E-Books vs. Print Books: An Overview

In the last several years, e-books have become a mainstay of the publishing industry. However, the demise of printed books as a result of the introduction of e-books has not materialized as predicted.

According to the Association of American Publishers, e-book sales in the U.S. declined slightly to $983 million in 2019 from a year earlier. The lower growth rate followed several years of double-digit declines in e-book sales. Both hardcover and paperback books still rule the market, with approximately $3 billion and 2.5 billion in sales in 2019, respectively. 

While e-books are helping the publishing industry, they can be a bit daunting for readers. If you are used to going to a local bookstore, browsing the aisles, and perhaps reading the first chapter before purchasing, you still can with e-books, albeit with a little adjustment.

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 some eye strain using an electronic device instead of a printed book.

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.

Print books are still a little more expensive than e-books, but not all that much. President Barack Obama's memoir, A Promised Land, is currently $17.99 for the Kindle edition, and $23.96 for the hardcover. John Grisham's past bestseller, The Guardians, is $9.99 for the Kindle edition, $9.64 for the paperback version, and $14 for the hardcover.

Classics are the real bargain in any format. You can get Charles Dickens: The Complete Works for Kindle for $2.99, while Bleak House alone is $5.95 in paperback. Both prices are bargains, of course, because the publishers don't have to pay anyone for the rights.

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.

The price gap is closing. A e-book might be priced about the same as the paperback edition but less than the hardcover.

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.

The Shrinking Price Difference

E-books aren't much less expensive than their paper counterparts, at least when it comes to new books from major publishers. Amazon, the dominant online bookseller, was forced by the major book publishers to increase their e-book prices, raising prices by an average of $5 per e-book over time.

Publishers have to price in a significant amount of overhead, including office space, utilities, benefits, and salaries for employees. Other costs include the printing, editing, marketing, and distribution process. Only some of the costs, particularly those related to printing and distribution, disappear with e-book editions.

The trouble is, many readers assume that e-books should be free, or at least much cheaper than their print counterparts. Some publishers respond that printing a book accounts for only about 10% of its cost. By eliminating this step, the cost of a book would only drop about $2.70, bringing the average price of a book down from about $27 to $24.30.

Beyond Amazon

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

The nonprofit Project Gutenberg offers 60,000 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 brags that it has more than 10 million books available to download for free, including textbooks and government documents as well as literary classics.

The Initial Cost of E-Books

You don't have to buy an e-reader to read e-books. You can just use your laptop, an Apple iPad or other tablet device, or even a phone app.

That said, Amazon's e-readers are currently priced at around $89.99 to $279.99, with the upper end containing the full features of a tablet. The Barnes & Noble Nook comes in a couple of versions starting at $119.99.

Kobo readers, currently priced at about $133 to $168, are particularly designed for readers who borrow e-books from libraries. The Onyx Boox Note, at under $500, is a full tablet built for students who need to wade through textbooks and documents.

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 the online seller such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. This can be anywhere from 30% to 50% of the sale price. 

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 price than print editions.