Contrary to other content industries, books have resisted the transition to digital. If growth rates remain low (+1.3%), revenue continues to climb. After the e-book managed to make inroads in the 2010s, its popularity began to wane, especially in pioneer markets.

If publishers have bolstered their efforts to deliver an electronic version of a growing percentage of new books, the reading public by and large remains faithful to the physical book. Among the many possible explanations for this are e-book readers themselves, their prices and the fact that there is no publishing industry equivalent of Spotify or Netflix.

Adoption levels of e-book reader still too low

After having soared for a while, tablet sales have been shrinking since 2014 (141.7 million tablets sold worldwide in 2017, compared to 230.1 million in 2014). Dedicated e-book readers, which are better suited to the job but typically unitask devices, are struggling to win over book lovers. It is nevertheless worth mentioning the success of Amazon’s Fire tablets in 2017, with sales that shot up by 38% and are now in second place behind Apple, which could enable the e-commerce giant to bolster its e-book sales and subscriptions.

Poorly suited products

In addition to the low adoption rates for reader devices, consumers often find the price of e-books not competitive enough compared to the price of physical books, and thus offering little incentive to buy them. Lastly, although subscription plans do exist, few have developed on an international scale, with the exception of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited plan, and most impose caps – notably on the number of books that can be accessed each month.

Traditional sales, hardest hit by digital

Ultimately, it is distribution channels that have been the hardest hit by digital technology. Online sales for physical books are increasingly massive, at the expense of sales in traditional bookshops, specialised chains and supermarkets.

Disparate rates of digitisation

The pace at which books are going digital varies tremendously in different parts of the world. China has now become the country with the highest rate of digitisation, with around 30% of book sales revenue coming from e-books. On the flipside, countries such as Spain lag well behind (4% digitisation rate). Meanwhile digitisation rates in the United States and the UK decreased between 2014 and 2017, from around 20% to 14%, due to a lack of both digital sales and a rise in physical sales.

The slow digitisation of reading
Countries adopting e-books at a disparate pace