November 5, 2013 Last Updated 9:41 am

eBook sales flatten out as study shows readers want more freedom to share their books

Study says eBook sales are now in ‘predictable consumption patterns’; is the same true for digital magazines?

Assuming your tablet is the property of the entire family, sharing eBooks and digital newspapers and magazines is easy – just pass the iPad. But many tablets and eReaders are the exclusive property of their owners, so content sharing is rare. This is a problem when consumers compare the value of digital to that of print.

ipad-ebooks-lgeBook The Book Industry Study Group, working with Nielsen Book Research, released a study last week that shows the steady growth of eBooks. Volume Four of Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading shows that sharing is a big issue with readers, with about half saying they would pay more for bundling print with digital, or if their digital books could be shared with others.

Previous studies have shown that consumers often say they would pay more for added features, but then decline to do so in the real world. But the finding does point to a basic issue with digital publications, their confinement to the reading device. This is one reason sharing mechanisms continue to be added to eReading apps and digital publications themselves.

“Four years of consumer data shows clearly that e-book consumption has reached mainstream readers and has expanded well beyond early adopter ‘power readers,’ but that physical books remain a popular format for many consumers, especially in certain categories,” Len Vlahos, BISG Executive Director, said.

“It is clear from four annual research surveys that e-books are in the later stages of the innovation curve and have settled into reasonably predictable consumption patterns,” Jo Henry, Director of Nielsen Book Research, said. “The likelihood of future growth will, in part, depend on improving the value perception of e-books among less committed users.”

Conversations with digital publishers on the biggest issues facing their industry inevitably come down to two items: discoverability of digital publication apps, and the size of the tablet market, in general.

Those concerned with discoverability usually see the tablet publishing market as already fairly mature. These publishers, often in the U.S., see the market for their digital products as big enough to generate profitable publications, so long as readers find it easy to discover their apps.

Magzter-newsstand-lgPart of the issue here is that there are a limited number of digital newsstands for magazines: Apple, Amazon, Google Play, Zinio, Magzter and a handful of others, including international newsstands like Le Kiosk. But when it comes to the types of digital magazines most digital-only publishers want to produce – interactive titles – the choices are limited. So it is important that potential readers be able to find their apps.

With eBooks, however, while the same digital bookstores exist – Apple, Amazon, Google, for instance – an increasing number of digital bookstores are coming online. Companies like Pubsoft, for instance, offer digital newsstand solutions for small and medium sized publishers, as well as corporations that produce books in the form of tutorials, manuals, etc. Every major university, for instance, has its book line and can sell direct through its own digital bookstore if it chooses.

For other publishers, though, the issue remains the size of the overall market. Certainly in some markets, for instance Eastern Europe, the number of tablet owners remains low compared to the population as a whole.

Because of this, many digital publishing observers seriously question the idea that eBook and digital magazine sales are flattening out. For them, they see tremendous opportunities in tablet market growth and improved newsstand search and organization.

But one point made in the eBooks study does stand out, the idea that digital books need to prove their value. For text oriented eBooks, eReaders and tablets provide an excellent reading environment, even when the printed book is replicated to a digital device. Many of those who have said they prefer print to digital have often not actually attempted to read using an eReader. The few articles and focus group findings I have seen seem to show that attitudes against digital soon fade when the reader actually tries digital reading.

But the magazine experience is different. Many publishers have chosen to produce replica editions that are not pleasant to read, often requiring the use of pinch-to-zoom, usually a sure sign that the print product, when unaltered, is inappropriate for a tablet. This means that there is a group of readers left unconvinced of the platform itself. Adding interactivity and other features may not add value to a product that is, itself, unreadable.

Because of this, the market may, indeed, be flattening out. The issues of discoverability, market penetration, and reader experience, may be combining to limit growth. The good news, though, is that all three issues are solvable.