is careful to point out that the sales numbers do not include self-published titles distributed through Amazon and the like. 

“All the major trade houses, including the Big Five, report sales to PubTrack,” he explains. “The service, however, does not track e-book sales from Amazon’s independent authors. In his letter to shareholders earlier this month , Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said that more than 1,000 authors using Amazon’s KDP platform had royalties of over $100,000. A company spokesperson said e-book sales at the company have continued to grow globally through traditional outlets and subscription services, specifically Kindle Unlimited.”

That may be the case for Kindle, but for traditional publishing houses, print is no longer viewed as the “at risk” part of the business. Book publishers are getting back to basics, with a renewed focus on printing quality books and getting them to market faster. 

As Simon & Schuster’s CEO Carolyn Reidy noted in a WSJ article, younger fans “don’t want the e-book at all. They want the physical object. They want to own something that is connected to the person they like online and, number two, because they can share it.”

This idea of ownership seems to be the reason that we instinctively place a higher value on physical goods versus digital, according to Christian Jarrett in Research Digest. 

“The participants placed higher monetary value on the physical versions, and this seemed to be because they expected to have a stronger sense of ownership for them (for the physical versions, they agreed more strongly with statements like ‘I will feel like I own it’ and ‘feel like it is mine’),” Jarrett explains.

This could hold especially true for the younger readers, who are closer to the visceral “that’s mine!” stage than us older folks – some of us, anyway. It seems to be playing out that way for young readers, and we love to see the market turning back that way.