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Would you buy an e-reader?

7 June 2010

The excitement surrounding the arrival of the i-Pad in countries outside the US has caught the attention of the media, reinforcing the idea that a mass audience is waiting to buy one and start using it to read e-books. The arrival of the Kindle aroused similar expectations and many articles presaging the end of the printed book.

Figures from a recent study in the UK dispute this though. 'Reading the Future', the Bookseller's third annual survey into what readers and book-buyers are thinking, contradicts this view and shows that the publishing world is much more focused on e-books than book-buyers are.

Three-quarters of readers are not aware of the Amazon Kindle. Three in every five have not heard of the Sony Reader. The great majority of consumers are unlikely or dead set against buying an e-book reader. The sample of 3,000 used for the study was reached through an online poll, so its participants would only have been people who are comfortable online and presumably relatively savvy technically speaking.

Interestingly, it is not the youngest readers who are most interested in the idea of an e-reader, it is 41-60 year-olds. Evidence shows that price is a major factor and that the e-reader needs to be sold for under £100 if it is to get major take-up in the UK. Men are much more likely to buy one than women, the 25-45s are most likely to buy one in the next 12 months and the over 45s are most likely to say that will definitely not buy one.

So why is the publishing world so mesmerised by e-book sales and how quickly might they develop? Nobody really knows the answer to that but a lot of forward thinking assumes that they will boom and replace printed books. Publishers therefore need to get ready for the different world we'll all be in soon.

Are the survey's responses just the effect of rather conservative readers in the UK? There is some evidence to support this. In the US e-book sales do seem to have taken off, with Dan Brown's e-book sales of The Lost Symbol greater than its hardback sales just after it was published. In Japan e-books are very popular and a vast market has developed for e-books to be read on mobile phones.

There's also the threat of the giant global companies who are now active in the book area and who have huge amounts of cash - Apple with $41.6bn, Google with $26.5bn and Amazon with $5.6bn. For all of them, except perhaps Amazon, which looms so large in the book trade's consciousness, books are not a primary focus but a secondary one, a means of extending their empire rather than an intrinsic part of what they do.

So, would you use an e-reader? The response to this seems to be quite a personal one. It may be cheaper in the long run, which is a real consideration for heavy readers, and very convenient if you're going on holiday. But many people are very attached to the idea of reading a print book and also like to have the book on their shelves after they've read it. Who knows how many of these will stick to print books over the years?

You could deduce that a large proportion of the reading public will transfer to e-books, so as a publisher you'd want to make sure you were catering for them. Or you could feel that a majority of readers will still want the printed page. Because it's a matter of individual behaviour in a changing environment, no-one knows for sure what will happen next.