Though various sources have reported a decline in e-book sales for traditional publishers in 2015 compared to 2014, no one has come up with a clear reason for the drop. To gain some insight into the trend, the Codex Group devoted a recent survey of book buyers’s shopping preferences to looking more deeply into the question.

The book market has taken a different path from the music and home video markets, where research from industry associations shows that consumers continued to increase digital spending last year (with digital reaching record revenue share levels of 70% and 59%, respectively, for 2015).

Preliminary figures from the Association of American Publishers found that sales of e-books for trade publishers fell 14% in 2015 compared to 2014 and accounted for 20% of overall trade book revenue, down from 23% in 2014. Going beyond AAP’s member publisher sales performance, the Codex Group’s April 2016 survey of 4,992 book buyers found that e-book units purchased as a share of total books purchased fell from 35.9% in April 2015 to 32.4% in April 2016. The Codex survey includes e-books published by traditional publishers and self-publishers and sold across all channels and in all categories.

In light of the April study results, Codex president Peter Hildick-Smith believes that the book industry’s experience with digital sales differs from that of music and video because of two factors. First, electronic devices are optional for reading books (unlike for listening to music or watching video), and the current range of e-book reading devices—including smartphones, tablets, and dedicated e-readers—has not delivered the quality long-form reading experience needed to supplant print, even with e-books’ major price and convenience advantages. Second, Hildick-Smith said, a new consumer phenomenon, “digital fatigue,” is beginning to emerge.

Device Limitations

The reading devices that first ignited the e-book category—dedicated e-readers such as Nook and Kindle—still remain the most important factor affecting e-book reading and sales. Though only 34% of book buyer households own e-book readers, they are still the dominant factor in e-book consumption, having been used for an average of 55% of the total time spent reading the most recent e-book read by respondents. Dedicated e-reader owners also purchased 59% of e-book units bought by respondents in the month. In contrast, tablets, owned by 66% of book-buying households, were used for only 28% of e-book reading time, while smartphones, with the highest penetration among book buyers (73%), accounted for only 12% of e-book reading time.

The challenge going forward, Hildick-Smith pointed out, is that dedicated e-reader ownership has been stagnant for the past three years, and the devices are increasingly being retired. Only 50% of dedicated e-reading devices were used by respondents to read e-books in the week prior to the survey, and less than one-third of the devices were used to purchase an e-book in the prior month. Tablets and smartphones are not picking up the slack, with only 52% of tablets and 26% of smartphones being used for e-book reading in the week prior to the survey.

The Codex survey also found that though book buyers stated they spent almost five hours of daily personal time on screens, 25% of book buyers, including 37% of those 18–24 years old, want to spend less time on their digital devices. Since consumers almost always have the option to read books in physical formats, they are indicating a preference to return to print. In the April survey, 19% of 18-to-24-year-olds said they are reading fewer e-books than when they started reading that format, the highest percentage among all age groups. Overall, 14% of book buyers said they are now reading fewer e-books than when they started reading books in the format, and 59% percent of those who said they are reading fewer e-books cited a preference for print as the main reason for switching back to physical books. The share of print books purchased was also the highest among the heaviest screen users, the so-called digital natives, ages 18–24 (83%), and lowest (61%) among 55-to-64-year-olds.

Unless the e-reader device market is recharged with lower-price, higher-quality options, Hildick-Smith expects that consumers tiring of their digital-device experience will have further digital fatigue, leading to continued e-book sales erosion.