Book stores rejoice: Digitizing literature can spur greater demand for paper copies

ITHACA, N.Y. — Modern e-reading devices may be capable of carrying thousands of novels in the palm of one’s hand, but there’s nothing quite like actually holding a real book as you anxiously turn the pages. While many book publishers have expressed concern in recent decades over the digitization of books, researchers from Cornell University report that this technological takeover of literature may actually benefit small book stores around the world.

The research team found book digitization can boost sales of physical copies by as much as eight percent because it stimulates demand through online discovery. The increase in sales was even stronger for less popular books and even spilled over to a digitized author’s non-digitized works.

Just under two decades ago, the Google Books project digitized and freely distributed over 25 million literary works. At the time, book publishers were furious, and even launched various legal challenges, arguing free digital distribution undermines the market for physical books. Now, this latest project, conducted by Cornell University’s Imke Reimers, an associate professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and Abhishek Nagaraj, assistant professor at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, took advantage of a natural experiment condition to analyze and form a clearer understanding of the influence of Google’s massive book-digitization project on physical sales.

“It’s always this question of the publishers, of course, being unhappy with people just making their copyrighted products available for free,” says Prof. Reimers, who is now at Cornell after spending nine years at Northeastern University, in a media release. “For us, it’s not obvious that digitization should hurt sales,” she continues, “because it can lead to more awareness of certain non-digitized products.”

The Google Books project launched in 2005 and digitized millions of works. The texts were even made searchable through optical character recognition technology. This allowed users to search through the massive set of printed works and discover books related to a specific topic or theme.

“Say you search the term ‘photosynthesis’ on Google,” Prof. Reimers adds. “You might find an excerpt from a particular book, and then you might want to buy it, because you see it on the page and decide that it’s a useful book.”

Man reading book in library
The research team found book digitization can boost sales of physical copies by as much as 8%. (Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash)

Study authors chose to focus specifically on a particular subset of Google Books’ digitized works; works from Harvard University’s Widener Library, which helped seed the project in its early days. Why? Harvard’s digitization effort only included out-of-copyright works, published before 1923, that were then made available to consumers in their entirety.

Since the order in which books from the Widener Library were digitized was randomized (by stack location, not by subject), and since the popularity of 100-year-old books wasn’t likely to change during the project, “that allowed us to essentially just compare these two worlds – sales before and after digitization, relative to changes in sales for books whose digitization status didn’t change,” Prof. Reimers explains.

In total, researchers assessed 37,743 books scanned between 2005 and 2009. They analyzed sales for the two years prior to the digitization period compared to the two years after, discovering stark differences in the chances of increased sales between digitized and non-digitized cohorts. Roughly 40 percent of digitized titles saw a sales increase from 2003-04 to 2010-11, in comparison to less than 20 percent of non-digitized titles.

“We didn’t necessarily expect the positive effect on sales,” Reimers explains. “We expected a positive effect on use, because if a book is readily available online, people can find it more easily and naturally they’re going to use it more. But the positive effect on sales was something we didn’t anticipate.”

Prof. Reimers adds that the “discovery effect,” which can even spill over to non-digitized books by an author whose digitized works a user is seeking, appears to be a strong driver of increased sales.

“It’s not a huge jump in sales,” the study author clarifies, “but it’s still good news for publishers.”

As for book lovers, Prof. Reimers admits many are known for their affinity for physical books, as opposed to digital versions. This may also play a role.

“Whenever I talk to people about my research on books,” Reimers says, “at some point they all say, ‘I just love the feel of a book in my hand.’”

The study is published in the journal Economic Policy.

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John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

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  1. I have a team to work with book digitization. We can turn ordinary pictures into high-quality documents of any format from Word, PDF, HTML, etc. We are located in Ukraine and because of the war the team is currently out of work. Perhaps you need help with digitizing books or documents?

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