Publishers Sour on Tablet as Reading Platform, Survey Says

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By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

As tablet sales surge and put downward pressure on dedicated e-reader ownership growth, publishers are pessimistic that tablets will provide readers with an enticing reading platform.

According to a recent Digital Book World survey, conducted by Forrester Research, 31% of publishers think iPads and other tablets computers are the ideal e-book reading platform, down from 46% a year ago. Only 30% of publishers think reading tablets like the Nook Color and Kindle Fire are an ideal reading platform. This question was not asked in the previous year’s survey.

In late 2011, book publishers representing 74% of U.S. publishing revenues were surveyed on a wide range of topics concerning digital books. The same survey was conducted in 2010.

“The devices [tablet computers] are capable of so many more distracting things,” said James L. McQuivey, Ph.D., vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, who conducted the survey. “If you have an iPad and 15 minutes to kill, are you going to do something more cognitively difficult like reading, or something brain-dead simple like going on Facebook or watching a YouTube video?”

Still, crossover devices like the Kindle Fire – not quite a full-sized tablet like the iPad, but with functionality far beyond that of an e-ink reader – may be a boon to publishers. Kindle Fire owners read e-books on the device more than any other activity. A recent survey of 216 Kindle Fire owners by RBC Financial Group found that 71% list reading e-books as one of the two activities they do the most on the device. “Brose the Web” came in distant second at 39%.

These data about crossover devices contrast greatly with data about the iPad – only 53% of iPad users read books at all on the device, according to a September 2011 survey by Forrester.

Publishers should continue to monitor the space closely. Tablet and e-reader ownership doubled in the U.S. over the holiday period, according to new research from the Pew Internet Project, a Pew Center project dedicated to providing research on how the Internet affects life in America. Nearly one fifth of all Americans now own a tablet computer or an e-reader, according to Pew.

Despite all of the positive energy around device ownership growth and device usage, publishers may have been shocked to find out that e-book purchasing growth may be slowing. According to data presented by the Book Industry Study Group and Bowker at the Digital Book World Conference last week, there was only 17% growth in the number of print-book buyers who also purchased an e-book; this was markedly less than the 25% to 30% growth people had reportedly hoped for.

But if people who buy devices still read books – in some cases, this is much of what they do – and device ownership is growing quickly, posited publishing consultant Don Linn, then why is e-book sales growth sagging?

The question has publishers confused. How should they proceed in a device market that is getting more complex?

“They’re just not sure what to make of it yet and they’re not committed business-wise,” said Forrester’s McQuivey. “That’s an issue for 2012: What do you do as a business when you’re not sure how it’s going to net out between these three categories of devices?”

Write to Jeremy Greenfield

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10 thoughts on “Publishers Sour on Tablet as Reading Platform, Survey Says

  1. “But if people who buy devices still read books – in some cases, this is much of what they do – and device ownership is growing quickly, posited publishing consultant Don Linn, then why is e-book sales growth sagging?

    The question has publishers confused. How should they proceed in a device market that is getting more complex?

    “They’re just not sure what to make of it yet and they’re not committed business-wise,” said Forrester’s McQuivey. “That’s an issue for 2012: What do you do as a business when you’re not sure how it’s going to net out between these three categories of devices?””

    You are kidding right?

    If not let me make it clear to you a publishers why the industry as they understand it is slowing.

    1. Ebook prices are way out of line as to what the average consumer thinks is fair considering the publishing industry as a whole as decided to take virtually every single property right consumers enjoyed with real books away from them as ebooks. You cannot trade an ebook, you cannot resell an ebook, you cannot donate an ebook to your local library after you are done with it. From a consumers perperspective, this lessens the value of ebooks and builds a very bad buzz around the publishing industry. This is no surprise because there is a growing global movement that has learned that business no longer cares about the public welfare, only their bottom lines and that is unacceptable to a growing number of consumers. As long as your consumers feel you are being unfair toward them they will keep their money in their pocket and out of yours.

    2. Along with the price of ebooks comes the self-publishing movement that has bypassed the traditional publishing industry and moved forward with platforms such as Amazon Self Publishing and published their own works without the aid and approval of big business editors who make decisions more so based on bottom lines rather than creative output and delivery. This is possible the most dangerous precedent in the realm of publishing because it spotlights the weakness that the industry does not want you to understand…that the delivery of creative content can continue much as it does today whether they are involved in the distribution and delivery or not. Add to that the sum odd 2+ million free ebooks available for consumers to read without paying a single dollar to the publishing industry and you see a perfect storm that may sink the tradition publishing industry in the next couple of decades no matter what they do. Independent editors will still have a place in publishing but corporate fatcats and their jet setting is just to expensive to maintain for the tradition author who’s creativity is paying for their lifestyle instead of their own lifestyle.

    The slowing of published works by authors who cannot write full time without advances will more than be made up by the increased number of works coming to market independently due to a lack of company interference with the publishing process due to a lack of interest or profitability on a scale that can please investors. Such creative works are generally profitable enough to benefit the author yet not enough to split the pie into the dozens of pieces required to keep traditional publishing houses afloat in the lifestyle they have become accustom to. Another of describing this action is: “The Democratization of the Literary Industry” Where writers and readers determine what is available for purchase rather than gatekeepers who are beholden to shareholders looking for easy money.

    Another aspect of self-publishing that should be a wake-up call to the publishing industry are the number of authors who are willing to offer their creative work up for either free or a very low price such as $0.99. Traditional publishing can never match these creators prices because of the infrastructure the publishing houses have surrounded themselves with for decades. In addition to all this, survey after survey has indicated that the majority of consumers feel that $5 is the absolute top they will pay for an ebook under current circumstances.

    This is not a notice to publishers that they need to crank up the PR campaigns in order to educate consumers about the needs of fatcat publishers but rather another indication that the industry at large has unrealistic expectations of profit and growth in the decades to come.

    Authors in general will make at least as much and most likely more over the long term by going the self-publishing route and abandoning traditional publishers altogether.

    3. DRM has got to go. Digital Media Rights are useless. No effective DRM that consumers will accept has ever been invented nor does DRM even begin to slow down piracy. Its a waste of money and adds costs and inconveniences that your real customers should not have to put up with when using your product. No matter what DRM your ebook uses, I could show anyone how to defeat it in 15 seconds and there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it. Quit wasting yours and our money on this idiotic farce called DRM.

    To sum it up for you so even a publisher can understand it:

    1. Consumers want lending, trading, and resell rights for ebooks. Don’t argue about it, make it happen as soon as possible.

    2. Ebook prices that are higher than paperback book prices are unacceptable. Get used to it or continue to see decreasing sales and increasing piracy.

    3. DRM will not help prevent piracy nor protect your intellectual property.

    Its really simple once you get it. Hold a board meeting and read this comment to your board of directors and let them know that, NO, I am not kidding!

  2. Publishers have created their own mess. How long did they expect writers and readers to bow down to them before these same people started looking for something better?

    Amazon fired the first salvo a couple of months ago when they went directly to 150+ authors and offered them deals to publish their next books directly to Kindle, thus bypassing the publishers completely.

    You can hire a good editor these days – you can also hire someone to convert your file to a Kindle or ePub. An author can actually make a living by writing these days. Why on earth is there need for a publisher anymore?

  3. Publishers are a service providers. For a fee, they edit and produce the actual book, polishing, and sometimes improving the raw content the author provides. Then they publicize and market it (to varying degrees). Some folks, once they’ve seen the effort that goes into the creation of a book, might decide to just let someone else (a publisher) do it. Others may want to take it on themselves. The fact that one can fairly easily create an ePub or Kindle file by themselves doesn’t make publishers obsolete, because there’s a lot more to it than that. But I can see why people who don’t understand the role a publisher plays (i.e. someone who thinks it’s just write, edit, convert, sell) would think so.

    Many publishers don’t \get\ digital publishing yet, because they’re still deeply involved in creating paper books, others are well on their way to getting up to speed. So if you envision a day when publishers won’t exist, I suggest you think again.

  4. Um, I haven’t seen any data to suggest that the rate of ebook sales growth is slowing (though at some point, the RATE of growth will slow and we are probably close to that point). That statistic you cite is being egregiously misused, as it was at DBWC. A statistic about how many paper book buyers are buying ebooks is only a small piece of things and does not in and of itself lead to any conclusions about ebook growth.

    Would it be too much to ask for you to point out this problem? I don’t for a minute believe publishers are stupid enough to base major decisions on a very limited statistic, and it kind of feels like spin by the industry.

  5. It’s about CONTENT, not reading. Publishers must become content providers thinking outside the printed and even digital page. This disconnect they have in understanding this basic precept will follow many publishing companies to their grave.

  6. Just an FYI, I’ve been in publishing for more than 20 years. This isn’t my first rodeo.

    You make excellent points. Publishers do sift through mounds of garbage, find marketable (in their eyes) material and edit it to something the mass public may be interested in… two years after submission. As for marketing, SOME authors get that advantage. But I can tell you from first-hand knowledge that is a very small percentage (maybe 1 or 2%). Most authors are left to their own devices to market their book.

    BTW, the infamous ADVANCE MONEY… that’s expected from the publisher to be used by the author to market their book. The author pays for their own travel expenses when they do book tours. The advance is a way to cushion the blow of the cost. If an author has 5-10% of the advance left at the end… they’ve been very frugal.

    One advantage that publishers held (until recently) was the ability to put a book on the shelf of a major book seller. Seeing as there’s only one national chain left (B&N) that advantage is beginning to wain. Yes, there are some regional stores and Walmart. Regionals can’t buy the minimum amount needed from the distributors to generate capital for the publishers – and the prices have to be discounted drastically for Walmart shelf space.

    Not to mention the author’s 10-15% cut of a $7.95 paperback pales in comparison to a 70% cut of a $3.99 ebook.

    The average author has to market an sell their own book whether they work with a publisher or on their own. An author can self-publish almost immediately whereas a publisher has a lead time of 1-2 years before a book sees the light of day. Publishers have had their heads firmly planted in the sand for the last 10 years and still don’t see how an independent author can work without them or their model.

    I stand by my original statement: Why on earth is there a need for a publisher anymore? At least in the form that they exist in right now.

    • @UncleWaldo: I work at a university press, and scholarly publishing isn’t really comparable to trade publishing, which is the model you describe. I don’t think many authors (especially ours) have the wherewithal to go to all the effort required to self publish on top of writing/working/teaching/studying, etc. Besides, the world isn’t ready for (i.e. doesn’t want) a completely digital book environment at this point. So while there is certainly a need for publishers to evolve their mindset regarding digital publishing, as well as publishing in general, as long as there is still a market for print books (which cannot yet be completely accommodated by POD), and authors willing to write them, there will be a need for publishers. So publishers will still be required, for most authors, to publish digital versions of these print books.

  7. From Campus Technology magazine this week: “Overall worldwide tablet shipments grew 120 percent from 7.9 million in first quarter 2011 to 17.4 million in first quarter 2012, according to IDC’s latest Worldwide Quarterly Media Tablet and eReader Tracker. Of those Q1 2012 shipments, Apple’s iPad alone accounted for about 68 percent of the worldwide total, at 11.8 million units.” It seems to me that e-book publishers are ignoring this market trend at their own peril.

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