E-Books vs. Print Books: An Overview

In the last several years, e-books have become a mainstay and a powerful trend in the publishing industry. However, the demise of printed books as a result of e-books has not materialized, but instead, the two formats have existed simultaneously.

According to the Association of American Publishers, e-book sales in the U.S. had declined slightly to $983 million in 2019 from a year earlier. The lower growth rate followed a few 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 the local bookstore, browsing the aisles, and perhaps reading the first chapter before purchasing, you still can with e-books albeit with a little adjustment.

Most publishers and nearly all online book retailers offer readers the opportunity to "sample" a book before you purchase it. Many authors are also offering free reads or free first chapters on their personal websites. Both print and digital formats have their advantages and disadvantages. In this article, we'll compare the differences between e-books and print books and let readers decide where they stand on the print versus digital debate.

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.
  • Paper books are easier on the eyes since there's no eye strain that comes with an electronic device or e-reader.
  • E-books are usually less expensive than their paper counterparts.
  • E-books come with font flexibility, making reading easier and e-readers can store thousands of e-books on a single device.

Print Books

Print books have some advantages over e-books, including that they have the feel of a book that many readers love. You can hold it, turn the pages, and feel the paper. Also, for those who like to read as they fall asleep, paper books make a better choice since there's no eye strain that comes with an electronic device or e-reader.

On the other hand, paper books can be difficult to carry around, especially hardcover books. If you're an avid reader and you're going on a trip, you'd need to pack books in your luggage whereas an e-reader or iPad is far easier to take.

The cost of printed books is more expensive than e-books. Print books from large publishers have a significant amount of overhead, including office space, utilities, benefits, and salaries for employees. Other costs include the printing, editing, marketing, and distribution process.

Also, publishers take an enormous risk by signing an author since there's no guarantee the author's work will be successful. All of these factors go into the final price readers pay for a print book.


E-books are usually less expensive than their paper counterparts. However, there are exceptions. Since e-books are delivered in digital format, many readers assume that e-books should cost less than their print counterparts. According to some publishers, 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 $24.3. Even without the printing costs, this isn't significant savings.

Most e-books range in price from $9.99 to 99 cents, and many classic books are free online. However, when you get down to the dollars and cents, there really isn't a great deal of difference, especially if you consider books from the larger publishing houses.

Publishers that offer e-books still have to pay overhead and employees, including editors. One book can have multiple editors including content editors, grammar editors, line editors, character editors, and final editors. Since a good cover can draw a reader to explore a book, a good graphic designer is necessary, which adds to the overall cost of publishing. Just like print books, there's also marketing to create magazine ads, posters, and ads for online markets.

Pricing Considerations

Ebooks have the added technology costs, which involves formatting the e-book so that the various electronic devices can properly download and store the book. A percentage of e-book sales must be paid to the online seller such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, which can be anywhere from 30% to 50% of the cover price.  The author gets paid as well. For large publishers and book releases that are to be distributed worldwide, e-books still have a substantial cost to producing them despite saving money on printing and shipping.

Smaller publishers and independent authors do have more leeway with pricing, but they still have many of these 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 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 lower in cost to produce, and it's typically reflected in their lower price than print books.

The electronic devices used for e-books can be an added benefit. E-books come with font flexibility making reading easier. Also, you can store thousands of e-books and magazines on a single device. You can check out library books on your e-reader, and they e-books save trees.

The Drawbacks

There are some drawbacks that are unique to e-books. You must recharge an e-reader or electronic device. Some screens are not easily readable in sunlight. Also, e-readers can cause eye-strain from looking at the screen. If you work in front of a computer all day, the last thing you might want to do is read your favorite author's stories on a computer screen.

E-books were involved in a price-fixing scandal some years back. The Department of Justice (DOJ) accused Apple of "knowingly conspiring with book publishers to raise the prices of e-books." The suit began shortly after Apple released its iPad when, the suit claims, there was a 30 to 50% increase in the price of e-books, particularly those from major publishers. The suit contended that this "price fixing" does not allow the market to determine price, and publishers can dictate prices to retailers. The suit involved not only Apple, but Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin.

Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster settled the lawsuit out of court and without public disclosure. However, Apple settled the suit in 2016 and agreed to pay a $450 million settlement.

Special Considerations

Should You Buy an iPad or E-Reader?

There are so many options available it can be a daunting task to decide on which reader you want or need. Here are a few guidelines that might help with your decision.

Do you just want to read books?

If so, consider a Kindle or Nook. These are both good for reading, easy to download books on to, and easy to carry. They have adjustable fonts, anti-glare screens, and offer audio capability.

Do you want to read enhanced e-books?

Some e-books come with audio and video, and use the web to "enhance" your reading. If so, you might consider a Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, or the Google Nexus 9. If you want the ability to use the Internet, text, receive email, stream video, audio, and read a book, you might want to buy an iPad.

Will you use the e-reader enough to offset the price?

Some e-readers can cost anywhere from $100 to over $200 or more each. Although readers save on the cost of e-books versus print books, a reader wouldn't break even until approximately 20 books at $15-$20 per paper book.

Readers, like most consumers, want a good product at a low price. There are excellent e-books available for $0.99 to $9.99. However, readers must decide for themselves whether they prefer a traditional paper book or the digital version, but given the sales of books, it's likely both formats will be around for a while.