Tools of Change Conference, Day 2
The Kyobo e-reader with Mirasol display.
Data, data, data. It seemed as though everything I heard at the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference (TOC) February 15 mentioned data in one way or another.
Len Vlahos, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), and Kelly Gallagher, vice president of Bowker, gave a talk chock-full of charts, graphs, and numbers from their work studying the ebook market. And these were some important numbers. In the US, the adoption curve for technologies follows a predictable pattern: The curve ramps up a little as early adopters start using a new technology; then as the cost of production goes down and products get cheaper, the curve shoots up. If you hear publishing types talk about the “hockey-stick effect,” this is what they mean. Vlahos and Gallagher have tracked the adoption of everything from telephones to color televisions to cellphones—and every technology that ended up catching on followed the same pattern (Vlahos pointed out that pagers, notably, did not).
Most people have assumed the growth pattern we’ve seen with ebooks has been the beginning of that curve and that the end of 2011 would have shown the continued ramping up, heading into that hockey-stick curve. But BISG’s data (which factored data from preholiday sales in 2011) did not show this pattern. Instead it flattened out. To be sure, there’s still growth—but it’s incremental, not exponential. Fiction, on the other hand, is still growing on a curve, but it remains to be seen if the genre’s growth will follow the standard adoption pattern. The researchers also wondered who the powerbuyers were, who was driving growth, and how much of a role technology played in adoption.
Who are the powerbuyers?
The powerbuyers in electronic and print are the same people. Three years ago, the ebook powerbuyer skewed male and older, Vlahos and Gallagher said, but now ebook buyers are no longer early adopters; they’re the general public. The conversion rate has slowed as well. The percentage of people who responded to the question “When did you buy your first ebook?” with the answer “In the last six months” has dropped. Many of the findings reflect Library Journal’s Power Patron findings, which show ebook powerbuyers are loyal to ebooks once they make the leap from print.
The two researchers warned against “the cardinal sin of scenario planning,” i.e., falling in love with any one scenario. It’s impossible to know for certain what the future holds or what this leveling out means. It could be that the research BISG and Bowker conducted after the 2011 holiday season will show the explosive growth we’ve come to expect. It could be that this is the beginning of seasonality as the ebook market begins to mature. Or it could be that this is a plateau. Gallagher and Vlahos did postulate that the real issue lies with Angry Birds, that there’s stiff competition for leisure time, and that people buying tablets are not using them to read.
The gadget petting zoo
With that in mind, I took a quick stroll through the gadget petting zoo, where a number of e-readers and tablets were on display. Tablets are outselling e-readers, which makes sense. I have to wonder about the slowing sales rate of ebooks with respect to devices. Not everyone reads for pleasure, and certainly not all readers are devoted enough to the act of reading to buy a relatively expensive device solely for buying and consuming books.
Vlahos reported anecdotally that more and more people on the commuter train from New York to Connecticut are using devices instead of reading a book or newspaper. Of course, they may or may not be reading on the device. (On that same train line, I currently see every other person playing Angry Birds, though the woman across from me is now reading a book on an e-reader.)
The devices on display at the conference were frequently Android-based tablets, though there were a few dedicated e-readers. Several e-readers I picked up did not have touchscreens, which I found a little frustrating. My expectation has become that all handheld devices have them. When I found myself holding an e-reader that required me to use buttons on the bottom of the device, I found it difficult to juggle my cup of tea (and no, I didn’t spill my tea on any gadgets).
One tablet I came across had a fantastic screen: The Kyobo e-reader has a Mirasol screen, a color screen that looks like an ink screen. The colors aren’t as sharp as they are on a backlit device, but the touchscreen color display allows you to still easily see images in direct sunlight. The drawback? It’s available only in Korea. The woman demonstrating it at the conference pulled up an on-screen keyboard, and when someone later asked her to bring it back up in order to take a picture of it, she wasn’t able to, because the interface is in Korean. So if you can read Korean, check out Kyobo’s site.
Michael Tamblyn, an executive from Kobo, was also brimming with data. He dissected the difference between fiction and nonfiction ebook sales and showed that nonfiction ebooks are not as popular as fiction, specifically adult fiction. Children’s books, Tamblyn noted, have a gift economy associated with them. Areas like travel, reference, and cooking respond to different market forces.
Tamblyn said that there are nonfiction devices, and those devices are “wherever the boys are.” Android OS, Linux desktop readers, and BlackBerrys skew male, and reading on those Kobo apps skew toward nonfiction. Nonfiction such as cookbooks—which are popular gifts and the sort of books people like to have as physical artifacts—aren’t as popular in ebook form. (As someone who has gotten flour on her laptop and walked around with a phone that smelled like shallots for a week, I can attest to the beauty of paper books in the kitchen.)
Narrative-based nonfiction behaves like fiction, according to Tamblyn’s numbers. For example, biographies are similar to novels because, although a reader can look up the facts online, the way a biographer tells a story is key. In other words, ebook readers will buy books that create an experience around factual information. Tamblyn also said there is a market for deconstructed books—small collections of curated recipes that center around a certain type of meal, for instance. Deconstructing books is a hallmark of the burgeoning ebook start-up industry.
In a panel called “Why Context Is Everything: Monetizing Meaningful Engagement with Content,” Valla Vakili of Small Demons and Erin McKean of Wordnik talked about ways their respective companies create connections through content and context. McKean, who is also a novelist, talked about the connections she found with bloggers who loved her book and wrote about it. She urged people to make APIs to their content, asking what would happen if people could connect chunks of content to communities the content creators had never heard of. “Everybody wants to be loved for themselves… . Content is your core,” McKean told the audience, adding that getting people to like what you’re really about is better than discovery. Vakili talked about a book he read that inspired him to purchase a pricey bottle of scotch, a number of songs on iTunes, and eventually a trip to Marseilles (and after that, found Small Demons). “It’s a shame to put the book down at ‘the end,’” he said.
Closing keynoters also emphasized the importance of data. Roger Magoulas, director of market research at O’Reilly Media (which put together the conference) showed off O’Reilly’s incredible data repository and reminded attendees that data on its own isn’t very interesting but can be used to tell stories. He talked about data culture and said innumeracy is a problem for many organizations.
Theodore Gray of Wolfram Alpha terrified the innumerate in the audience with his mathematical tools (these were very cool, and the company makes software for the K–12 market as well as math departments at colleges and universities).
Linda Holliday, CEO of Semi-Linear, closed the show with a message of optimism for publishers. While the meme “information wants to be free” has been popular, she said, people are willing to pay for quality content, especially from providers who will give them a modicum of privacy assurance.
But we’re already paying $190 billion a year for quality content, and her claim that young people won’t care about privacy in the future remains unproven. Still, projection bias, Holliday said, has led us to assume that the attitude teenagers have now about privacy will be the same attitude they have as adults. This, she said, is the halftime for publishing, and the second half could be the better one.
(View TOC speaker slides and videos here.)
KATE SHEEHAN is the open source implementation coordinator for Bibliomation, a consortium of public and school libraries in Connecticut, and previously served as coordinator of knowledge and learning services Darien (Conn.) Library and coordinator of library automation at Danbury (Conn.) Public Library, which was the first library to implement LibraryThing for libraries. She also blogs at loosecannonlibrarian.net and ALA TechSource.