Print books or eBooks? New study reveals what consumers really prefer

Fascinating results from a new study about consumers’ perceptions of traditional books versus e-books.  Folks here at Razor’s Edge-BookGravy are avid fans of traditional print books and so were pleasantly surprised that the majority of readers in the study support our loyalty to print books– especially given all the media reports over the past decade about how Millennials are all about eBooks.  We were especially interested in the researchers’ finding that the ‘meaning of things’ came into play in consumers’ perceptions of print books. More specifically, that print books offer consumers the ability to outwardly express who they are and what they value–something that eBooks, hidden away on the cloud or a computer file, just can’t do.


Decoding digital ownership: Why your e-book might not feel like ‘yours’

People feel very differently about owning physical books versus e-books, a recent study shows. While stereotypes suggest that younger consumers prefer digital books, that is not actually the case, researchers found.
Overview of study results

Despite stereotypes that paint millennials as “all technology, all the time,” young people may still prefer curling up with a paper book over their e-reader — even more so than their older counterparts — according to a new study from the University of Arizona that explores consumers’ psychological perceptions of e-book ownership.

The study also found that adult consumers across all age groups perceive ownership of e-books very differently than ownership of physical books, and this could have important implications for those in the business of selling digital texts.


Study focus

“We looked at what’s called psychological ownership, which is not necessarily tied to legal possession or legal rights, but is more tied to perceptions of ‘what is mine…Psychological ownership is important in people’s perception of how they value certain products or services or objects. In the context of digital products, we thought it would be appropriate to look at how people take ownership of something that’s not really there — it’s just a file on your computer or device or in the Cloud; it’s more of a concept than an actual thing.”

-Dr. Sabrina Helm, lead study author and associate professor who researches consumer perceptions and behaviors


What affects ‘psychological ownership’ exactly?

Peoples’ sense of psychological ownership is affected by three primary factors: (1) whether they feel like they have control over the object they own, (2) whether they use the object to define who they are, and (3) whether the object helps give them a sense of belonging in society.


Study participants and methodology

For the study, which is published in the journal Electronic Markets, Helm and her colleagues convened four focus groups in different age ranges: one group of Baby Boomers; one group of members of Generation X; and two groups of millennials. The millennial groups were split into current college students and older millennials.

The researchers moderated discussions with the groups about their feelings surrounding ownership of physical books versus e-books.


The findings

The following major themes emerged from the discussions:

Participants across all age groups reported feeling a constricted sense of ownership of digital books versus physical books, based on the fact that they don’t have full control over the products. For example, they expressed frustration that they often could not copy a digital file to multiple devices.

— Along similar lines, many study participants lamented restrictions on sharing e-books with friends, or gifting or selling the books, saying this made e-books feel less valuable as possessions than physical books.

Participants described being more emotionally attached to physical books, and said they use physical books to establish a sense of self and belonging. Participants across age groups frequently spoke about their nostalgia for certain childhood books. They also talked about experiencing physical books through multiple senses — describing, for example, the sound, smell and tactile experience of opening a new book, and the ability to highlight or write notes on paper pages. Participants also said they use their physical book collections to express their identity to others who might be perusing their shelves. E-books did not have these associations.

— Minimalists expressed a preference for digital books because they take up less physical space.

— Many participants said the e-book experience feels more like renting than buying.

— While almost everyone expressed strong attachment to physical books, and no one embraced a fully digital reading experience, older consumers, contrary to what one might expect, saw more advantages than younger consumers to reading with an e-reader. They referenced physical benefits that might not be as relevant to younger consumers, like the lightweight nature of e-readers and the ability to zoom in on text.


Study conclusion

“One of the conclusions of our research was that digital books and physical books are entirely different products. E-books feel like more of a service experience; overall, they seem to offer a more functional or utilitarian experience. You have much more richness if you deal with a physical book, where all your senses are involved.”

-Dr. Sabrina Helm, lead study author and associate professor who researches consumer perceptions and behaviors


Journal Reference: Sabrina V. Helm, Victoria Ligon, Tony Stovall, Silvia Van Riper. Consumer interpretations of digital ownership in the book market. Electronic Markets, 2018; DOI: 10.1007/s12525-018-0293-6