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What P-book Buyers Report About E-books

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Survey findings show the computer continuing to edge out Kindle as the one device respondents said they most often use to read e-books; other devices lag far behind.


Consumers still get roughly half their e-books free, according to the BISG survey of print-book buyers. Although more and more e-books are available and e-readers are multiplying too, the ratio of free to paid seems stuck.

What P-book Buyers Report About E-books

by Jim Milliot

Three surveys conducted over six months for the Book Industry Study Group’s “Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading” make it clear that print-book consumers who have acquired e-books or e-readers in the last 12 months are enjoying the e-reading experience and plan to buy more titles in digital formats and more dedicated e-reader devices. Despite this unmistakably positive reaction by survey respondents, however, it is still not apparent that they intend to abandon print altogether.

Even though survey respondents who said they were buying fewer print titles in the third fielding of the survey outnumbered those who said the same in the first fielding, the shift away from print slowed somewhat between the second fielding and the third (the surveys’ closing dates were November 17, 2009, and February 5 and May 5, 2010). And the slowdown occurred despite the fact that there were more e-reading devices in consumers’ hands and more available e-book titles than ever before.

Two factors are likely behind the moderate slowdown: the frenzy of e-book purchasing that occurred after the winter holidays to fill all the new e-readers received as gifts, and the improving post-holiday economy, which may have encouraged consumers to buy hardcover and paperback books priced higher than e-books.

Survey findings indicate that several factors might contribute to the continued growth of the e-book market.

For example, decisions by e-reader manufacturers to lower prices of dedicated e-reader devices could spur rapid growth in the e-book market, since more than half the respondents to all three fieldings cited the high cost of these devices as the major reason for not buying one.

Also, getting dedicated e-reader devices into the hands of more consumers could speed market growth, since most survey respondents from all three fieldings said they enjoyed using their e-reader devices once they began. Only 12 percent of the respondents who bought a dedicated e-reader device said the device was not worth the cost, and users’ concerns about the functionality and design of dedicated e-reader devices declined over the course of the three survey fieldings.

Data from all three “Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading” survey fieldings came from subgroups of a panel of print-book buyers who complete surveys about their book purchasing behavior as part of PubTrack™ Consumer, a service of R.R. Bowker LLC. The subgroups consisted of respondents who indicated they had purchased or downloaded an e-book in any month during 2008 or 2009 or during the first quarter of 2010 by selecting “Digital/E-book” as a “binding type” of a book they had acquired and/or by stating that they owned an e-reader device.

A total of 1,345 panelists qualified for the third fielding of this survey, and 753 of these responded. The sample size was the same for the second survey fielding; for the first fielding it was 535.

The demographic profile of survey respondents, which fluctuated a bit between the first and second fieldings, stabilized between the second and third. During all three fieldings, however, men comprised a slight majority, and respondents to the final two fieldings were more likely to be affluent and to live in the suburbs.

Weighing In on Price

Changes in consumer attitudes toward e-books and e-readers were not dramatic. Respondents consistently cited the need to link specific e-books to specific devices as the main liability. And affordability consistently topped the list of reasons respondents favored an e-book over a print book. The ease of downloading a title was a very close second. A more altruistic reason for buying an e-book—concern for the environment–finished last in all three survey fieldings.

But affordability also seemed to inhibit purchasing. According to all three survey fieldings, more than half the respondents cited “price” as a major factor in their decision not to purchase a dedicated e-reader device. This was double the number who cited the next-highest reason, which was that they were waiting for a better device.

Consumers who did jump the price hurdle and purchase a dedicated e-reader device generally reported that the device was worth its cost. As mentioned, only 12 percent said it wasn’t, and two-thirds of respondents to all three fieldings said they were happy with their purchase.

On Devices and Determinants

Reading habits changed significantly among survey respondents. Kindle gained users over the course of the three survey fieldings, while the percentage of respondents who said they use computers to read e-books declined. Still, computers continued to top Kindles as the one device used most frequently to read e-books.

Over the course of the fieldings, respondents showed a remarkable consistency in terms of what prompted them to buy an e-book or dedicated e-reader device. Free samples, whether of complete e-books or of chapters, influenced approximately two-thirds of acquisitions.

Respondents also indicated that reviews played an important role in spurring them to acquire an e-book, with online reviews having more of an impact than print reviews over the course of the three fieldings.

All online vehicles were not equally effective in reaching e-book consumers, however. Respondents to the first survey fielding reported that Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites had little impact in prompting them to purchase e-books or a dedicated e-reader device, and such responses were even more prevalent in the third fielding.

The minor impact of social networking sites on e-book acquisitions seems to have a clear cause: for the most part, e-book consumers are not using social networking sites.

Going Up?

Responses to the three surveys also indicated that greater familiarity with e-books and e-reader devices has led to a small increase in the frequency of e-book purchases. While the percentage of respondents who said they purchase e-books only “occasionally” remained constant at 43 percent, the percentage of those who said they “frequently” buy them rose from 14 percent in the first survey fielding to 17 percent in the third.

The timing of e-book purchases squares well with the timing of purchases of dedicated e-reader devices. In the third survey, 38 percent of respondents reported acquiring their e-reader device within the previous two to six months, which suggests that many e-reader devices were acquired around Christmas, just as many e-books were. Only 6 percent of respondents to the third survey fielding reported getting an e-reader device within the previous month, which may reflect a falloff after the holidays and indicate that sales are apt to rise again during the 2010 holiday season.

Jim Milliot, co-editorial director of Publishers Weekly, provided the text for all three Book Industry Study Group reports on “Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading,” from which this article is derived. To learn more about current and future reports in this series, visit bisg.org.

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