E-Reading in the London Underground and Other Places I Can Spy

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

Like most Londoners I spend a lot of time on the London Underground or “tube” as it’s affectionately known (“metro” or “subway” to most Americans). In fact most Londoners spend 30-60 minutes each way commuting to work by tube. Digital publishing being my profession, I spend a lot of time looking at what devices people are reading on, sometimes even peering over their shoulders for a look at the text (being 6’3″ makes it pretty easy).

Here are some things I’ve noticed:

— It isn’t rare to see 5-6 people on the same carriage reading from Kindles
— I did a non-scientific count a few times and the ratio between people reading paperbacks and Kindles is almost equal now (50/50) — the e-book is killing off the paperback
— iPad or other tablets are almost invisible on the London underground. One major reason: no wireless connectivity available on the tube (you can obviously read without an Internet connection, but you can’t do email, Twitter, etc.)

At home the picture is totally different: The iPad rules and though I don’t peer into bedrooms, casual conversations suggest that the iPad dominates bed-time — for answering emails, sending a few tweets and then settling down to reading.

On planes and trains, Kindles are also far more likely than iPads; and on the beach it’s no contest: Kindles everywhere.

I increasingly hear people here in the UK who read a lot of books saying they bought a Kindle to save money with regards to how much they spend on books every year.

Moral of these anecdotal stories:

— Book worms (heavy readers) own Kindles but will also read e-books on their iPad or PC (especially when they are at work). (Sonys and Kobos are rare sights and no Nooks to be spotted anywhere in Britain — my desk being the sole exception.)
— Non-book worms own iPads and for them e-books on the tablet are a side proposition

None of this is scientific, but I’d say e-ink isn’t dead yet and is becoming a core utility/device for the consumer niche of the heavy book reader. This is a niche, but a very important one to any company whose focus it is to sell e-books.

Outside this niche of heavy book readers, it is tablets, tablets, tablets (and their owners display about the same purchase frequency of [e]books as they do for printed books = low). A major question is if further innovation in tablets, such as more compact size, better screens, lower weight, will win over hard-core bookworms. If, so eInk devices could be over and done with in two years time.

London Underground image via Shutterstock

9 thoughts on “E-Reading in the London Underground and Other Places I Can Spy

  1. florida ann town

    I suspect your observations are likely pretty general throughout the tech-addicted world. Here in Canada, much the same thing happens. And as an indie, I’m always looking for ways to increased readership. Perhaps I should advetise on the over-head panels in buses? Sounds like a giant step backwards, but it might just work….

    1. Andrew Rhomberg

      Actually, posters in the tube are quite a common way of advertising “big releases” here in London, but I don;t know, if it is the most effective way.

      Ate jellybooks.com we have closely looked at commuter patterns to decide how we can expose readers to new books.

  2. Roy

    Myself and many techies in NYC read from iPads almost exclusively. Having Kindle, iBooks, and especially PDF readers is key. I have my library at my fingertips and the PDF-heavy reading (whitepapers, documentation, document drafts) demands a device that can properly display them and facilitate heavy annotation. I do wish it were a bit lighter, though 🙂

  3. Jo

    Although this article is full of generalisations and sweeping statements, I do tend to agree. I also fall into that category of kindle for the tube and ipad to watch tv in bed on a sunday morning when I can’t be bothered to get up, or to browse the net when I can’t reach my laptop and am fedup of eye strain on my iphone. The kindle has solved a logistics problem of reading books, mags, and newspapers on the tube. Try hold on to steady yourself on a packed carriage and try turning the page without fear of falling over. The kindle solves this problem.
    I do also have the kindle app on both ipad and iphone. Reading on the iphone is not ideal, but useful if I have left the kindle accidentally in the other handbag.
    I would like to clarify that the underground is called the tube. It’s a tube station.
    Never the subway and never the metro. Thank-you

    1. Andrew Rhomberg

      Hi Jo,

      Sorry, if you felt I miss-stated things.

      I think there are few Americans who would not realize that what we affectionately (and sometimes less affectionately) know as the “tube” in London is the equivalent of a “metro ” or “subway” which is why I mentioned that in brackets.

      I emphasized in several parts of the blog post that these were personal observations and anecdata and that none of this constituted a scientific survey (the data of which is sometimes obsolete by the time it appears, because it is such a fast moving environment)

      In essence the blog post is a discussion point and it seems most readers agree with the observations:

      – the Kindle eInk devices are not dead yet and they fulfill an important role for many hardcore readers, especially during the commute and on holidays, but I would be very interested in observations or data that indicate otherwise
      – the iPad does appear to be the electronic reading device of choice at home
      – many readers have emphasized the use of the iPhone for reading especially, if they have unexpected downtime and no other device at hand (importance of having ebooks synced across devices)

      again it is just a blog post for discussion, not an article written for a formal publication. It does, however, reflect my observations and the conclusions I drew from them 😉



    2. Isles

      I thought this article was very well-written, and very fair. Just one man’s observations in the “subway,” as we say here in the colonies. No need to break out the fallacies.

  4. Rich

    Here in sunny Florida I would say that Kindles rule at the beaches and outdoors. Our bus system, we do not have subways, has wifi available so you see a mix of Kindles and cheap Android tablets with a smattering of high end tablets and iPads.

    In the coffee shops, once again Kindles, some Nooks(e-ink version), iPads, and even some netbooks or ultrabooks.

    I also see many tourists with the really cheap Kindles. They buy them just for vacation so if they lose them it is no big deal.

    Tablets are great but I think there will be a demand for cheap e-ink reading devices for quite some time.



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