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Which do you prefer: an e-book or physical book?

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A new Stora Enso survey among 2,400 book readers of all ages in the UK, France, Germany, and the US found that people still overwhelmingly prefer physical books for their look, their feel and even their smell.

The study, rolled out during March 2022, showed 65% of respondents wanting physical books, versus 21% who preferred e-books and 14% audiobooks. The French showed the strongest preference for physical books of any nation. And most said they preferred to read or listen to fiction books for leisure and to get quality time alone.

“These results confirmed our expectations that the market for physical books is set to stay strong, which is good news for our printer and publishing customers,” said Stora Enso’s Jonathan Bakewell, VP, Head of Segment Office and Book Papers. But there were some surprise results from the youngest group (16 to 24 years) polled, where 70% said they preferred physical books over e-books. 

This enthusiasm for books among Gen Zers, who are more likely to be the digital disrupters, seems partially fuelled by the manga-book craze, driven by Netflix anime series, as well as a recent explosion in top-selling teen romance books. For older age groups, physical books have been outselling e-books in areas like human potential and mindfulness – think colouring books for grownups – particularly during the pandemic as people took pause to look inward.  

Digital detox 

“People have begun rediscovering reading, partly prompted by the pandemic,” Bakewell says, “where many were tethered to their screens all day for work or school, then didn’t want to take them to the sofa when it was time to relax.”  

A majority of respondents (63%) said they read more during Covid, including nearly 70% in the UK and US. In the youth segment, 64% said they read more and, notably, 76% of young people in the US and 73% in the UK. 

“In the UK, it helped that we had nice weather during lockdown one,” recalls Bakewell, who invested in an outdoor sofa to relax on with a good book after work. During the isolation the physicality of a book felt more companionable for some than a digital reader. Books also look beautiful as a colourful objet d’art or design piece on a table or shelf. Some even cited the smell of a physical book that could evoke pleasant memories.

Share of eyes and ears

But even as physical books took a larger share of hearts and minds, the study showed there is a time and place for all three book formats. E-books and audio books are more convenient and lighter to carry and can be consumed from multiple devices. 

“And while the book and the e-book are competing for a share of eyes, the audio is complementary in that it is competing for ears – podcasts, radio, music, and others – when eyes are not available,” Bakewell says.

Books as carbon storage

Books are also circular – 42% of readers said they like to keep books when they finish reading them, while 26% loan or donate them. A further 26% sell their books and the remaining 5% recycle them or throw them out. 

And while books do emit carbon during production and distribution, they are their own carbon storage unit once they’re on our shelves. Some readers who preferred e-books thought they were more sustainable. “But even e-books require energy to manufacture and run their reader devices and to keep their content servers going,” Bakewell points out. 

Carbon neutrality a plus

A majority of all respondents (61%) and 70% of youth said they would be willing to pay a premium (on average 5.7% of the retail price) for carbon neutral books. A majority also said they would buy from outlets that provided carbon neutral or carbon offset books. However, most drew the line at visiting a site themselves and using an ISBN number to pay offsets separately. This is with the exception of the youth segment and a majority of Germans polled, who said they would. 

“Knowing this, the next question for Stora Enso and our customers, is how we can best meet this demand for carbon neutrality as an industry,” Bakewell says, adding “Offsetting is something we only consider when we have carbon emissions that are currently unavoidable. And of course, we are always looking for ways we can avoid emissions now and in the future as options open up.” 

Certainly, Stora Enso has the technical and environmental expertise to implement a process. For example, in copy paper, the company already offers a carbon neutral choice (Stora Enso’s Multicopy Zero), which is offset for customers at the point of purchase. 

However, in book paper, the situation is more complex. Stora Enso produces the widest range of book grades at its Anjala Mill in Finland. So, a key question among others, is whether offsets are applied at the point of book production or the point of paper purchase.  “The Study findings have opened up a lot of discussion points like this one, which we are just beginning to take up with our customers in printing and publishing, and we’re open to sharing,” Bakewell says. “So, please be in touch!”

Find out about Stora Enso's range of book papers here.

In focus

Jonathan Bakewell

“People have begun rediscovering reading, partly prompted by the pandemic.” 

Jonathan Bakewell

Book papersStora Enso paper

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