The Cheat Sheet

All hail King Papyrus!

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on February 06, 2020 Published on January 09, 2020

You mean the deadwood?

Yes, the humble paper that continues to rule the world of books, despite the fact that almost everyone around has already written its obituary.

Ah, I’m curious. What’s the news?

In recent times, more than one study has found that the market for printed books is alive and kicking even though e-books and audiobooks continue to trend. A comprehensive study from the Pew Research Center in the US found that 65 per cent of readers in the country — which is one of the biggest markets in the world for books — have read a print book in 2018. A significant 25 per cent read e-books, while 20 per cent turned to audiobooks. Understandably, a lot of readers now mix media, with most print readers trying out e-pubs and audiobooks.


Another estimate presented in the Association of American Publishers’ annual report for 2019 shows that of the nearly $26 billion in revenues last year in the US, physical books accounted for nearly $23 billion and e-books mopped up a little over $2 billion. These include all kinds of books — trade, educational, fiction, etc. If you have noticed, this decade started with doomsday predictions on the future of the printed book.

Yes, I remember!

The naysayers did have their reasons, considering that the previous decade (2000-2010) saw the arrival of game-changing technologies and products that challenged the global content industry. Amazon’s Kindle hit markets in 2007; and Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in 2010, unleashing the tablet era that revolutionised the way we read, streamed and surfed. These two products mainly and many of their clones — such as the Kobo reader — ensured easy access to books in digital formats. Understandably, sales of e-books skyrocketed. But that didn’t last long. E estimates suggest e-book sales have saturated at about 20 per cent.

But what keeps readers’ interest in print kindled even now?

Three points, mainly. Millennials and their predecessors continue to dominate the reading market. They influence most of the purchasing decisions and, having been groomed in the papyrus era, enjoy all its emotional gratifications. So they still prefer the print to the pixel. Second, e-reading technology is still a work in progress. Reading devices are complex mechanisms to operate, especially for children and senior citizens. The e-reading experience is still nowhere near what offline reading can offer. As long as the mismatch continues, the pendulum will swing in favour of the print. Another interesting factor is the ugly dominance of monopolies.

You mean Amazon?

To be fair, the arrival of Amazon and its Kindle helped the books industry immensely, as the platform offered more avenues for sellers and authors to publish and market their books. But on the flip-side, the obscene influence these platforms wielded meant margins of publishers took a plunge for the worse, making many of them cut corners or even shut shop. Yes, the e-commerce boom did help the buyers initially, as they were able to buy books at heavily discounted rates. But of late, even that trend is bottoming out. Serious readers find it difficult to buy their preferred books online at cheaper rates, since most offers revolve around the books the platforms want to push, which include e-books and in the physical books section, popular pulp fiction or self-help junk. This prompted many readers to go back to their neighbourhood bookstores where they reconnect with the (nostalgic) physical reading experience.

Ah, that’s interesting.

But be aware: this doesn’t mean other formats are not growing. They are, fast and furious. One interesting trend is the growth of audiobooks. An estimate from Deloitte showed that the global market for audiobooks is expected to grow 25 per cent this year to $3.5 billion. The exponential growth in therising popularity of podcasts has creatively contributed towards enhancing the growth of audiobooks. Interestingly, most physical books now come with an audiobook version too.

So the bottom line?

Clearly, the print has survived and is here to stay. The growth of e-books will have a parallel market and in all likelihood, won’t cannibalise the papyrus bundles. That said, the Web, social media etc pose new challenges to the content industry, demanding fresh commitments from readers who are now spoilt for choice.

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Published on January 09, 2020
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