E-Books vs. Print Books: Which Should You Choose? (2024)

E-Books vs. Print Books: An Overview

E-books have become a mainstay of the publishing industry. However, predictions of the demise of printed books as a result of the introduction of e-books has not materialized thus far.

At the end of 2023, the industry was up 0.4% over 2022, with total revenues from all categories at $12.6 billion. Overall, print books experienced decreases in revenue, and e-book revenues were up just 0.6%. Let's take a deeper look at both options and the publishing industry in general.

Key Takeaways

  • Print books have the feel of a book that many readers love. You can hold it, turn the pages, and feel the paper.
  • Illustrations on paper are generally higher quality than even high-end e-readers can reproduce.
  • E-books come with font style and size flexibility.
  • E-readers can store thousands of books on a single device.
  • The publishing industry experienced a 0.4% increase in revenue in 2023, with increases in e-book revenues and declines in print books.

Recent History of Print Books and E-Books

According to the Association of American Publishers, e-book sales in the U.S. were up 0.6% at the end of 2023 compared to a year earlier for a total of $1.0 billion. They currently make up 12% of total consumer book sales. Their share of the market has been inching up over time, but hardcover and paperback books still rule the market, with approximately $3.3 billion and $3.1 billion in sales in 2023, respectively.

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic was a boon to print publishing. Sales rose 8.2% year over year to a total of 751 million copies, according to Printing Impressions, a publishing industry journal. More leisure time and a need to educate children at home were cited as reasons for the book-buying spree.

2022 brought about several unique trends. First, paperback and hardback revenue both decreased, with hardback coming in 13.6% lower than the year before. E-books also declined, falling 6.5%. It's interesting to note that digital audio revenue grew 71.7% from 2021 to 2022.

Print Books

Print books have the feel of a book that many readers love. You can hold it, turn the pages, and feel the paper. People who love to read spend a lifetime acquiring books. They may find it wrenching to abandon their shelves of books for a single slab of plastic.

Readers may also compare the quality of illustrations between the two formats and find the print versions superior. The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes can be bought in either hardcover or Kindle versions but readers may find the Kindle version lacking due to the shrunken size of the illustrations and the relative clumsiness of toggling between story text and annotations.

Some readers also experience eye strain using an electronic device instead of a printed book.

E-Books

Books on paper are difficult to carry around, especially hardcovers. If you're an avid reader and you're going on a trip, or if you're just stepping out to a coffee shop, an e-reader or iPad is a far lighter burden than a book or a stack of them.

An e-book might be priced about the same or differently than a printed book. Because of the difference in format, there is an entirely different economic consideration for the good.

There's also the satisfaction of having an entire library at your fingertips, not to mention an infinite supply just a click away, ready to download instantly.

In addition, e-book buyers have the advantage that the internet gives consumers of any products: No space constraints. Just about everything ever published is available, all the time.

There are some drawbacks. You must recharge an e-reader or any other electronic device. Some screens are not easily readable in sunlight. And, if you are one of the millions who spend the entire workday in front of a computer, reading your favorite author on a computer screen in the evening may not appeal.

Beyond Amazon

Avid e-book readers can stray beyond Amazon or Barnes and Noble and read for free.

The nonprofit Project Gutenberg offers 70,000 free downloadable books, most of them classics well beyond their copyright protection expiration dates. The site Free Classic Books offers just that, in an alphabetized list from Alcott, Louisa M., to Wodehouse, P.G.

Google Books also brags that it has more than 10 million books available to download for free, including textbooks and government documents as well as literary classics.

Special Considerations: The Publishing Business

E-books may omit some of the traditional costs of publishing, but it imposes other costs. Added technology costs involve formatting the e-book so that various electronic devices and browsers can properly download and store the book.

Whether it's printed or downloaded, a percentage of the e-book price must be paid to online sellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. This can be anywhere from 30% to 50% of the sale price.

The Independent Route

Smaller publishers and independent authors have more leeway with pricing, but they still have many of the same costs. They must give a percentage of their e-book sales to the online distributor, and unless they are graphic designers, they must hire an illustrator to create their cover art.

Most independent authors have to hire someone to convert their books into e-book format. Plus, they still have the marketing and promotional costs that are required to get their books noticed. However, e-books are overall lower in cost to produce, and that is typically reflected in their lower prices compared to print editions.

Print Books, E-Books, and Personal Finance

With the overview of the industry behind us, let's talk about the finances of owning books. There's a handful of personal finance considerations to make about which to buy.

Upfront Cost

Purchasing an e-reader may involve a higher initial investment than buying a single printed book. However, the economic advantage lies in the long-term savings as e-books may be priced lower than their physical counterparts (as they may cost less to produce). The upfront cost of an e-reader can be considered a one-time expense, and PCMag recommends several e-reader that cost less than $100 in 2024.

Subscription Costs

Subscription services like Kindle Unlimited or Audible offer a cost-effective way to access a vast library of e-books. From an economic standpoint, these services can significantly reduce the per-book cost for avid readers, making it a financially smart move as opposed to buying individual books. However, you will not retain ownership during this subscription period, and you won't keep books like you otherwise would a print book. Also, there are no subscription costs for print books that you can check out of a public library with a free library card.

Book Resale Value

The resale value of physical books adds an economic dimension to owning a print collection. Used bookstores, online platforms, and book swaps provide avenues for recovering some of the initial investment in printed books. E-books, unfortunately, lack a resale market, making them less financially flexible in this regard.

Storage Costs

Physical books incur storage costs in terms of space requirements and furniture like bookshelves. And consider how much it may cost to move those physical books if you need to relocate homes. The economic advantage of e-books is that they eliminate the need for physical storage or moving expenses, meaning readers can amass a vast collection without incurring additional costs.

Environmental Cost

From an economic perspective, the environmental impact of printed books, including production and disposal costs, contributes to their overall expense. E-books, unfortunately, may not be as sustainable as you might think. The continual need for electricity and the use of fossil fuels to generate it mean that e-books still contribute to environmental costs, just in a different way than printed books do.

Production and Distribution Costs

The cost of producing and distributing physical books encompasses expenses related to paper, printing, transportation, and warehousing. E-books sidestep these costs, offering a potentially more economically efficient model for publishers and authors. Though the costs may vary based on each book and genre, the total cost to self-publish a book are unofficially estimated to be several thousand dollars.

Accessibility

The economic advantage of e-books in terms of accessibility is evident for readers with visual impairments. Digital formats allow for features like adjustable text size and screen-reading technology, enhancing the reading experience for a broader audience.

52%

Percentage of U.S. adults who have ever listened to an audiobook. Thirty-eight percent have listened to one in the past year.

Change in Preference

Changes in reading habits have implications for e-books and printed book owners. Think of someone who's preference may shift from one genre to another very quickly. If this sounds like you, the greater flexibility that electronic media offers may make more financial sense.

Which Is More Cost-Effective in the Long Run: Buying E-books or Printed Books?

The long-term cost-effectiveness of buying e-books versus printed books depends on factors such as individual reading habits, the frequency of book purchases, and the availability of discounts. While e-books often have a higher upfront cost with the purchase of an e-reader, the generally lower prices of digital copies may result in greater savings over time, especially for avid readers who buy books regularly.

Is There a Significant Difference in the Resale Value of E-books and Printed Books?

Printed books often have a resale market, allowing readers to recoup some of their initial investment. In contrast, e-books lack a formal resale market due to licensing restrictions.

What Is the Impact of E-books on Local Bookstores From an Economic Standpoint?

The rise of e-books has had a notable impact on local bookstores, with potential economic challenges such as decreased foot traffic and competition from online retailers. However, many small independent bookstores are partnering with affiliate partners to allow patrons to buy e-books.

The Bottom Line

E-books offer a potentially cost-effective solution for avid readers. The absence of physical production costs, reduced storage needs, and frequent digital promotions may make a digital library more cost effective. On the other hand, printed books may have resale value, no subscription cost, and greater sentimental appeal to old-fashioned readers. There are many factors to consider when choosing between e-books and printed books from a financial perspective.

E-Books vs. Print Books: Which Should You Choose? (2024)
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