Digital Book World 2011: Who Buys E-books, How Many, and Why?

This week marked the second annual Digital Book World conference in New York City, where big names in digital publishing gave their predictions for the future of books.  Book blogs have been aflutter with lots of exciting numbers (e-book sales rose by 400% in 2010!  In the past year, Amazon has sold three times as many Kindle editions as hardcover books!).

On Thursday, Digital Book World posted a slideshow outlining the results of a recent survey of consumer attitudes towards e-books.  Basically, this survey set out to answer the following questions:  Who buys e-books?  What kind of device do they read them on?  What influences their purchasing decisions?  And what the heck does this mean for publishing?

Here are the highlights, translated into plain English:

Who buys e-books?

-Your typical “e-book power buyer” (i.e. someone who buys at least one e-book every week) is an urban or suburban 30-44 year old with a full-time job.  Next in line are 45-54 year olds, followed by 18-29 year olds.  Not surprisingly, people in the 55+ age category buy the fewest e-books—at least, for now.

Are they buying enough of them?

-Even though Amazon claims that it has sold 115 Kindle books for every 100 paperbacks in the past year, e-book sales are “not off-setting the cannibalism of print.”  In other words, the number of e-books people are buying are not making up for declining print sales—at least, not yet.

What do they read them on?

-When it comes to devices for reading e-books, dedicated e-readers such as the Kindle or Nook are still the clear favorites among readers, far outpacing laptops, tablets, and smartphones.  Apparently, nice touches like a book-sized screen and easy-on-the-eyes e-ink count for something.

What entices them to buy more?


-When it comes to e-books, the freebie is king.  Almost 40% of survey respondents said they’ve bought an e-book after receiving a free sample chapter, and almost 30% have bought an e-book after receiving a free e-book from the same author.

What this means for ambitious e-book authors:  Give it away.  But not all of it.  When it comes to selling e-books, “the first time’s free” might just be the new mantra.

How do they shop?


-Whereas 47% of books bought at Barnes & Noble are impulse buys, only 26% of books sold though are bought on a whim.  If these figures are accurate, they have vast implications for how books and e-books should be marketed.  Digital e-readers have ushered in a new kind of browsing, and both publishers and independent authors need to find ways to make sure their e-books get seen.

While none of the results are particularly shocking, this survey paints a small but telling portrait of the e-book landscape as it stands in January 2011.  More than anything, I think it highlights the growing importance of marketing directly to your readers—publishing that newsletter, responding to comments on your blog, putting out those free sample chapters, and growing a following by paying close attention to who your readers are, what they care about, and what they like.

The “e-book power buyers” are out there, and if we treat them right (and recruit new ones to their ranks), the rewards will be long lasting for writers and readers alike.

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