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Sunday Times Books LIVE

Print vs ebooks: Readers have decided



By Jennifer Platt for the Sunday Times

Many book-lovers thought the birth of Kindle signalled the final chapter for books made of paper. They were wrong. Buying old-fashioned books is back in vogue internationally — and South Africa seems to be following the trend.

Waterstones in the UK has stopped selling Kindles in most of its 280 book stores. MD James Daunt said this was because “sales of Kindles continue to be pitiful”.

Kindle’s parent company Amazon has opened a real bricks-and-mortar book shop in a hip neighbourhood in Seattle in the US.

The Guardian reported that the demise of e-books was “one of the rare examples where a groundbreaking technology ends up being supplanted by its predecessor”.

The New York Times said that much of the hype around e-books had disappeared – sales apparently fell 10 percent in the first half of 2015 – and printed books were doing better than anyone had expected.

Fortune magazine, however, reported that e-book sales were on the increase, thanks mostly to the rise of self-published works. It pointed out that the New York Times report was based on sales figures from the Association of American Publishers.

In South Africa it seems that book stores were busier than usual this December – although Steve Connolly, MD of Penguin Random House South Africa, said this could be because previously book stores had been hit by power cuts, which meant fewer customers.

“Our e-book sales of international titles remain pretty strong and haven’t declined, though sales of local e-books have dipped from 2014, possibly due to the closure of,” he said.

Some reports attribute the drop in e-book sales to publishers’ strategy of selling the e-book for the same price as the paper edition.

Eugene Ashton, CEO of Jonathan Ball Publishers, said the declining popularity of e-books was owing to “an overall increase in the price of e-books and the heavy discounting has effectively come to an end. This means that the average reader pays about the same for print or digital and so opts for the print edition.

“There is also evidence to support the argument that digital has found a level and that readers who were reading only in digital are, anecdotally at least, returning to print.”

Kate Rogan of Love Books in Melville, one of the few independent book stores in Johannesburg, said: “It does look as though my December sales were up. I think the standardising of prices on Kindle has driven people back to books.

“Mostly, though, our customers love to handle the book. The physical object seems to heighten the reading experience.”

Also noticeable is an increase in children’s book sales, something remarked on recently by Exclusive Books. Connolly confirmed this. He said sales of books overall were down about 3 percent last year “but in contrast to that, children’s books sales in South Africa have had double-digit growth for the last two years. Local children’s publishing seems to be growing and selling well to both locals and tourists. Our own children’s sales grew by 20 percent last year.

“Many people talk about our young children today, digital natives, not being interested in the physical book. My experience as a parent of a five-year-old, and as these figures indicate pretty clearly, is that these kids embrace the book just as much as their parents and grandparents did.”

Most of the drop in e-book sales internationally was in the young adult and children’s sections. One of the explanations is that there have not been any blockbusters in a while – the likes of a Hunger Games or Harry Potter.

A 10-year-old “voracious reader” visiting South Africa from her home in the US said she read and collected series – her favourites were Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson series about Greek myths. She said she preferred the physical book as she enjoyed collecting them. Also, with a physical book she is not afraid of “breaking anything”.

“I had to search for the latest Percy Jackson,” said her mother. “We could have easily downloaded the e-book, but she prefers the actual physical book. The hunt for the book was also exciting for her and made her appreciate the book even more when we found it.”

Some consumers are refraining from reading e-books altogether. In a recent Twitter poll on Books LIVE, only 8 percent of respondents said they read only e-books ; 55 percent said they read only the paper edition; and 37 percent said they read both.


Courtenay Luckay, a medical student at the University of Cape Town, embraces both formats. “I read e-books because they’re easily accessible, and they’re always available. I can also access over 200 books from one device. But I find it more difficult to concentrate with e-books, so I still read physical books.

“Also, when your phone or iPad is low on battery you can’t read anymore, and a physical book would never do that to you.”

Donnay Torr, editor of Afrikaans culture magazine Taalgenoot, said: “To me, reading is ultimately an intensely physical experience. You choose a comfortable spot to cuddle up in (or in my case a decadent bubble bath). You might make a cup of tea or pour a glass of wine to go with the book. The look and heft of the book, the feel and smell of the pages, the sense of accomplishment as you see your progress … where else can you get that but with a real book?

“And then when you’re done with it, you slide it into a beautiful wood bookcase, to see and sometimes take back out again for a re-read.”

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">JSchreiber</a>
    February 5th, 2016 @08:18 #

    As a follower of South African literature from Canada, we can often obtain books of interest as e-books that are impossible to obtain otherwise. Even when I was in South Africa last year where I bought as many books as I could reasonably afford/carry, I had to decide to leave a few books behind when I knew the e-book was available back home and concentrate on books not available at all out here. I still wish I had bought the paper copies in a few cases.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">GrahamDowns</a>
    February 5th, 2016 @08:25 #

    E-books are a godsend to me. I love reading, but my eyes have become really bad as I've gotten older (35, by the way, so I'm hardly a senior citizen) due to my Retinitus Pigmentosa.

    I cannot read on paper unless it's large print, and even then I can't read under artificial light. But since I got my first tablet PC, and discovered e-reading apps, I've been reading more than ever before. In fact, according to Goodreads, I read 41 books last year. This year, it's only February, and I'm a quarter of the way to last year's total.

    The convenience of e-books simply cannot be beat. The fact that I have my entire library on both my tablet and cellphone (and they synchronise between the two) is an experience I cannot describe.

    Plus, of course, font size and brightness are no longer an issue for me. I like a high contrast, so I read white text on a black background, with a font sent so high that I generally only get two or three paragraphs on a screen... but it's oh, so comfortable! And I can adjust the backlight to be comfortable, no matter what the ambient light is.

    Oh, and I also get to feel good about the fact that I'm saving the rainforest. How cool is that!

    I am one of the people who believe that the decline in e-book sales is due to corporate publishers trying to sell e-books at the same level as paperbacks. And the fact that these big publishers still insist on releasing hardcovers first, then paperbacks, then e-books. If you want to read a book first, you're going to have to read it in print.

    But I think corporate publishers are dying a slow death anyway. Other than for highly specialised niches, there really isn't any place for a dedicated publishing house anymore.

    Contrast this with indie authors (disclosure: I'm an indie author, so I'm admittedly a little biased). Generally speaking, we release to e-book first. We earn MUCH higher royalties than our corporately published peers, so we keep our selling prices low. You can pick up four or five great independently published novels, for what it would cost you to buy one traditionally published ones.

    We're also far more agile. We respond to reader feedback, and fix typos in e-books... they can be fixed instantly. I typically do a paperback version of one of my books a couple of months after the e-book, by which which time the text has been polished to the point where it's extremely rare you'd find a typo in the paperback.

    And once again, the prices of those paperbacks are rock bottom, because we get higher royalties, and more control over what our final product looks like and how we sell it.

    Corporate publishing does everything backwards. Self-publishing is the future. That future was DRIVEN by the surge of e-books, yes, but we, more than traditional publishers, understand that people have different reading preferences, and we're not going to shut ANYONE out because of how they prefer to read. Oh, and I haven't even started on Audiobooks, yet!

    If you want to take a look at my books, you can find me at Thanks for reading. :)


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