Tools of Change: Smart Women Read Ebooks

Panelists: Kassia Kroszer (moderator), Angela James, Malle Valik, Sarah Wendell

(For related coverage, you can check out my video interview with Wendell shortly after the panel.)

So if you’ve been following these lengthy reports, you’ve probably developed a sense that there is a profound disconnect between the geeks who develop the technology and the readers who imbibe it. Jon Orwant may have talked with readers during his magazine editing days, but is he really doing this to the greatest possible extent now? Do web stats and trends of the moment alone really account for what the consumers want? Thankfully, Kassia Kroszer, in a nonscientific manner, conducted a survey with 750 female readers, hoping to determine their relationship to books. Yes, they read a lot. And the development geeks may want to consider that they read two to five books per month and that 60% of the readers surveyed between ages 30 and 50.

Malle Valik pointed out that there were three development efforts she made at Harlequin: (1) downloadable audio, (2) manga, and (3) ebooks. And guess which of this digital trio was the proud winner? Harlequin readers liked ebooks. Quite a lot in fact. Valik joked that she should probably earn a commission for talking ebooks up. And when you are considering the many series inhabiting the romance genre, well, wouldn’t you be foolish to avoid making some titles online for readers? But Amazon has often done just that. Further, as Wendell pointed out later, Amazon does not tend to acknowledge the button you press when you express interest in a title. Talk about wasting an opportunity to connect with your customers. (And while I have expressed skepticism about the buzz term “social community,” I think it can generally be agreed that Amazon’s failure to respond to requests certainly represents just about the biggest asocial step you can take if you want to continue to attract repeat customers or sell them on your shiny new toy.)

In fact, as Wendell pointed out, women are the customers. Her website, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, had received 16 million hits in January 2009. These are the ebook readers you’re looking for. Women, in Wendell’s view, like pretty objects and usable design. “We will reward you,” continued Wendell. “We will tell you how good you are in bed with multiple swipes of the credit card.” Wendell rattled off recent studies in which 55 out of 96 million spent on electronics were from women, and that 80% of fiction was purchased by women. Is this an audience that any self-respecting businessman wishes to ignore or treat as dumb?

Some more interesting stats from Kassia’s study: 60% of women read ebooks on their laptop. And why is that? Probably because these e-readers are too damn expensive. So why not a $100 price point? Or perhaps, as Angela James suggested, throwing in a few complimentary ebook titles in with an e-reader purchase? And why, given this revealing data, would any self-respecting hardware publisher continue to offer closed ebook formats?

These hardware distinctions are perhaps more important than the developing geeks might think. After all, Ms. James revealed that she had broken up with he Kindle. The Sony Reader had better folder management. And the back of the Kindle kept falling off. The panelists were dismayed that they had to be pegged as criminals because of Amazon’s restrictions. Furthermore, as Ms.James noted, consider that Sony has expanded into non-American markets, while Amazon has kept its focus in America. You can’t use the Kindle’s wireless network outside of America. So what good is it when you factor in the salient realities of human migration?

Wendell noted that $10 seemed to be the “hard stop” on ebook price. If a reader is regularly purchasing paperbacks for $5.99 or $6.99, where then is the incentive to purchase a $25 ebook? There is the notion that an ebook should cost less because it’s not a tangible object that occupies space. But Wendell didn’t have a specific answer about where ebooks should be priced.

And here’s another problem with ebooks. You can’t resell them or loan them. And that’s simply not acceptable to the average reader. Sharing is a vital part of reading, and that’s now become illegal. There was a hypothetical question posed about someone emailing 100 people with the latest Nora Roberts book, with the publisher losing the sales. Valik pointed out that Harlequin was in the interest of obtaining nearly all rights and that she was certainly trying to figure out a reasonable way to ensure that sharing becomes a viable option.

Which returns us, in a more reader-inclusive manner, to the TOC buzz term “social experience.” I think, based on my Tuesday peregrinations, that I’ve observed how people think about technological developments. But I’m not so sure if they’re accounting for the reader. Certainly this panel provided a few more pertinent answers than “The Rise of Ebooks.” But I think it’s important to consider that social experience is something that emerges from the form, often with helpful and ancillary results. But it is not necessarily the form. In order for ebooks to penetrate beyond 1% of the market (and, again, the assumption here rests that ebooks will take off with Wilcoxian dreams of riches and avarice), it seems to me that they are going to have to not only listen to readers (particularly regular readers and women), but consider every aspect that makes the printed book work. These aren’t going to be easy questions to answer. And they’re certainly not going to be cleared up in three days by a bunch of excitable plutocrats at an O’Reilly conference. While the music industry has seen the phonograph switch to the cassette, and then switch to the CD, and then switch to the MP3, we really haven’t seen anything like this with books and paper. Joe Wikert suggested that emerging forms of technology look ridiculous until they’re established. But there’s possibly a greater risk in looking and acting ridiculous when you accept the emerging possibilities without healthy skepticism or learning a few lessons from the past.

(More reports on Wednesday’s events, which I am presently in the middle of, to come.)