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By Daniel B. Kline / The Motley Fool
September 7, 2016

In theory, digital books make print obsolete. You can buy and read a novel on your phone, tablet, or a dedicated e-reader, yet Americans still opt for the old-fashioned printed variety in fairly overwhelming numbers. Even though digital books are almost always cheaper than their print counterparts, 65% of Americans have read a physical book in the last year while only 28% have read a digital one, according to a new Pew Research report.

That may explain why Barnes & Noble


has managed to hold on even though Amazon AMAZON.COM INC.


generally offers better prices for both physical and digital books. Americans choosing print over e-books is like people opting for a pad and pen over a tablet, or a big pile of DVDs over Netflix. However, even though digital books are available to anyone with a computer, smartphone, or tablet, people still want the familiar—in this one area, at least.

Maybe Americans just don’t read much

Aside from hipsters who insist that vinyl sounds better, most Americans made the switch to digital music. That was a steady change. First, consumers swapped digital downloads for CDs, and more recently, they have simply subscribed to all-you-can-listen music services.

Many assumed the same thing would happen with books, making Barnes & Noble as out of date as Tower Records—but that never happened. Perhaps the reason for that is Americans simply don’t read enough that price and convenience make a difference in the way they did for music buyers.

“Americans read an average (mean) of 12 books per year, while the typical (median) American has read 4 books in the last 12 months,” according to Pew. Those numbers are largely the same as they have been since 2011, when Pew began tracking the reading habits of Americans.

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The e-book market has stalled

From 2011 through 2014, e-book readership grew from 17% to 28%; then for the past two years, it has remained stuck there. The availability of cheap and even free e-books has also not changed the overall number of Americans reading books, in general

“Following a slight overall decline in book readership between 2011 and 2012, the share of American adults who read books in any format has remained largely unchanged over the last four years,” wrote Pew. “Some 73% of Americans report that they have read at least one book in the last year. That is nearly identical to the 74% who reported doing so in a survey conducted in 2012, although lower than the 79% who reported doing so in 2011.”

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That means that the hassle of going to a bookstore to buy a book or ordering one from Amazon was not holding people back from reading more. Putting an entire library a couple of clicks away on people’s devices has not increased the number of Americans reading books. In fact, despite the increased ease, fewer people are reading.

There is no critical mass

Record stores were killed by the fact that digital downloads, and later, subscription services, created a tipping point. Even diehard CD fans—people who loved the idea of actually owning a physical product—were won over because of the savings.

Subscription services, of course, blew that logic out of the water. If you even downloaded one album a month, it made more sense to just join an unlimited service.

Books will never hit that tipping point because most people don’t read enough that the money saved makes it worth giving up a familiar format. Of the people who read a book last year, 28% of them read in both print and digital formats while 38% were print only, and only 6% went purely digital, according to Pew.

Given that the actual number of books read is so small, it’s hard to see the industry following the pattern of the music business. It’s easier, cheaper, and maybe even more pleasant to read a digital book. However, with most people reading any book only slightly more often than they cook an entire turkey, those factors may not win out over familiarity.

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Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon.com and Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of Barnes and Noble. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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