What Will eBooks, Readers and Nooks Mean to Book Publishing?

8 years ago

Armed with the Barnes & Noble e-reader nook I gave to my 87-year-old father for his birthday, I went to my favorite Barnes & Noble store on Sunday morning. Not so long ago, I was a regular at this store. It was almost guaranteed that I never left without some kind of purchase.

Today, I left empty-handed, if you don't count the soy cappuccino with one pump sugar-free vanilla.  Not only have I stopped going to this store, but my love affair with pBooks (physical books) is completely over. That is not what I expected when I downloaded Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals onto my iPod Touch last March. 

At the time, I was just curious to see what it would be like to try to read a book on my iPod. What I didn't think was that it would be a life-changer.

Since March, I have been reading digital books, exclusively. That makes me, according to the latest research on digital readers, a small segment of e-readers -- 19 percent to be exact -- who say they now read eBooks exclusively.

The Book Industry Study Group, a not-for-profit U.S. book trade association, is conducting the study "Consumer Attitudes Towards E-Book Reading." The first findings of the study are being released to coincide with the first ever Digital Book World conference.

There are lots of firsts when you talk about digital publishing. According to BISG, this research is the first ever study of its kind.

Although much of the publishing industry is working hard to develop and implement digital strategies, there is little available research evaluating book consumers' actual interests in and preferences for digital content, or the factors that influence their reading habits and purchasing decisions.

The details of that study will be shared at the Digital Book World conference. It is being billed as, "the first-ever conference to address the radically changing commercial publishing environment from near-term challenges to long-term opportunities."

eBook sales are still a single-digit percentage of most trade publishers' sales and only creep into double-digits for some of the new titles coming out. Even so, digital change has already been disruptive, forcing many publishers to rethink their release windows, their sales terms and tactics, and their entire approach to marketing.

When news of the Barnes & Noble nook hit the media last fall, there were several features that differentiated it from the Kindle. One of those was the ability to come into the store and spend an hour reading any eBook for free.

Customers will be able to browse complete eBooks for free on nook at any Barnes & Noble store, whether or not the actual book is in stock, beginning later this year. Plus settle into the café and get exclusive in-store-only content, free eBooks, special offers and much more using Barnes & Noble's complimentary WiFi, provided by the AT&;T WiFi network.

Since I had not been in my favorite Barnes & Noble for a while, I had anticipated that they would have a new nook reading area with comfy chairs. Not only was there no nook reading area, the feature hasn't gone live.

The sales associate in the store told me that feature is expected when the nook gets its next software update. When that will be, no one seems to know.

I asked if they were going to add chairs for nook readers who wanted to come into the store to browse. If that is the plan, the news hasn't filtered down to the sales floor. I was surprised. What is the point in touting an hour worth of free browsing if you are not making your store browser-friendly?

If the good folks in the Barnes & Noble press relations department had answered my request for an interview, that would have been one of the questions I would have asked. But, my request for an interview was not acknowledged.

Amazon did respond to my request, sort of. In my e-mail requesting an interview, I outlined some general areas of business strategy that I wanted to discuss. Cinthia Portugal answered the questions. Her first answer was a show-stopper.

Me: I am interested in how having a strong competitor in the sector is influencing your strategy?

Amazon: We're not focused on other companies, we are focused on providing our customers with a great reading experience.

I appreciate that Ms. Portugal took the time to answer my e-mail. Having said that, why would any business say it is not focused on "other companies"? That's insanity. Any company that hopes to succeed pays a lot of attention to its competition. The reality is that the introduction of the nook is changing how Amazon is marketing the Kindle. For starters, it forced them to lower their price from $299 to the nook price of $259. In addition, Amazon has made some significant firmware updates.

Amazon has boosted the battery life of its Kindle e-reader and added native support for PDF documents[...]It's easy to see the firmware update as a counter-attack against Sony's Readers and Barnes & Noble's nook.

Depending upon when you are reading this post, Apple's much anticipated tablet may have already been revealed. In anticipation of its arrival slated for Tuesday, January 27, 2010, Daniel Akst of the L.A. Times wrote on Sunday January 24, 2010,

A well-designed Apple tablet, embedded in the right business model, has the potential to blow up the book business as we know it, ultimately upending the whole rickety edifice of publishers, booksellers and agents, much as the digital revolution (and Apple) have done to the music business.

It's been clear for a while, of course, that the future of text is digital.

In the meantime, the publishing industry is fretting over digital piracy, a topic some say is just a diversion.

Some don’t believe the piracy problem is as great as is feared, claiming that research has shown owners of gadgets like the Kindle and Sony Reader buy a greater number of books compared to other people who buy traditional books.

As the publishing industry tries to find its way, it's issuing policies that remind me of the story of the little dutch boy who put his finger in the dike after seeing a small trickle of water from the sea. (In the story, the child's quick action saves the village.)

Several key publishers announced they were delaying the publication of eBooks to give their hardcover versions a head start. James M. McQuivey, Ph.D has a superb post about this strategy. In responding to the industry's rationale that they made this move to preserve their industry, McQuivey writes,

Correction: This move is about the past of your business.

I'm just being a historian here when I point out that language like "We're doing this to preserve our industry" is a classic symptom of what we at Forrester loving call The Media Meltdown. I wrote a whole report on this ailment and its many symptoms, chief among them is that media businesses attempt to preserve analog business models in the digital economy, even when analog economics no longer apply. This is exactly that scenario.

While traditional publishers are delaying the release of eBooks, other publishers have decided that the best way to boost sales is to give their eBooks away for free.

Can giving books away for free result in increased sales? It can if you are a relatively unknown author. Christina Brashear, a publisher of romance and erotica books, is definitely seeing an uptick.

In October, the most recent month for which she has statistics, Ms. Brashear said Samhain offered free digital versions of “Giving Chase,” a romance novel by Lauren Dane, leading to 26,897 downloads.

But paid purchases of some of Ms. Dane’s other novels jumped exponentially. Her earlier novel “Chased,” which sold 97 copies in September, sold 2,666 digital units in October, and another of her previous books, “Taking Chase,” which sold 119 copies in September, sold 3,279 in the month in which a free download was available.

As an owner of a Kindle and now using my dad's nook, I have access to lots of free eBooks, and I am downloading them. Without this feature, I probably would never have read a Christian mystery, but when Amazon offered two of the three books in Noel Hynd's Russian Triology for free, I downloaded them. I will purchase the third because I bonded with the character and want to find out what happens to her. While Christian literature will never be my preferred genre, I'm really glad I sampled it.

There is some controversy that Kindle treats these free downloads as sales, but that's another issue for another post and given how "disruptive" digital technology is to publishing, there will be plenty to blog about.

BlogHer Contributing Editor: Business & Career

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