Digital Reading: Talking About Tablets

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Not long ago I got together online with Bret Freeman, Brett Sandusky, and Tony O’Donoghue to discuss the new tablet reality and how book publishers should take advantage of this fall’s surge in new tablet computers.

We already know that even at this early stage, some 25 percent of all e-books are read on tablets. And a recent comScore study discovered that tablet owners prefer that device to their beloved smartphones, pointing to growing tablet sales even ahead of the fall releases of new models from all the majors. The recent release of the well-reviewed Nexus 7 and rumors of a forthcoming 7-inch iPad have stoked our excitement.

Last winter I fulfilled a burning desire to hack my Nook Color and make a real, functioning tablet computer out of it. My partner talked me out of trying to do my own hacking, so Paul Lee of digital developer Invogen kindly did the job for me. I was happy with my tablet—for a while. It gave me some functionality beyond browsing and reading and it relieved me of the need to carry around three devices. But it still fell short of my ideal all-in-one. It simply didn’t deliver a better reading experience than a regular Nook or a backlit reader, nor could it meld the features of a tablet computer with those of an e-reader in a meaningful way.

All that is about to change with the new generation of tablets and a better understanding of what digital reading can be. Aptara’s Bret Freeman speaks of the e-book market as both emerging and maturing at approximately the same time. Every quarter reports increased revenue to publishers from e-book sales as well as increased numbers of publications in e-book formats. The e-book market is established, and the possibilities for reader engagement and cross-selling of titles only increase with every advance in reading platform. Tablets will be the biggest expansion yet.

Kobo’s Tony O’Donoghue and Macmillan’s Brett Sandusky see the tablet’s potential for improving UX for readers through connecting to other readers; cross-referencing other books and information in real time by linking out seamlessly to the Web; and taking advantage of full browser capabilities, instead of the restricted versions of the Nook and Kindle.

And as all of us, and many others in the industry, have noted, it’s time for publishers to figure out how to “unbundle” their content—to free it from the idea of a permanent container—and discover new ways to monetize a modular content system.

Now it’s up to publishers and developers to deliver a new kind of e-book that takes full advantage of its tablet environment, especially for all the digital-first titles that are just over the horizon. Maybe some of them will indeed start unbundling, and I’ll be ready to test them out with one of this fall’s many new tablet offerings; I’m optimistic that my patience will be rewarded.


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