In recent months various surveys of consumer attitudes towards e-books, e-readers and devices have been released. All of them have revealed trends for the future of digital publishing, with some responses bucking oft-envisioned ideas and others helping to support common e-predictions.

Digital may increase overall book sales
Conventional wisdom suggests that e-books will cannibalise sales of printed books, but according to the respondents of the Book Industry Study Group’s US-focused report Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading, this might not be the case. Of the respondents who said they prefer to read e-books on dedicated e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes & Noble’s Nook, only 27% are buying fewer paperback titles, and only 25% are buying fewer hardbacks, despite almost 40% increasing their purchases of e-books.

This suggests that people will continue to buy multiple formats, despite having a dedicated e-reading device. In fact, 4% of dedicated e-reader users have bought more hardbacks since they started buying e-books and 2% have bought an increasing number of paperbacks. If this implication pans out—that there may not be an either/or, "p" versus "e" world shaping up, but a marketplace where content in multiple formats actually increases book purchasing across the board—this is welcome news indeed.

Similarly, of all the US e-reader owners surveyed by New York-based Verso Advertising’s for its Verso Digital 2010 Survey of Book-Buying Behaviour, over 90% said that they would continue to purchase printed books. The majority (70.1%) said they would purchase over six printed books next year and a quarter (25.8%) said they would buy 13 or more print books. Considering that only 45% of Americans said they read one or more books a year—according to a 2010 report by Bowker—this is good news. The context, of course, is that e-reader early adopters would, naturally, be keener readers.

Digital growth predictions: too optimistic?
Most national press reports of the growth of e-books will include the opinion of some frothing death-to-print digital enthusiast with grandiose predictions for e-book take-up, usually with sound-biteable figures: 50% of the market by 2015, or 80% by 2020, say. These pundits tend to be the same people who have been predicting that this year—finally—is the year of the e-book for the past 20 years.  

Unquestionably, digital is increasing, and the trade must get its digital ducks in a row. Market researcher Mintel’s report, Books and E-Books, February 2011, notes that judging the true size of the market is difficult because of the scant hard data on e-book sales, yet adds: "Regardless of the paucity of data on the subject, there is little doubt from comments made by publishers and retailers that the e-books market is growing rapidly." The report then suggests that in the US, e-book sales in 2010 were up by 164%, and now account for 8.3% of the market; and that in the UK, e-books are estimated to account for anything between 1% and 3% of the total market, or £33–£100m.

But some surveys point to tempering enthusiasm or creeping ambivalence of digital among consumers. Despite a strong increase in e-book sales of all the e-reader owners surveyed by Verso, more than a half will buy fewer than five e-books in the next 12 months (54.6%). An astonishing 13.2% responded that they will be unlikely to buy any e-books at all. Just over 16% will buy between one and two e-books, and 24.8% will buy between three and five.

Price is still the biggest issue for e-books . . . but less so for devices
That consumers are price conscious is no surprise—but perhaps the point should be driven home as the trade wrestles with the agency model. Mintel found an expectation on the part of UK book readers that they should pay less for an e-book than for a hardback, the vast majority expecting to pay 40%–70% less for an e-book (between £3 and £6). Just 19% said they expected to pay the same price for the printed equivalent. The report also states that "e-book readers are the most likely to buy books online because it is cheaper (49%), suggesting that, as e-books increase their share of the market, there is going to be even more pressure on prices than there is at present."

Similarly, BISG’s US survey finds "affordability" ranks highest in importance for consumers when deciding whether to buy e-books instead of print books, with just over 70% stating that the price of the title being within an "acceptable range" is a key factor. The ease of acquisition of titles is not far behind, however, with just under 70% suggesting that the ease of downloading or streaming an e-book is very important.

Interestingly, when the questions turn to the devices themselves, price slips down a few notches in importance. BISG found that when it comes to customer satisfaction with devices, portability (at just under 80%) and the ability to carry multiple e-books on a single device (just over 70%), are more important than the actual cost of e-books (just over 60%).

Verso has found that customers’ satisfaction with their devices also seems to be leading to some acceptance of higher prices for dedicated e-readers. Twenty percent said they were willing to pay between $100 and $200 for a device this year, compared to the 14.2% of customers who were willing to pay the same amount in the November 2009 survey.



Verso Digital 2010 Survey of Book-Buying Behaviours. Conducted November to December 2010, 3,819 respondents from a pool of 131 million internet users across 5,500 websites.

Books and E-Books, February 2011 by Mintel, conducted in December 2010 from a base of 1,761 internet users aged 16+ who read books.

Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading: An Ongoing Survey of US E-Book Consumer Behaviour and Preferences. Volume 2: Report 1 of 4, December 2010. Prepared by the Book Industry Study Group with reporting and editorial analysis by Steve Paxhia & John Parsons.