Book revenues are on the rise – but without ebooks they would fall

The condition of the book is in constant danger. The novel is constantly dying, and there are fears that the publishing industry in general may be doomed. But if there’s one sector of the publishing industry that’s alive and well, it’s e-books. According to data released this week by the Association of American Publishers (PAA)e-book sales continued to grow steadily in 2013.

Data on book sales and reading is notoriously fuzzy. There is no comprehensive data collected and published on the number of books sold in the United States, in print, e-book or combined. Major retailers, like Barnes & Noble and Amazon, publish their sales numbers for print books, but don’t share how many eBooks they sell.

AAP reports revenues earned by major book publishers. For e-books, since there are almost no overhead costs as there are with physical books (for covers, printing, and shipping), reported revenue is approximately equal to e-books sold.

E-books have quickly risen to prominence in the world of book publishing. Publishers began reporting data on e-books in 2008, one year after the release of the first Amazon Kindle. In 2008, e-books were still in their nascent phase. They were so new that they even outsold audiobooks.

Audiobook sales have improved considerably since 2008 (80.85 million compared to 272.82 million in 2013). But their 200% increase is just a blot on the graph of what happened to e-books.


The massive jump in e-book sales from 2008 to 2013 is due, at least in part, to the growing popularity of e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle, and tablets. Since 2007, e-reader design has improved. Models became thinner, could hold more books, and could download books from anywhere. The new models will even allow you read in the dark.

The Pew Research Center started data collection on e-readers in 2010 when Apple released the first generation iPad and the tablets started to peel off. Pew found that while 85% of Americans owned a cell phone, only 5% of Americans owned an e-reader and 4% owned a tablet. With the rise of tablets and increasingly thin e-readers, e-book sales have exploded. In the first six months of 2011, The number of e-reader owners has doubled.

Today, 90% of Americans own a cell phone, 32% own an e-reader and 42% own a tablet. This is important because most of the e-book consumption happens on these two devices. More than 50% of readers say they read e-books on tablets or e-readers.


Electronic reading is becoming increasingly common. A 2012 Pew report found that nearly a quarter of Americans said they had read an e-book in the past year. The population of e-readers is one of the fastest growing industries in publishing. From 2011 to 2012, the share of people reading books electronically increased from 16% to 23%.

Although e-readers are growing in popularity, they don’t outgrow print and show no signs of doing so. Of adults surveyed by Pew who read more than one book in 2012, only 5% read alone an e-book. Americans still like their paper books between real cardboard covers and stacked on a shelf.

But the trend lines are negative for the impression. The data on e-book sales and print sales is never completely clear. Total book sales in 2013 were nearly $15 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers. That’s a 14% increase since 2008. E-books accounted for $3 billion. If we eliminated e-books, print book sales would actually be down nearly 8% since 2008.

Even these book sales figures underestimate the profits made by e-books because they do not include the revenue generated by self-published books, because Amazon does not disclose these statistics. Ultimately, eBooks have the potential to rewrite the current publishing model. Their impact on sales shows no signs of abating, and while that’s not good news for independent bookstores, it’s great news for reading.