Why physical books are back on trend and outselling ebooks

By   Hannah Bickerton 3 min read

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books (and ebooks)

Even the title of this post will probably annoy zealots from different ends of the publishing spectrum. Either you’re coming from the perspective that the traditional format of delivering written content has always been hard to beat. Or you’re really missing the point about ebooks, which is that they are a truly democratising and revolutionary method of finding new readers in the twenty-first century, facilitated largely by the arch disruptor-in-chief, Amazon.

Either way, it is interesting to look at the evolution of formats over the last ten years. I sat in a meeting at one of the Big Five publishers ten years ago where there was a working assumption that 50 per cent of all sales would soon be digested digitally via e-readers or phones and tablets. However, physical books are still alive and well, even if they are increasingly delivered via online platforms. And really, I’m not sure why we thought they’d go away . . . A traditional publisher has even just done a deal for physical-only distribution of one of Amazon’s best-selling authors. Why? It can’t just be the residual love of that age-old design and general portability. What is it about physical books that, despite our cultural obsession with every emerging technology, we still take pleasure from flicking through a collection of bound pages?

The dawn of digital, it could be argued, goaded publishers and content owners into taking more risks in differentiating their physical output and emphasising the beauty of the object with distinct finishes like uncoated stock, embossing and spot UV varnish, as well as choices of paper, binding and ribbons, among others.

But, for the publisher, whether it’s a physical or an ebook, it is still just a sale like any other. To quote Bloomsbury’s Nigel Newton:

‘Whether someone buys an ebook or a print book doesn’t matter to us – they’re still buying a book from us . . . ebooks have made books available to people twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, in every country in the world.’

For the reader, however, there are still some fundamental differences in the comparative experience.

Here are just a few:

  • That new hardback or paperback just looks cooler on social media, right?
  • Colour printing. Why haven’t cook books or other illustrated books taken off digitally? Or at least not in ways that you can monetise? Whatever the functionality, it just doesn’t seem to represent the same value as a physical edition.
  • What do ebooks smell like? Hot plastic? Ah, ok.
  • Retaining information. Ok, so the jury is still out on hard research data, but there definitely seems to be an understanding that you find it harder to retain information absorbed via a screen as opposed to the pages of a printed copy.
  • I believe the children are our future. Teach them well etc etc. Repeat to fade, Whitney. By which I mean, book apps have come and gone and still fifty years and over thirty million copies later, each generation still wants to hold, read and poke their little fingers though the cut-out boards in Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
  • Maybe this is the biggie. I am giving you this book. In fact, I am giving you this book. I’ve wrapped it up. The book I have thought long and hard about sharing with you is itself then wrapped in a cover with an image and quotes on slightly heavier paper to protect it. The broken spine will end up showing I’ve been reading it. I’ve even turned down the corners of some of the pages as I go along and maybe annotated and underlined the passages that mean the most to me. I’m thinking of going to an event where one of my favourite authors will read from his or her book and then hopefully sign a copy for me. I may even pass on a copy to my friends or family. This process, these actions, all have social and cultural meaning and value driven by different human emotions.

As long as we’re all reading, let’s embrace all formats, shall we? And bookshops up and down the land can still breathe a sigh of relief and raise a collective glass to the stamina of all those printed copies.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.