Bookle iconJonathan Stolper, Senior VP for Nielsen Books, recently presented a reported on the “steadily declining unit sales of e-books.”

Publisher’s Weekly has the story. “Whatever the causes for the decrease in e-book sales, the decline has resulted in something that many publishing experts thought would never happen—unit sales of hardcovers overtook unit sales of e-books.” Yep, you read that right.

Recall that right after the iPad came out, there was a flurry of interest in e-books. [Back in 2012, I published a six-part series.] We all thought that books on paper might eventually disappear. Some libraries took to preserving their holdings in special vaults, and we all merrily started buying e-books, living the future.

However, the situation has changed. From the article above…

Nielsen found that e-book unit sales from reporting publishers were down 16% in 2016 from 2015. [Meanwhile] unit sales of hardcovers overtook unit sales of e-books. With hardcover units up 5% in 2016 over 2015, hardcover’s 188 million units sold topped that of e-books for the first time since Borders closed in 2012…

Why the Reversal?

The Publisher’s Weekly cites two major causes explained by Mr. Stolper. First, e-book prices have gone up. The return of agency pricing has raised book prices on average by US$3.00. Price is cited as the top criteria for e-book buyers, and that’s been enough, apparently, to give customers pause.

Barnes & Noble e-book reader, Nook

Barnes & Noble Nook.

Second is the increased use of smartphones and tablets compared to dedicated e-book readers like the Barnes & Noble Nook. Wait. Here’s the thing…

Consumers who use dedicated e-book readers have consistently been found to purchase more e-books than consumers who use other devices to read. In the first quarter of 2011, more than 70% of e-book buyers said they used dedicated e-book devices to read, a percentage that fell to 24% in the second quarter of 2016.

Essentially, despite the steadily declining sales of the iPad, the installed base continues to rise, albeit it at a lower rate. And the obsession for e-books purchased by dedicated e-book reader owners is not shared by tablet owners. 

In essence, the popularity of tablets like the iPad failed to propel customers permanently into an e-book future. That’s just amazing and explains a lot about this sea change.

iPad as e-book reader.

iPad as e-book reader. Not so big a deal as presumed.

Other Factors

I surmise from my readings that there may be other factors at play.

  1. The EPUB and other e-book formats, in general, didn’t evolve fast enough to duplicate the page management, embedded images, cover art and reading experience of a real book. As e-book prices rose, and the hassle of DRM was never resolved, customers chose, more and more, to get the real thing.
  2. Customers of e-books have slowly became aware of the fact that they don’t have the same First-sale doctrine rights as with paper books. When, thanks to age, they can no longer maintain their account, the e-books and rights to the e-books vanish. Paper books can be passed on to heirs.
  3. Even standard sized tablets (9.7 – 10 inches) have a hard time displaying advanced textbook material in a fashion that’s equally as useful as paper. And e-book textbooks haven’t saved students a lot of money. Plus, they can’t be resold after use.

The Future of e-books

The first thing I thought when I read this article was, oh no, now Apple is going to lose interest in iBooks. That’s not certain, but we’ve come to learn how Apple thinks. That’s why, years ago, my wife and I elected to focus primarily on Kindle books, our Kindle readers, and not Apple’s iBooks. The thinking was that Amazon will always be in the book business, but perhaps not Apple.

The second thing to consider is that, just like the phenomena described by Publisher’s Weekly, technological change and market forces could turn the tide, back to e-books. For yet new and equally unexpected reasons. One never knows.

Third, it’s good to have a strategy. My own has been to buy e-books when I need them right away for reference. Science fiction books, once read, need not be kept around. But when a book is full of solid reference material and diagrams/photos, such as astronomy, physics, or computer science, I often invest a little more in paper. Our family’s e-book library is structured such that if it were to go poof, it wouldn’t matter.

Finally, a lesson here is that enthusiasm for what seems like cool technological advances doesn’t guarantee future success. Murphy’s law continues to apply in all aspects of our tech life. This one is an amazing case in point.

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“Customers of e-books have slowly became aware of the fact that they don’t have the same First-sale doctrine rights as with paper books. When, thanks to age, they can no longer maintain their account”. This applies equally if you decide to abandon a particular retailer. The key thing to remember when purchasing an eBook on any platform is to download a copy and back it up, in case you decide to abandon the platform. Kindle books, downloaded via the computer reader, can easily be backed up in the native .azw3 format and if you decide to adopt a Nook or… Read more »

Scott B in DC

For the future of e-books you missed the proposed merger of the Internation Digital Publishers Forum (IDPF) that manages the ePUB standard and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that manages web-based standards Combined, these organizations can potentially bring active content in both the web and in e-books to a new level!


“No discount–sometimes a premium–despite inherent savings in cost.”
Yup. I think a lot of customers feel strongly about products that they believe are rip-offs. Nobody likes being taken for a sucker.


Can’t be resold or given away. Can’t be borrowed or bought used. Has to be kept charged. More difficult to use. (Have you ever accidentally turned the page of a physical book?) Can’t be read if someone else is using the device. Inconsistent and/or confusing page numbering compared to print version. Formats tied to specific devices. Can’t be browsed casually in a store or library or on a friend’s shelf. Inferior tactile quality. Inferior visual quality except on certain dedicated ebook readers. Less convenient highlighting and note-taking. No discount–sometimes a premium–despite inherent savings in cost. Higher risk of damage or… Read more »


Something missing in this analysis: audiobooks, whose sales have been growing. I think they’re eating more into e-book sales rather than paper books. I hardly read e-books anymore. It’s either audiobooks or paper.

I agree that the primary motivator is that ebook prices have risen but ALSO hard cover prices have declined against ebooks. Often you can get the hardcover for dollars less than the ebook. It’s the two together that cause your headline to be true — that hardcover sales are gaining against ebooks. So the event does not reflect consumer preference, it represents market manipulation by the publishers — and that’s the real story.


I really don’t buy books from “The Big 5” there are only a very few authors I would spend more than $6 for an E-Book, and most of those are from Baen Authors. I read on average 6 to 15 books a month and none of them are from the traditional big 5. And when they bump their prices to 14 dollars for a 250 page book I just don’t bother, there are many established authors I no longer read because of the price/entertainment ratio goes out the window above the 7 dollar mark. I have not read a book… Read more »

Lee Dronick

Our local Barnes & Noble bookstore is usually quite busy.


As a long time Kindle user, I’ve seen the trend of rising ebook prices that commenced with the return of all of the major publishers to the agency model. These publishers seem to have a business model that requires overpricing and windowing ebook pricing to subsidize hardcover books. When a major new release is $14.99 on Kindle (and iBooks, Nook, etc.) with no possibility of a discount, and the hardcover book has a list price of $27.99, but can be found at all major retailers (Amazon, B&N, Walmart, Costco) at 40-50% off list price, effectively coming in at close to… Read more »