What Readers Want (from Ebooks)

Part of O’Reilly’s Tools for Change mini-con, Oct 2009.

All too often our understanding of what readers want is based on what we want ourselves, or outdated assumptions, or even worse—guesses. In this session, panelists will examine the state of the publishing industry through a reader-centric lens.

Moderator: Kassia Krozser (Booksquare.com)
Speakers: Angela James (currently consultant/freelancer), Jane Litte (Dear Author), Malle Vallik (Harlequin), Sarah Wendell (Smart Bitches Trashy Books)

The speakers introduced themselves. Each disclaimed their tech savvy. Krozser had connection issues making her almost completely inaudible.

Vallik: romance readers are very split—some read on laptops, some dedicated devices, most continue to prefer print.

James: panel’s collective knowledge skews towards genre readers. Krozser’s first question—what do readers want—depends on type of content. Want fair return for money, and want someone to have filtered/curated for them. Thus, some readers have no interest in self-published books (no filter). Don’t want to jump through hoops to gain access—quality books, easy to use.

Krozser: Vallik, do readers want multimedia enhancements, or do they just want books?

Vallik: just books. On-demand access, no storage worries, etc., but not so interested in shiny add-ons at this point. Walk first before running. Consider life before TiVo, with VCRs: relatively complicated to program, and they didn’t gain enhanced features (as DVDs have) until interface became much simpler.

Litte: asked about what reader might want for future. Color will be important. Now, ebooks are stripped of images—Kindle edition of Burton’s illustrated fairy tales, despite hardware ability to support, had zero images. Retailers and mfgrs need to remember that purchase today needs to be readable and still enjoyable later, or uptake will be reduced now as consumers wait for a suitable product to emerge. Consumers really don’t want to purchase same book multiple times.

Krozser: retail experience?

Litte: began buying ebooks in ?2001. Recommends Kindle to others for ease of use despite shortcomings. Frustrating not to be able to get a specific title. Every ebook store has a different set of supported formats, and it can be hard even for experienced consumer to figure out whether a store has a title in a format that’ll work with one’s device. [I totally disagree, btw, but I am not on the panel! –ed.]

Krozser: challenges for reader re: format?

James: many devices now, and just as many formats. She and Litte are almost exclusively digital readers at this point, and have despite experience bought the wrong format by mistake recently. Please provide simplicity of iTunes—DRM would be okay if we could have one format across all devices. Difficulty of choosing format prevents some users from making a purchase.

Wendell: no memory, so keeps comparison chart for cross-checking.

Vallik: in Canada, stuck currently with one format and one ebook store—better in some ways, not others.

Wendell: bought a book twice by accident because couldn’t find correct format.

Litte: ebook prices. Big issue with both actual consumers and potential ones. Romance genre readers are very price-sensitive due to rate of consumption (10-20 books per month); to feed habit, they buy some new, some used. In an ebook market, everything must be new—great for publishers but hard for readers to keep up with. Worst offenders in romance industry are Macmillan and Simon & Schuster: they’ve declared that the industry standard is to price ebooks at hardcover price, regardless of paperback existence, and some readers do their best to buy used print copies or visit library to avoid giving money to those publishers as a result.

Vallik: avid female readers are helping to drive ebook adoption not because they like digital tools but because they read a lot. [Some women do like and understand digital devices, as well as reading…. –ed.]

James: Choksi’s comment during prev panel about high price dropping: when print price doesn’t decrease, electronic one doesn’t either, generally. Baen does do this (SF/fantasy novels)—consumer can access content even before general publication date, sometimes; consumer knows, also, that she won’t be paying more for electronic version than print one. [Not sure how last bit follows. ETA James has clarified in comments below. Thank you!]

Wendell: Sony Reader test drive on SBTB blog—dedicated devices are too high for the curious; unless someone’s really committed to idea, $300 is too much. Test drive was due to refurbished devices donated by Sony, and $25 Harlequin gift certs… but initially, the gift certs couldn’t be used in the Sony ebook store. Special arrangement was worked out. [List of common problems not typed here because I’m already familiar; visit SBTB and skim the test reports for details. –ed.] Kindle: because it’s simple, they’ve taken away the opportunity to bargain-shop because there’s only one store. Bottom line: don’t get between a fiction reader and her book.

Litte: accessibility and disabled community—still unequal world for readers with disabilities, despite tech availability: “free” texts aren’t equally accessible, e.g. Text-to-speech aid isn’t a replacement for audiobook format properly produced.

Krozser: one-handed reading of book versus dedicated device or laptop while holding a nursing baby at 3 a.m…. Readers should not need to know what metadata is, but Vallik, please explain.

Vallik: publishers provide it, retailers care about it for categorizing items for consumers, etc.

Litte: Metadata also drive Goodreads, Shelfari, and so on—they can be used to upsell a title. Overview of Calibre and user-provided md. The more info you can provide about how a book someone liked is related to six other books, the more books will be sold.

Vallik: Harlequin has experimented with freebies and samples. Excited about “blogger bundles” promotion for early next year—low prep hurdle, response to what people have expressed that they want, etc.

Krozser: design?

James: for women as well as men, it comes down to price.

Vallik: is it appealing. Price point, does it fit into purse, is it attractive enough to be seen using it.

7 responses to “What Readers Want (from Ebooks)”

  1. Jonas Mosskin


  2. Angela James

    Thanks for the recap!

    consumer knows, also, that she won’t be paying more for electronic version than print one.

    The consumer wants to know (wants is the key word here) that she/he won’t be paying more for the electronic version than for the print one. They discussed this in the first panel, so it’s something we didn’t take as much time to touch on, but that those of us on the panel have had extensive conversations on.

    Essentially, the reader perceives that they’re getting less rights for their money when buying digital than print. In digital: no right to resale, no ability to share due to DRM, difficulty in using the book on multiple devices (again due to DRM). Less rights than print so the reader often feels they shouldn’t be asked to pay as much.

    Hope that clarifies!

  3. Sharon

    Thanks for stopping by, Angela! Your clarification is very helpful.

  4. Kassia Krozser

    Thanks so much for getting this up. Very much appreciated and very thorough notes.

  5. Sharon

    Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Sharon

    Thank you for moderating a fascinating panel! I’m sorry we couldn’t hear you very well, but it was great planning to have given the panelists their questions in advance.

  7. The Daily Square – Hey Ladies Edition | Booksquare

    […] What Readers Want (from Ebooks)Despite (my) technical difficulties, today’s What Readers Want panel was awesome — way too much to cover in just an hour, of course. Here’s a pretty darn excellent transcript/summary of what was said. […]