E-book reading is booming during the coronavirus pandemic

June 18, 2020, 3:30 PM UTC

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The COVID-19 crisis forced bookstores and libraries to close across the country, which has ignited a revival in reading electronic books.

The e-book market had been in decline for the past six years, but now that it’s one of the easiest ways to get new books during the pandemic, libraries and publishers report a surge of new interest.

For example, at OverDrive, which helps 90% of libraries in North America offer e-books to their patrons, e-book loans have jumped 53% on average since before mid-March. Kids, or grownups checking out kids’ books, have increased their e-book reading the most, the company says. Young adult nonfiction e-book checkouts are up 122%, and juvenile fiction is up 93%.

The system has also seen 343,000 people create new digital library cards since the beginning of March, more than double the number created in all of last year. OverDrive’s catalog includes more than 4 million digital offerings, counting both e-books and downloadable audio books.

More kids are reading e-books for a pretty obvious reason, explains David Burleigh, director of marketing at OverDrive. “As schools around the country have remained closed, students, parents, and teachers have continued to turn to digital titles from public libraries for educational and entertaining content,” he says. “Children’s and young adult [books] have seen the largest surges in usage since the stay-at-home order, especially in the e-book format.”

In the New York Public Library system, which uses its own homegrown e-book lending platform, the increase has been even larger. The system has seen a 200% increase in new users of its e-reading platform, called SimplyE, since all 92 of its physical buildings had to close in mid-March. And 50,000 people have signed up for digital library cards in the app, an 864% increase from the same period last year, says Andrew Medlar, who manages the library’s circulating collection.

The library system has also tried to transfer some of its programming online. Thousands of people have joined one of the system’s virtual book clubs, and an online recommended reading list related to black liberation has pushed many titles onto the library’s most-borrowed e-book list, Medlar says.

The stay-at-home boom has also increased outright sales of e-books from major publishers. In April, according to the most recent data available, publishers’ e-book revenue grew 11% compared with the same month last year, rising to $93 million, the Association of American Publishers reports. That’s the first monthly year-over-year increase since last July and reverses a long-running decline in e-book sales, which peaked in 2014. At the same time, revenue from general interest print books in April declined 7% to $549 million.

Still, publishers have kept e-book prices relatively high, and consumers will probably go back to reading print books once the crisis ends, says longtime publishing consultant Jane Friedman, who also writes the industry newsletter Hot Sheet. “Readers who prefer print will likely continue to choose it when they can,” she says. “For them, e-books are a stopgap measure, especially when supply chain issues prevent print copies from being readily available.”

Only about one-quarter of people in the U.S. read an e-book last year, compared with 65% who read at least one print book, according to surveys by Pew Research. E-book reading increased steadily from 2011 through 2014 before plateauing and even declining slightly since then.

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