eBooks Outsell Paper Books in H2/2011

In the second half of 2011 something happened that will probably change the book industry forever. The number of books downloaded and read electronically (i.e., eBooks) from the major on-line distribution sites (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Borders, Dymocks, Angus & Robertson, etc.,) exceeded the number of paper-based books sold.

Now that this has happened I think it would be a very safe thing to say that the sales of paper-based books will continue to decline and will never again be the major format for the written word—unless we run out of electricity.

There are already a number of authors who have declared that they will not be publishing any of their future books using the paper-based format. They will only be available as eBooks.


There are massive advantages to publishing in the ebook format:

  • Authors make more money because the cost of preparing a book for delivery as an eBook is less than about 10 percent of the cost of preparing it for publishing as a paper-based book. Hence ‘publishers’ can then afford to pay authors a higher percent of the sales.

  • Publishers do not need to get books printed (mostly in China) and then ship and store the 400,000 or so copies in warehouses waiting for distribution—the storage of which costs money.

  • There is no such thing as a ‘print run’ so an eBook technically never gets down to the last copy and ‘sells out’.

  • There are no distribution costs. There are no truck loads of books that have to be shipped to the four corners of the earth to get the book distributed to the selling outlets.

  • As a reader of books you never have to go trawling through a book shop, or two or three book shops, to get your book. You pick it off Amazon (or wherever) and in about five minutes, or less, it is ready to read on your preferred eReader.

  • It is easy for eBooks to include colour for whatever reason—coloured text or coloured diagrams. Putting colour into a paper-based book is a huge additional expense. It requires a different printing process, different paper to be used, images to be converted to the CYMK format and sampled to the correct resolutions, and costs about 45 percent minimum more per book to print even if just one page in the book contains colour.

    If the book needs ‘full gloss’ quality images in it then the printing costs can be up to 300 percent more (depending on the quality required). None of these issues exist for an eBook.

  • eBooks can contain animations, or even sound or video snippets. So, depending on the style of book, if the author wants to include an animated GIF, or a sound bite, or a video clip or two (in order to add value to the textual content or explain some concept better), then this is easy to do in an eBook; but obviously impossible to do in a paper-based book.

  • eBooks are much cheaper because some of the huge cost savings incurred in ‘publishing’  paper-based books are passed through to the buyer. For example the book “Devil in the White City” is US$18.10 as a book but US$9.93 as an eBook.

  • It is easy for the author to update the book and publish updated revisions or versions. This is especially useful in the case of reference manuals and guides but is also useful for other books such as historical books where new or modified details are discovered after the book is ‘published’. Making such changes for a paper-based book is a big deal.

    Also, using colour or shades of grey (depending on the eReader being used), the changed bits can be highlighted so you know what parts of the eBook were updated in the newer revisions or versions, and if the highlighting of the changes bothers you for some reason it can be turned off so you don’t know what was changed.

  • eBooks are easy to store and almost impossible to lose. The physical space taken up by 5,000 eBoooks it exactly that same as the physical space required to store a single eBoook. And losing an eBook is almost impossible because, based on the Amazon model, it is always available from your account anywhere in the world. So the only real danger is forgetting your account details with Amazon; but there are way you can get these back even if you do forget them.

    So no more spending days trying to remember where you left a certain book or if you lent it to someone, or whatever. It will always be available from your eReader.


[The image above shows the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook colour eReaders. The image links to a posting at Engadget that compare these two eBook reading options. Note that neither of these unit use an e-ink display which is supposed to be provide a much more ‘relaxing’ reading experience and provides massively batter life—up to three months with two months normal]

For the reader reading eBooks is more fun.

  • eBooks are lighter to hold (assuming a purpose designed eBook readers such as the Amazon Kindle, or the Barnes and Noble Nook).

  • You can be reading three or four or 20 or 40 eBooks at a time the eReader will remember exactly which page you were on in every book.

  • You can add notes to pages on eBooks that you can later search on (depends on the eReader being used). This is extremely useful when reading or referring to technical documentation.

  • Depending on the eReader choices you make your books are available on a number of devices for you to read. For example, if you have an Amazon Kindle and you have bought some books on it then you can refer to or read these books on any device that supports the Kindle reader application, including a normal Windows PC or any Android-based smartphone or Tablet PC.

    So if you were at someone’s house and wanted to show them something in a book you are reading you simply launch the Windows Kindle Reader application (assuming we are using a Windows device), login to the Kindle Reader with your credentials, and there will be all the books you have bought, ready to open at the last page you were up to.

  • You can carry around as many books as you like with you—well up to about 5,000 anyway (depending on the eReader and amount of memory built-in and if it can use external SD card memory to hold more eBooks). The Kindle eReader takes up almost no room in a normal bag, is about half the weight of a standard novel, and yet allows you to carry all your reference material with you anywhere.


[Above image shows the classic Amazon Kindle featuring the e-ink display which is supposed to provide a much better reading experience than back-lit LCD—as used by the iPad and Android tabet PCs. Image links to article at Engadget]

There are downsides and following are a few that come to mind.

  • You can’t get a personally signed copy of an eBook—as far as I know.

  • It is more difficult to share eBooks (excluding ‘free’ eBooks that are not copyright locked in some way) because copyright is easier to manage. While technically it is illegal to buy a paper-based book and then loan or give it to someone else everybody does this because it is so easy to do with a paper-based book; and practically impossible to police.

    With eBooks it is possible for publishers to electronically encode their books such that only the person who purchased it can use their eReader, logged in as them, to read it.

  • eReaders do require power to work and even though the Kindle e-ink Reader will allow you to read for up to two months without it needing to be re-charged, in the end it does need to be re-charged. And using something like an Apple iPad or a smartphone or an Android tablet as an eReader will give you much less time before you need to re-charge—probably about ten hours at most and more like six to eight hours typically (depending on screen brightness).

So, like I said at the start, from here on I think we can expect to see less and less new books published as paper-based and for eBooks to continue to outsell paper-based books. I expect the take-over of eBooks to happen very rapidly.

I would not be surprised if within five years eBooks comprise 80 percent, or more, of all books being sold. Just exactly what this means for book retailers I am not too sure.


P.S. I was not sure if eBook should be written as e-book, e-Book, ebook, or some other way. I had a look around the Web and there does not seem to be a standard way of writing it yet, so in the end I have decided to go with eBook because they always seem to write eReader as that.