Service of a Surprise Ending: Books Win, E-Books Lose

January 3rd, 2019

Categories: Books


I wasn’t tempted by e-books. I stare at a computer all day and when reading for enjoyment, I prefer holding a book. Further I can find a comfortable position on a train or in a pile of pillows at home and balance the book on my lap.

“According to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), a non-profit trade organization for indie book shops, its membership grew for the ninth year in a row in 2018, with stores operating in more than 2,400 locations. Not only that, sales at independent bookstores are up approximately five percent over 2017.” So wrote Joshua Fruhlinger in


He reported in November 2018 that e-book sales are stagnant. “E-book sales have slipped by 3.9 percent so far this year, according to data from the Association of American Publishers, while hardback and paperback book sales grew by 6.2 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively. During the first nine months of 2018, hardback and paperback sales generated nearly $4 billion combined; comparatively, e-books only raked in $770.9 million.”


Simultaneously, he noted, Barnes & Noble is limping, even though it put so many of the small booksellers out of business. (Remember the movie “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan?) “According to the ABA, the number of independent booksellers increased by 35 percent from 2009 to 2015—the same years that Amazon was pushing the Kindle and Barnes & Noble was pushing its own e-reader, the Nook.”

He added “The numbers are indeed bad: According to Nielsen, 2016 e-book sales among the top-30 sellers were down 16 percent from their 2015 numbers. E-books’ share of all books sold is also on the decline, accounting for 27 percent of total sales in 2015 compared to 23 percent in 2016.”

Alexandra Alter in The New York Times used the word blockbuster to describe 2018 results for book publishers. “Hardcover sales are up, and unit sales at independent bookstores have risen 5 percent.” She mentions three books–“Fear,” “The President is Missing,” and “Becoming”–that passed the million-copy mark. Sales of some books were so brisk that they were out of stock at the height of gift-giving time. That’s not so hot for the authors who lose in both royalties and ratings.


The reasons for the book revival? Fruhlinger attributes it in part to “the simple joy that comes with scanning bookshelves and the subsequent, sensual act of reading an actual book. It seems that of the very few things people want to shop for in-person, books are one of them.” And he feels that hearing of the death of the book industry electrified fans into action.

He’d end up with nothing to read if he’d forgotten to charge his Kindle before a flight and resented that he couldn’t lend a book he loved. Twice he lost his Kindle when he left it behind, first in a plane’s seatback pocket and then plugged in for a charge in his hotel room.

I’d like to add that wrapping and giving a book as a gift is more satisfying than giving a virtual book.

Fruhlinger is a fair and balanced reporter. He wrote about a friend who tears through many e-books a week on his phone which is always with him. “Perhaps after years of e-book hype (and/or fear-mongering), we have finally arrived at a middle ground. When it comes to travel and convenience, it’s hard to beat e-books. But when it comes to a cozy book shop visit on a Sunday afternoon followed by a cup of coffee and your favorite author, nothing beats the real thing. And it appears that after years of experimentation with e-books, many people are realizing the same thing.”

Do you prefer e-books to hardcovers or paperbacks? Why do you think e-books are losing the competition in this all-things-digital-are–super-age? If you’re planning to write a book would you try to publish an e-book or a traditional one?


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10 Responses to “Service of a Surprise Ending: Books Win, E-Books Lose”

  1. Judy Schuster Said:

    Like you, I read traditional hardcover books, which I get from the library. I can reserve them months in advance when I know an author I like is coming out with another one or when I read a review that has appeal (I’ve read both “Fear” and “The President is Missing.” Got them from my county library.) I need to feel a book in my hands. Perhaps that tells you something about my age, but I tend to like traditional things that I’m already used to using. However, unlike NYC, bookstores are closing in the Twin Cities. I just read that one area that had six bookstores is down to two with another closing in March.

  2. ASK Said:

    A Kindle is great when traveling, but that’s really the only time I use it. I have version 2 or 3 and see no need to buy a new one. I would rather read a real book, not only because of the ability to hold it and turn the pages, but if I’m reading something with photos or charts, the e-book is a pain. Also, I find it cumbersome to mark a paragraph or a quote I like with an e-book, and heaven forbid, I should lose my place by clicking on the wrong button. It takes me quite a while to get back to where I left off, but then, I’m not savvy with all the nuances of the technology.

    Also, I find it annoying to receive the daily “suggestions” from Amazon about new books I might want to buy…I tend to dismiss them without opening most. Off the point, I personally find it amazing to note the overwhelming popularity of psychological thrillers.

  3. Lisa C Hickman Said:

    Your post today made me think of this NYT article I read Saturday (below). The question it didn’t ask or attempt to answer is how many readers exist who would actually tackle these authors? Granted, students will be assigned many of these texts, but as for the general public, I wonder.

    Will be interesting to see what kind of interest is generated when Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” is copyright free.

    From The New York Times:

    New Life for Old Classics, as Their Copyrights Run Out

    Works by Marcel Proust, Willa Cather, D.H. Lawrence, Agatha Christie and Robert Frost are entering the public domain on Jan. 1. And that’s just the first wave.

  4. Deborah E Brown Said:

    I believe your post brings up the point there’s something for everyone! My neighborhood recently welcomed with open arms Shakespeare Books which was a staple for decades on the Upper West Side. Now, re-envisioned on Broadway and 69th Street, it has a small but upscale coffee bar and noshes, comfortable seats and a staff of knowledgeable, age-appropriate, helpful and friendly book-lovers. Open from 7:00 AM until evening, every time I pass, it is bustling. They have a techie who can help you self-print a book on scene! They’ll even put your book in the window!

    My country book club has slowly shifted from all hard cover to more than half: Kindle. All borrow from the local libraries. The “older members” still prefer to hold a book vs. the “younger” who listen on Audible books when driving and Kindle for convenience. I don’t recall ever discussing or debating costs of one version vs. another and everyone uses Amazon from time to time.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I believe that you are losing bookstores and wonder where all the new ones are cropping up. Debby who wrote a comment after you, mentions one. I don’t see any where I walk in the city.

    I became an ardent library book borrower after having to watch literally thousands of our books being tossed or given away as we moved quite a few times in recent years. Broke my heart.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Daily suggestions, that I get from far too many quarters, drive me nuts so I’m glad NOT to receive any from Amazon about books. The company bothers me lots anyway.

    I predict I’d constantly lose my spot by hitting the wrong icon or button on a Kindle. It happens on my TV remote. This is one gadget I am not sorry to have missed. I’m surprised at how addicted I am to my smartphone but that’s the way I am–inconsistent.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You and the New York Times post an interesting question. Will the works of these authors be published in anthologies and be reintroduced?

    While no doubt an irrelevant comparison I immediately thought of Broadway revivals. I have not kept score but wonder if at times more producers opted for the safe and once popular over the new and untested, “Hamilton” being the exception. On PBS and on network TV Sherlock Holmes has reappeared as has “Little Women” on the former.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Interesting that your book club is moving against trend regarding Kindle use.

    No surprise that Shakespeare Books is a huge success on the UWS. A more engaged, intellectual neighborhood you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere except perhaps in San Francisco, maybe Boston and Paris.

  9. Lucrezia Said:

    I haven’t the faintest idea why “real” books are winning. Could be that less people read, thus giving the edge to those who know how: Older folk. After they die, the numbers may shift, or vanish altogether.

    If writing a book, the decision of how to market is up to the publisher who gets paid for such decisions. The idea is to reach the greatest number of prospective buyers. PS: Not writing a book.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I don’t know the stats but plenty of books are self-published these days because it is cheaper and easier to do than ever before. It must be cheaper to do so with a digital version to avoid printing, postage and paper costs.

    Your PS made me giggle.

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