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Why ebook sales are falling?

06 December 2019

Last year audiobook sales rapidly increased and podcasts might be one of the primary motivations for this surge of popularity. However, the same growth has not been seen in ebook sales, as physical books are still outselling their digital counterparts today, and there are many possible reasons for this.

Ebook prices

The digital version of books are often sold at the same price or sometimes even higher than the paperbacks or hardbacks, which can be a highly demotivating factor when deciding on which edition should we purchase.

“It was recognised from the very beginning that books and knowledge were essential to people's lives and therefore applying a tax on reading would be unfair and inappropriate. That is why, ever since the UK's VAT regime was established in the 1970s, printed books, magazines and newspapers have been VAT exempt.”

The Publishers Association

One of the main reasons for the higher prices is that every digital publication is taxed at 20% in the UK currently, and ebooks are not not exempt from this rule. From the quote above, you would assume books in every format should benefit from the same advantages, which is why the Publishers Association started the "Axe the Reading Tax" campaign in 2018, urging the government to remove this illogical tax from ebooks as well.

High ebook prices are also the result of publishers' fear of physical books getting redundant. In 2014 a well-known publishing company won their debate against Amazon, allowing publishers to return to the agency pricing model and set the ebook prices themselves.

After the first spike in ebook sales, the publishing industry came up with another way of protecting their non-digital products: a new marketing strategy that's focusing on creating gorgeous and appealing book covers. This approach has been a great success, according to the publishers and bookshops, and it works both in-store and online. 
First impressions are always critical. Revealing new, beautifully designed covers on popular social media platforms can gain readers' interest even without them knowing much about the story.


Ebooks and audiobooks have been widely available in many public libraries, often for free by using a library card. However, the waiting list for checking out a digital copy can go over ten weeks as the licensing and distribution rules provided by publishers are very complicated and strict. As a result, libraries have to pay more than the retail price for ebooks in many cases, and sometimes, they need to re-purchase the books after a certain number of circulations or after reaching their expiry date.


Authors and publishers are losing billions of dollars worldwide due to piracy, and there seems to be no known solution to fix the issue. According to the Intellectual Property Office, about 17% of all online ebook consumption is illegal, based on their 2018's research. Reasons for pirating books are not only their high price but also convenience: 

  • People often get disappointed in a book they purchased and "pre-reading" helps them decide if they want to spend money on the product. 
  • Ebooks reader devices are easy to carry as they are small and lightweight, unlike physical books, hence why some consumers would download a title when they already purchased it in another format.

The future of digital publishing is still unknown, as there are many factors still shaping the industry every day.

Although ebook sales are dropping, it doesn't mean they will disappear, and there is no reason to think either ebooks or physical books are better than one or the other.
It is evident that ebooks have many advantages, despite the above-mentioned negative aspects. 

  • Ebook readers can help visually impaired people in many ways. All of these devices allow the users to change the font size of the texts, and often they provide text-to-speech functionality as well.
  • Depending on how many books a person reads, e-readers might be more environment-friendly. Manufacturing a single device produces as much CO2 as the creation of 30 printed books, and they use much less natural resources.

“Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who like to read on the subway, or who do not want other people to see how they are amusing themselves, or who have storage and clutter issues, but they are useless for people who are engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books.”

Joe Queenan, One for the Books