To a certain extent, e-books have become popular amongst American bookworms – 20 percent of book readers in the U.S. stated they read more e-books than hard copy books, and 23 percent read about the same number of hard copy books and e-books, demonstrating an open attitude among readers to exploring the many benefits e-books can offer the reader. In 2018, about 26 percent of American book consumers stated they had read an e-book in the last year, however print books were still arguably the more popular format among U.S. readers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the clout that Millennial consumers have on the digital media industry, is a noticeably higher level of e-book consumption among younger consumers than older generations. In 2018, 34 percent of 18 to 29 year olds said that they had read at least one e-book in the last twelve months, a figure which decreased with age and stood at just 15 percent among those aged 65 or above.
The wavering consumption of e-books has had a direct effect on revenues. Between January and September of 2018, revenue from e-book sales in the U.S. amounted to just under 771 million U.S. dollars, down from over 800 million in the same period of 2017. Sales have been fluctuating over the past few years, decreasing year on year from 2013 to 2016, however sales peaked in 2017 and reached 266 million units. Taking a look at the self-publishing market, the figures tell a similar story, however without sudden growth in 2017. Whilst the number of self-published print books in the United States has grown consistently since 2008, the same is not true of e-books. Despite there having been an obvious increase in the amount of self-published e-books between 2008 and 2012, after over 172 thousand e-books were published in this manner in 2014, the numbers began to fall and as of 2017 have not yet shown signs of improvement.
In terms of what consumers like to read, the most popular genre among e-book readers was literature and fiction, with romance coming in second, and according to data gathered in 2017, tablets were still the most favorable device for reading e-books, with seven percent more consumers using tablets than e-readers. In fact, 31 percent of consumers said that they had never used an e-reading device, perhaps an indication of devices such as Kindles still being viewed as somewhat of a luxury item. Indeed, ownership of e-readers varies according to income, with more consumers on a higher salary owning items like Kindles than those earning less.
The unfortunate reality is, that despite e-readers qualifying as a 'long-term' purchase, for consumers on a lower income the initial investment of such a device is often simply too much. As Netflix and other streaming services grapple with the untapped revenue potential of viewers who share accounts with friends, family or even ex partners and do not pay for their own subscriptions, the e-books industry is suffering as a result of illegal access and downloads. Data from 2017 shows that over 31.5 million books were illegally downloaded in the United States that year, resulting in a total sales loss over 315 million.
Younger consumers appear to be the culprits, with the most recent data revealing that 41 percent of illegal book downloaders in the U.S. were aged 18 to 29 years old, and 47 percent were between 30 and 44 years of age. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when asked about reasons for illegally downloading e-books from torrent sites, 51 percent of respondents said that the reason they accessed books in this way was because doing so was free or cheap.
Price is a clear factor affecting e-book consumption, with 52 percent of U.S. adults surveyed in 2017 saying that they purchased e-books (or bought more e-books in general) due to cheaper prices, with noticeably fewer respondents citing variety, ease of access or multiple payment options as a reason to buy. The figures on individual e-book purchases support this: even among adults aged between 18 and 29, just ten percent said that they had purchased up to ten e-books in the past year, and 34 percent had not purchased an e-book at all. If buying behavior among the generation with which e-books are most popular is patchy at best, the chances that older generations will make up the gap in revenue look slim.
Looking to the future, it is possible that legal consumption and increased purchasing of e-books will only grow if e-books become available for a lower price. However, it goes without saying that this can only come to pass if companies agree to make this idea a reality. It is entirely possible that consumers have yet to appreciate the full value and benefits of e-books, as is the case with many forms of digital media; consumers often need time to adjust to new methods of consumption and to rationalize purchases for devices and products they remain somewhat skeptical of. In the meantime, the 2017 sales figures mark a positive change in the e-book industry, and readers are also increasingly using e-book lending libraries to borrow books. With rapidly changing consumer preferences, different approaches to targeting new users and hopefully a crackdown on illegal consumption, there is hope that in the next few years the e-book market will get back on track.