Technology is a wonderful thing: It gives entrepreneurs and visionaries the tools to transform our lives for the better. But sometimes, innovations designed to replace ancient technology don’t quite catch on—at least, not as expected.
While consumers are increasingly choosing to stream their entertainments, they seem to be going back to an old-fashioned artifact—the book—for their reading needs, boosting the publishing industry. In the meantime, however, declining e-book sales are beginning to concern the industry.
The Market Speaks
The non-profit trade organization American Booksellers Association (ABA), which represents independent bookstores, reports that its membership numbers have been increasing for the past nine years, meaning more bookstores are opening across the country. In addition, ABA claims that sales at these bookstores are also up, rising 5 percent since 2017 alone.
The market is clearly speaking, and it’s shown it favors the tried-and-true print over digital format.
With bookstores in more than 2,400 locations across the country, hardback and paperback book sales have grown 6.2 and 2.2 percent, respectively. That, along with the fact ABA’s membership is growing, shows us there’s a real demand for physical books over their digital version. That’s particularly true if you observe that e-book sales fell by 3.9 percent this year alone.
Overall, the sales of both paperback and hardback books generated nearly $4 billion to the publishing and independent bookstore industry during the first nine months of 2018, while e-book sales brought in only $770.9 million.
As it is with anything else, the market is clearly speaking, and it’s shown it favors the tried-and-true print over digital format, proving that competition is important even when it comes to demonstrating that not all that is new will automatically take over. After all, if we hadn't seen the industry shift toward e-books, consumers may have not rediscovered their love for old-fashioned books.
Print vs. Digital: A Return to Decentralized Learning
Despite the obvious growth in the small, independent bookstore industry, large, corporate, and chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble are not doing so well. As a matter of fact, the firm is closing several locations and might even be put up for sale if things don’t pick up.
It’s clear that the industry is experiencing a new moment, one marked by a return to a more decentralized approach to shopping.
While these super bookstores entered the picture to offer readers a full immersion experience, giving them space to read and catch up with their friends over coffee all in one place, it seems the model became too expensive and, over time, unsustainable.
Small bookstores, on the other hand, have a small overhead, meaning they don’t have to sell an exorbitant number of books to cover their fixed costs. It’s clear that, as they thrive in a market that is devouring the large, corporate-run bookstores, the industry is experiencing a new moment, one marked by a return to a more decentralized approach to shopping.
With the internet making everything so accessible, we have seen a revolution in how people learn. From online college education to free university courses and widespread access to PDF book copies, people have turned their back to large, real-world conglomerates, favoring a more customized experience.
Perhaps the return to the neighborhood bookstore is an extension of this movement, making the book shopping experience less about having all options laid out right before your eyes to make it more intimate and, yes, even simpler.
It's All about Human Action
The Observer pointed out that the fact digital book technology made reading so convenient is precisely why small bookstores have gained so much traction. With everything in our lives going digital, the simple joy of reading a physical book has become a novelty once again.
It’s difficult to argue against the convenience of e-books, but it’s also easy to see why shopping for physical books makes many of us happy.
“Book lovers are reading these big scary headlines about the death of the book industry,” Katie Presley, an indie Upshur Street Books shopper, told MarketWatch, “and they’re motivated to put their dollars into an industry and an art form that they love and want to keep around.”
It's almost as if the competition provided by the invention of the e-book made consumers look at real books a little differently, adding more value to the traditional format.
While it’s difficult to argue against the convenience of e-books, it’s also easy to see why shopping for physical books makes so many of us happy. Perhaps that is the lesson behind the triumphant comeback of independent bookstores: economics is all about human action, and trying to pin it down or dictate it by law will always backfire.