E-Readers, Ebooks, and Publishing's Bottom Line: The Opportunities and Challenges Presented by the Explosion of the E-Reader Market

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If 2009 was the worst of times for most of the information industry, it was a decidedly good year for manufacturers of digital e-reading alternatives. As prices fell and functionality improved, usage of digital reading technology on dedicated devices, smartphones, and the web finally began to segue from its decade-long, early-adoption status to mainstream penetration, and new entrants began to challenge the dominance of the Amazon Kindle. Forrester Research's October 2009 report "Forrester's eReader Holiday Outlook 2009," predicted that 3 million e-readers would be sold in the U.S. by the end of 2009.

In a year when 34% of Americans reported cutting down on the number of books they were purchasing, according to statistics from Bowker's December 2009 PubTrack Consumer survey, the news of e-reading devices flying off shelves should be encouraging to businesses whose lifeblood is the provision of engaging content.

Yet for publishers, the mainstream adoption of ebooks brings huge financial challenges alongside the tantalizing opportunities. On the periodical side, the shifting consumer appetite from paper to digital content consumption, exacerbated by lackluster advertising revenues during the Great Recession, has already claimed high-profile titles that once enjoyed robust print circulation, from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to Gourmet to Metropolitan Home. Consolidation rippled through major book-publishing houses in 2009, with deep cuts in staffing following behind.

For publishers that have made it this far, 2010 will be a pivotal year. Across the board, publishers are coming to grips with the economic realities inherent in the growing consumer preference for digital reading alternatives alongside traditional print. They're also rolling out innovations in digital content packaging, delivery, and interactivity that are only gaining momentum. How they succeed will tell whether it's the year traditional print publishers enter a promising new digital future or go the way of the buggy-whip manufacturer.

E-Reader Definition: A Moving Target

The January 2009 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas made abundantly clear how far we've come since the introduction of the first utilitarian Amazon Kindle in 2007. Devices are getting more durable, more colorful, and, above all, more multifunctional.

Among the e-reader debutants at CES 2010 were Plastic Logic's QUE device, sportinfg a large plastic touchscreen display, which offers the professional users it is aimed at 3G connectivity and the ability to handle PDF, Word, PowerPoint, and Excel documents alongside digital publications. enTourage introduced eDGe, which the company touted as "the world's first dualbook," combining the functions of an e-reader, a netbook, a notepad, and an audio/video recorder and player in its two-sided design.

The Hearst Publishing Co. debuted its Skiff Reader in partnership with Sprint, which will provide its 3G connectivity. It is composed of a thin, flexible sheet of stainless steel foil covered in thin plastic, making it both the thinnest e-reader in the market and one extremely well-suited to displaying newspaper and magazine content.

As much hype as there was about the new e-reader vendors and the innovations on display at CES, the elephant in the room, when this article was written, was the highly anticipated release of an Apple netbook, rumored to take place any moment. It's possible that the biggest e-reader news of the year will actually be around a netbook that optimizes the digital reading experience with signature Apple-design flair.

Bob Carlton, VP of marketing for LibreDigital, which offers digital warehousing and e-distribution solutions for publishers, anticipates that 2010 will be the year in which traditional black-and-white displays give way to color-screen, multiuse tablets. "It's kind of like back in the 1990s when the Palm Pilot pointed the way to what a smartphone could someday be," says Carlton. "People are going to want content that is above the level of a device, so they can access it and engage with it wherever and however they want."

The implication for publishers is to get familiar with the advances and improvements with the wide range of e-readers and e-reader technology on the market. But don't plan to settle down with The Chosen One just yet.

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