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Content Wars: eBooks Falter But New York Times Paywall is a Hit




Have you ever read Thunderstruck by Erik Larson? Published in 2006, it’s the true story of how Marconi’s wireless helped capture one of England’s most notorious killers. I went to buy a copy from Amazon last week and here’s what I found:

thunderstruck

I could have the ebook delivered instantly to my Kindle for $11.99. If I was willing to buy it used (I was) and wait several weeks for delivery, I could buy it for one cent. I’d have to pay shipping, but with media rates it would still come in under $4.00. $8.00 more to get it now or save the money and get a copy that I can later turn in for credit at the local used book store.

I passed on the ebook. $11.99 for a six year old book just didn’t feel right. Not when I had other options.

In the end, I went to the library for the first time in five years and picked up the book for free. My friend, who is on the library board in a small town back east, says library use is on the rise. After a dismal few years where it looked like the internet was going to make the concept obsolete, his library is experiencing a rebirth and that includes the lending of ebooks – a new concept that’s just catching on.

The New York Times suggests that ebooks may have hit a saturation point. They say ebook sales were up 34% over last year, but in the prior four years, sales more than doubled. They have two interesting theories about why this is happening in spite of the face that tablets and other types of ebook readers are flourishing.

Here’s my favorite:

Michael Norris, a Simba Information analyst said they’ve noticed “commitment to content issues.”

“A lot of these e-book consumers aren’t behaving like lab rats at a feeder bar. We have found that at any given time about a third of e-book users haven’t bought a single title in the last 12 months. I have a feeling it is the digital equivalent of the ‘overloaded night stand’ effect; someone isn’t going to buy any more books until they make a dent in reading the ones they have already acquired.”

This is so true. There are so many free ebooks around, my reader is loaded with choices but none of them interested me when I was looking for a new book to read last week. I’ve also heard this referred to as museum syndrome, there’s so much to look at you give everything a cursory look and move on.

The other idea is that the demise of brick and mortar chain Borders is hurting ebook sales. People used to browse the story, test read books, find the ones they want, then order them as ebooks. Now that there are fewer places to browse, people are reluctant to take a chance on an expensive book they can’t flip through before buying. That’s how I felt and it was odd to put that feeling aside when I went to the library. The books are free, so if I pick a dud, no big deal.

Whatever the reason, price, lack of browsing, too many options – people aren’t buying ebooks the way they used to buy physical books and that’s bad news for publishing.

The good news is that people are paying for digital content of the newspaper kind. For the first time in a long time, The New York Times says they’ll make more money from subscriptions than from advertising and some of that is coming in through a digital paywall. They expect to pull in $91 million from digital, 12% of their overall subscription base.

That’s amazing news because it’s long been held that people will not pay for digital news when they can find all the information they need online for free. That mind set is slowly shifting as newspapers and other outlets prove that they can provide specialized or higher quality information that’s worth paying for.

I say it’s the tablet that’s made all the difference in this case. Being able to kick back on the couch with the Sunday paper is a joy we’ve been experiencing since the turn of the century. The tablet allows us to continue this tradition in digital form with the added benefit of being able to click through to watch videos, purchase items and get additional details.

The New York Times charges $20 a month for a digital subscription. That’s more than the average ebook best seller, which should prove that’s it’s not the price point that’s the problem, it’s the mind set. Readers simply aren’t ready to give up the feeling of a physical book in their hands, but we’re getting there.

What about you? Have you given up print in favor of digital content yet?

  • Jim L

    I think the digital paywall will be the solution for now for newspapers. However, the incredibly annoying pop-up, pop-under, pop-around ads may almost make buying a “no-ads” version a good idea. As far as books, I’m ok with certainly business or refereance types of books electronically but novels, picture books and other types referred to over and over I want a real book. People need to remember that you are paying nearly the full cost of a printed copy to just rent an ebook. It can be taken away as easily as you downloaded it. Also, you have paid almost full cost and you have nothing to share with friends or family or resell as you wish. IT’S NOT YOURS!. How would people feel if you have to pay $15 or more for a book every time you want to read it?

    The “cloud” world is a great, great convenience but it’s also very ephemeral. As far as books go, it’s not going to be a matter of snatching them all up and burning them (per Mr. Bradbury), they’ll just delete your files.

  • http://blarglesplect.com/ Y.K. Greene

    Funny. The first thing I see when I look at this post – is a ridiculous over pricing for the ebook version. There’s no reason that the ebook should cost more than the paperback, ever. That it does, is a very clear reason for people to turn away from ebooks, price tends to rule the day.

    No author whose sales mostly consist of ebooks would ever raise the price on their ebooks about the price of their paperbacks but a publishing company, interested in skewing sale numbers back towards their dead tree editions so they can say “ebook sales are dropping, the bubble has burst, come back to the feel of paper in your hands,” most certainly would.