War of the Books: Print, Ebook, or Audio


What if all handwritten exams were exclusively replaced by digital tests? Cambridge University went public with this controversial opinion in a recent article published on Independent.co.uk. The post’s conspicuous title reads, “Cambridge University set to scrap written exams because students’ handwriting is so bad.” Has the rise of digital technology finally reached the turning point where offline will start losing its grasp on the school sector as well? Probably.


In the past 70 years the digital revolution has gradually affected how we interact with every industry. The music business, for instance, has been rocked by half a dozen consumption mediums that flipped the industry on its head. Consumers went from vinyls, to cassettes, to CDs, to digital sales, to online streaming, and back to vinyls as the younger generation develops a newfound interest in them today.

Naturally, the book industry was also affected by this worldwide digitization - though not as drastically. Where there once was only print, new and more innovative mediums emerged to simplify the way people consume books. These new advancements resulted in one of today’s most heated debates. How and what will people read in the future? Is it Print, E-books, or Audiobooks? To help you make sense of the current playing field, this article breaks down quantitative and qualitative facts of every format.

Print Books

“Print” refers to hard-copy books that are physically bound to be sold online or offline.

Worldwide Overview of the Print Book Industry:

  • With 674 million books sold in 2016, U.S. bookstores generated 11.01 billion U.S. Dollars that same year. (Statista.com, 2017)
    • After a slight decrease in sales between 2008 and 2012, physical book sales are back on the rise.
    • In fact in 2016, print book sales rose by 3.3% from the previous year, with 72% of Americans reading print books (Forbes.com, 2017).
  • The best-selling print book in 2016 was ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ written in collaboration by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany and J.K Rowling. The book sold 4.1 million print copies in the U.S. and 852 thousand copies in France. (Statista.com, 2016).
  • With 437 million books sold in France, publishers’ sales amounted to 2.8 billion Euros (2.54 billion USD) in 2016 (TheBookseller.com, 2017).
  • In the Brazilian market, gross revenues of the print publishing industry endured slight fluctuations, earning 5.36 billion Brazilian Reals (2.35 billion USD) in 2013, moving up to 5.41 Brazilian Reals (2.25 billion USD) in 2014, and dipping back to 5.27 million Brazilian Reals (1.46 billion USD) in 2016 (Statista.com, 2017).
  • In South Africa, books attracted 3.83 billion South African Rand (283.7 million USD), bringing it ahead of video games (#9) and music (#10), but well after the internet (#1) and TV & video (#2) (Statista.com, 2015).
  • Bookstores in China generated 34.4 billion Yuans (5.54 billion USD) in books sales in 2015, increasing from 31.8 billion Yuans (5.21 billion USD) in 2013. (Statista.com, 2016).

What Do These Numbers Actually Mean for Print Books?

Print remains the leading format in the book-reading landscape.

  • Physical books have existed for over 2,000 years. Until recently, they have monopolised the publishing industry, making this medium a hard one to topple.
  • From a price standpoint they are the most expensive medium out of the three. However, print in itself has varying formats that differ in prices. For instance, you usually find the paperback version of a book to be much cheaper than the hardcover. Additionally, in Egypt, publishers do two print runs: one on cheaper paper for the local market, and one on more expensive paper for their export market.This has helped print books appeal to different segments of demographics without affecting their massive popularity.
  • From flipping through pages to decorating bookshelves and coffee tables, the physicality of books has its advantages. Some published books are meant to be consumed tangibly and visually. At the end of the day, graphic novels, art & photography books, collectable comic books, and even coloring books are more valuable in print format.
  • Print remains the most popular format among millennials. One speculation might be that this segment of the population associates physical books with much needed offline time, as they are inundated in the digital world on a personal and professional level (Forbes.com, 2017).

Things to Keep in Mind About Print Books:

There is no doubt that print book sales have taken a minor hit because of the digitalization of the book industry. Nonetheless, physical books are still leading the charge, with book sales increasing in the last couple of years. This is partly due to our attachment to physical objects, partly by force of habit, and partly as a result of “screen fatigue” (TheGuardian.com, 2017). Print books are a tried and true medium that have withstood the test of time. However, as new technologies emerge everyday, new innovations continue to challenge the print book’s dominance.

What’s Shaking the Book Industry
What’s Shaking the Book Industry: A detailed study of Print, E-books, Audiobooks and Publishing Startups Around the World
What’s Shaking the Book Industry: A detailed study of Print, E-books, Audiobooks and Publishing Startups Around the World
January 2018
Download Whitepaper


Ebooks are “soft-copies”, which means they are published in digital format. They are meant to be consumed through e-readers like Kindle, Kobo, and Nook, or digital devices like smartphones, tablets and even computers.

Worldwide Overview of the eBook Industry:

  • Trade ebook sales in the U.S. amounted to 1.1 billion U.S. dollars in 2016, which accounts for 221 million soft copies sold (Statista.com, 2017).
    • Ebook sales have steadily declined since 2013, with a 6.7% decrease in 2016 compared to 2015. These numbers do not take into ebook subscriptions.
    • 14% of Americans stated that are very interested in joining an ebook subscription program (Statista.com, 2017).
    • The best-selling ebook for 2016 was ‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes which sold 527 thousand soft copies in the U.S. (Statista.com, 2016).
  • Kindle tablet sales took a major hit from 2011 to 2012, going from 13.44 million sold in one year down to 9.68 million units sold (Forbes.com, 2014). We were unable to find a trustworthy source for more recent figures.
  • Revenues from the French ebook industry are expected to amount to 284.95 million Euros (316.6 million USD) in 2016 (Statista.com, 2017) growing from 52.9 million Euros (70.5 million USD) in 2010 (Statista.com, 2015).
    • In France, 32% of ebook readers were motivated to start reading digital books because they already owned a tablet or a smartphone (Statista.com, 2014).
    • Ebook readers in France are mostly from a younger age range, with 56% between the ages of 15 and 34 years old, compared to 18% that are older than 50 years old (Statista.com, 2014).
  • In the Middle East, ebook revenues went from being non-existent until 2015, when they jumped to 107 million USD, then going up to 137 million USD in 2016 (Statista.com, 2016).
  • In the Asia Pacific region, ebook revenue grew from 817 million USD in 2009 to 2.25 billion in 2016 (Statista.com, 2016).
    • In China, the total revenue made from ebooks amounted to 662 million Yuans (102 million USD) in 2013 (Statista.com, 2014).
  • In 2015, 41% of Brazilians have heard of ebooks, a percentage that has increased by 11% since 2011 (Statista.com, 2015).
    • 56% of Brazilians are ebook consumers, read their soft copies on their smartphones in 2016 (Statista.com, 2015).

What Do These Numbers Actually Mean for eBooks?

The advent of technological innovations has brought in the rise of ebooks, with readers more inclined to read digital books because they already own a tablet, or a smartphone.

  • Ebooks present publishers with the ability to be more agile with their books. For instance, publishers are able to test out different book covers before jumping to print. Publishers can also gather instant feedback on readers’ reactions regarding their book.
  • From a reader’s perspective, one word comes to mind when it comes to ebooks: “Practicality.” Hauling around a stack of books is a hassle. That’s why ebooks are highly convenient for frequent travelers and commuters, with a single ebook reader being able to store up to thousands of books at one time.
  • On a cheekier note, ebooks are also the preferred medium for all guilty pleasure reads. Given that the cover is not visible to anyone, a reader’s historical romance fiction won’t fall prey to the judgmental eyes of fellow commuters.
  • Ebooks tend to be considerably cheaper than other formats, even in countries where a fixed book price agreement is applied like France’s Lang Law. However, in the U.S. their prices have crept up in recent years after Amazon lost its monopoly on the market. As more players entered the ebook industry like Apple for example, prices have been inflated, deterring causal buyers. (EContentMag.com, 2017).

Things to Keep in Mind About eBooks:

Ebooks stand as one of the major innovations the book industry has experienced since the first book was printed on a press in the 15th century. Digital books spiked in their infancy to experience a decline in later years. Ebooks present a new, more convenient medium to read books, but they have not disrupted the way we actually consume books. On the one hand, people still prefer the touch and feel of reading physical books. On the other hand, new technologies and innovations have emerged like audiobooks, which have completely changed the way people consume books. For digitized books to have a lasting effect on the book industry, we may need to see them offering a completely different experience with animated ebooks becoming the norm. On a different note, ebooks have allowed authors to self-publish, allowing them to experiment and establish a platform before turning to a traditional publisher.


Audiobooks are recorded books that are meant to be listened to on any digital device. Much work goes into the production in order to create an ambiance of storytelling.

Worldwide Overview of the Audiobook Industry:

  • With 89.56 million audiobooks sold in 2016, the U.S. audiobook industry was estimated at 2.1 billion USD (Statista.com, 2017).
  • The world's largest producer of digital audiobooks, Audible’s memberships have been growing at a rate of 40% per year (CNBC.com, 2016).
    • Audible members listened to 1.6 billion hours of audio in 2015, an increase from 1.2 billion hours listened to in 2014.
    • IT by Stephen King, narrated by Steven Weber, was the most popular book on Audible as of September 2017 (Audible.com, 2017).
    • 35% of audiobook listeners in the U.S. prefer to listen to books about self-help and spirituality (Statista.com, 2015).
  • In 2015, 7% of French people listened to at least one audiobook (Audible.com, 2015).
  • 44% of French parents are interested in using audiobooks for their children, and 50% of French children, ages 7 to 9, have listened to an audiobook (Audible.com, 2015).
  • 22% of the audiobooks consumed in France are thrillers, as well as detective and crime novels, followed by contemporary novels at 18%, children’s literature at 18%, and classic literature at 18% (Statista.com, 2017).
  • 2.83 million Germans have purchased several audiobooks as of 2016 (Statista.com, 2016).
  • The Japanese audiobook market currently amounts to 5 billion Japanese Yen (44.5 million USD) (JapanTimes.co.jp, 2017).
  • uBook, a Latin American audiobook distribution company, has more than 1.5 million users since 2014, with 10,000 audiobook titles available on their platform (uBook.com, 2014).

What Do These Numbers Actually Mean for Audiobooks?

  • Audiobooks are a convenient medium to consume books for people who wish to enjoy stories on the go. For the first time, you can enjoy a book while you are doing something else completely. The majority of audiobook listeners do so while running various errands, including cooking, cleaning, exercising, and more. Listening to books has also become increasingly popular for commuters, particularly for readers who have long drives to work. In other words, audiobooks are the perfect solution for those who do not have time to physically sit and read a book.
  • Parents and teachers have been turning to audiobooks as a way to entertain and educate children. They can provide a useful distraction for kids during long drives, for example, and are a fun, educational tool in the classroom.
  • Audiobooks are increasingly being read by well-known actors and performers, which has contributed to the medium’s growth in popularity. Actors like Morgan Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kate Winslet and Stephen Fry have all been commissioned to read a number of novels.
  • The growth of audiobooks is a testament to the power of the spoken word. This is particularly translated in the popularity of audio spiritual and self-help books, as an emotive voice can reflect the internal motivation every person wants to hear.
  • Even though audiobooks have been around for a while, they have only recently become trendy. They are mainly prevalent in the U.S., and are slowly gaining ground in foreign markets, including France, Germany, Japan and Latin America.

Things to Keep in Mind About Audiobooks:

Audiobooks are currently riding an upward wave, growing at an exponential rate. This is greatly due to the audio revolution currently taking place. In societies today, we are more inclined to multitask, and refuse to have a single lost moment, which also explains the steadily growing podcast industry around the world. Despite their rapid expansion in the U.S., audiobooks still have not reached the same popularity in other countries. That being said, it will be interesting to see whether audiobooks will continue to grow, or like all trends, experience a dip, and not be able to expand into the long tail market.

Key Takeaways:

After our extensive analysis of the book industry, it would be safe to say that print books are still the leading the industry when it comes to market share. They continue to be the primary medium through which people read. It’s up for bookstores to now think of different ways to reach potential audiences, with many opting for online storefronts as a low cost / high reach solution.

Even though the e-book industry seems fickle today, it can be interesting for some bookstores to dip their feet into it, as it takes little capital to kickoff. Stores can sell electronic versions of their books on platforms such as Kobo, which specializes in electronic books for independent bookstores. The challenge here is how to actually market these digitized books. Keeping in mind that a different customer experience trickles down to new sales tactics.

When it comes to audiobooks, the trend is growing, but so is the competition, with a select number of platforms monopolizing this industry. However, there are solutions to selling audiobooks that allow bookstores to offer their clients a fuller experience. For instance, Libro.fm has an indie partner program, which allows independent bookstores to sell their own audiobooks and test the waters before making the full leap into audio.

As for readers, these mediums are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They will tend to choose the format that best suits their lifestyle and the book they’re reading. Moreover, these three mediums are actually complementary, debunking the divisive conversation that surrounds them. Readers will opt to use all three when consuming content, each format answering the needs of a particular context. A startup that is taking advantage of the complementary nature of these mediums is the German-based Papego that allows you to seamlessly switch between the print and electronic versions of a same book. It would be interesting to see major publishers adopting this approach and adding audiobooks into the mix; a shake up sure to change the way publishers, authors and readers conceive a book.

If you'd like to learn more about this topic, make sure to check out our white paper: What’s Shaking the Book Industry: A detailed study of Print, E-books, Audiobooks and Publishing Startups Around the World.

Michel Choueiri

Michel is the Director of Publisher and Bookseller Partnerships at Bookwitty. He is Michel is in charge of building the catalogue of French, Arabic, Spanish and Catalan books. Michel’s expertise lies in the book industry, and he was awarded the title: Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government.