I recently posted a video describing my new digital reading lifestyle and why what I’ve learned signals a very strong future for digital books. I’m very curious about people’s reading habits, as a book lover, a book seller, and a writer. This week, two other avid readers chimed in. I’m loving these accounts.
The first I’ll share is from Joanna Penn, whose blog is amazing, and who is one of the nicest and smartest people in all of publishing. You should definitely read what she has to say. There’s so much overlap with my habits that it leads me to think that the natural advantages of digital reading are going to continue to win over converts.
The other response I saw was from Rachel Eliason, who dubs herself a “Digital Expat.” Like Joanna, Rachel had the same storage issues many voracious readers experience. Like myself, she enjoys being able to fit her entire library of books inside her purse. Her reading habits and experiences with going digital are super informative.
I hope to see more of these. And it would be great to hear from the people who tried digital but gave it up, or who read print and say they’ll never go digital. My suspicion for a long time has been that the heaviest of readers are the ones who will end up going digital, as cost and physical space are major constraints. Not to mention the instant access to a near-complete list of what’s been published.
This transition may end up looking a lot like the music transition to digital downloads. It took a while for music studios to focus on their digital products ahead of their physical CDs. What changed was the money flow. When most of their profits came from digital, that became their focus. This was driven by customer behavior and new products and online retail spaces. iTunes and the iPod led to the closing of the previously ubiquitous music stores, which changed the focus of music producers. It also helped to partially democratize the music publishing scene.
The same is happening with books. The iPod and iTunes equivalent are the Kindle and Amazon. The effect on the physical product is going to be the same, as will the effects on the publishing industry. I think this transition will be slower, however. And there will be more resistance. For a few reasons:
• Music was already consumed digitally. Only the delivery format changed. Consumers already listened to music through their headphones, speakers, and car stereos, so they didn’t have to get used to a new interface. They just had to get used to where their music was stored and how it was accessed. Songs gradually replaced entire albums as the target of purchasing decisions.
• Music listeners had already dealt with a change in format (or a few). I’ve used records, 8-track, cassettes, CDs, MiniDisc, and radio prior to MP3s. Books haven’t changed much for over a century.
• There is more cultural status with reading than listening to music. Far fewer people read novels and books for pleasure than listen to music, but the cultural status of the former trumps the latter. There are dozens of programs aimed at increasing the number of people who read and few that focus similarly on music. Public libraries are one hint at this cultural significance. The previous fact (that books haven’t changed much) combined with this fact (that reading is highly regarded) has resulted in very loud objections to digital adoption from some quarters.
• The self-betterment effect is a very powerful drag on digital adoption. This is related to the point above (that everyone should read more, and reading makes you a more highly prized member of society). For many consumers, books are like exercise equipment. They are purchased with the hope of being used because of the future ideal or bettered self they represent. And then they sit around. Related to this and the point above are those who have shelves full of books that they’ll never read but that they like having around them, especially for others to see. Digital adoption will never satisfy these cravings, and I think some of the loud objections to digital adoption come from these sorts of shoppers.
A decade from now, the reading landscape will look very different than it does today. I think we’re in the original iPod phase of adoption. The iPhone of reading hasn’t been invented yet. When MP3s first became popular, music purists went nuts over the lack of quality. Many still do. But consumption advantages (price, storage, availability, selection) trumped any of those concerns. I think we’ll see the same pattern for digital reading adoption. It may be slower due to the reasons listed above, but the results will be similar. In fact, digital adoption rates are already far higher than publishers admit, something we’ll look at in the next Author Earnings report.