Guest Column: What Readers Want From E-books
With the explosive growth in e-book sales and the entrance of multiple new devices and players, it seems like we are at the tipping point for e-books. But have any of us who are deeply involved in e-books—publishers, retailers, technology developers, standards organizations and writers—asked the question: What do e-book readers want?
The early e-book adopter was not a tech geek. Yes, some technology-loving nerds did buy e-readers, but the biggest audience has been the older, female romance reader. Certainly, the big retailers have done an amazing job luring the New York Times best-seller list audience, but avid female readers are even more important. They have been the early embracers of e-books and will continue to be crucial in e-books’ future growth.
According to the Romance Writers of America, romance fiction generated $1.37 billion in sales in 2008—the largest share of the consumer market (at 13.5 percent). And 74.8 million people read at least one romance novel in 2008.
I am most familiar with the Harlequin reader. Our reader is female. She buys significantly more books than the average paperback fiction reader. In fact, the Harlequin reader buys 25 books during a year compared to 10 for the average paperback fiction reader, according to research conducted for Harlequin by an independent research firm. If you include all formats and nonfiction, then the Harlequin reader reads 21.4 titles versus 12.4 for the average reader over a three-month time period.
In addition to reading Harlequin books and romance, these women read across all genres. Generally, for every one of our books our fans read, they also read a competitive title.
Some of these women have been early adopters of e-books. You want the rest of them because once engaged, these consumers can become avid ambassadors for the digital format.
Clearly we cannot continue to overlook their needs. With a little attention to her desires, you can have a loyal customer for life.
So let’s examine what’s worked for her so far with e-books. What has her experience been like? Why has she chosen to read digitally along with print?
She is a reader. A passionate, avid, engaged reader who often describes herself as addicted to books. That is why e-books work for her.
The biggest lure of e-books: You can carry a library of titles on a reading device. I checked my dedicated e-reader, and I have 110 titles. Then there’s the immediacy. You can download titles anytime, anywhere. It’s 10 p.m. on a Sunday night, and I want the new Debbie Macomber title. No problem—I’ve got it. The fact that I don’t need more bookshelves in my home is an added benefit. Changing font size (comfort reading, I like to call it) is more and more important for the over-40 reader.
My romance reader does not read for status; she reads for an entertaining escape. She moved past the nostalgia of a print edition (I love the “smell” of a real book!) very quickly. She’s a little intrigued by the idea of digital books with more—i.e., videos and other interactivity—but until the entire process is simpler, this is not the main selling feature for her. Instead, she worries whether or not she can read her book five years from now.
What does this smart customer want? She wants an easy shopping and download process. She expects to be able to shop from many different online retailers and is usually shocked when she learns a dedicated device has tied her to one format. As she moves to second- and third-generation e-readers, she expects her books to migrate with her. After all, they are her books.
She does not understand technology, nor does she care to.
What else does she want? Once she converts, she wants all of her titles available in digital. And she wants her favorite author’s backlist in e-book format as well. She wants the e-book to go on sale the same time as the print edition. And she wants the pricing to be competitive.
She would like to be able to organize her books easily, marking titles “read” or “to be read”; adding her rating system to the titles she’s read; and even numbering books in a miniseries.
Early e-book readers are mavens. As an avid genre reader, she is always interested in new writers, a fact digital publishers have taken advantage of by publishing new authors, many of whom—like MaryJanice Davidson, Angela Knight, Lora Leigh—followed their e-book success with success in the traditional print market.
Publishers have the opportunity to experiment with new voices. At Harlequin, we are taking advantage of just this opportunity through the launch of Carina Press, our digital-only imprint.
I’m not sure if there will be a winner between the multipurpose device or dedicated reader. I believe that avid readers, the women I have written about in this article, will prefer a dedicated reader because it is a more pleasant experience. However, casual readers most likely will use a device that serves multiple functions.
Women who chose the dedicated device want one that can fit into their handbags. It needs to be light and easy to use. And it should be attractive! Sure, there can be gray industrial-looking devices, but since I will be using my e-reader to consume all of my fiction—in other words, a lot—I want it to be stylish. So do many other women.
We’ve managed to convert some of these avid print readers to e-books almost in spite of ourselves, as they’ve discovered the technological hurdles are worth overcoming in order to access the benefits of e-books (speed, convenience, portability). If we want to convert the rest, we need to stop making it hard for them and start making it easy.
Malle Vallik is the director of digital content and social media for Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.