eBooks: a reader is not just a device

I spent most of 2011 keeping my eye on trends in eBooks: of all the technological innovations going on, eBooks seem the most likely to affect both my work as a librarian and my leisure time as a reader. And 2011 has been a big year for eBooks, with lots of media attention devoted to new devices, from the iPad 2 to the Kindle Fire.

With all the focus on devices, though, I feel like what’s missing is a deeper understanding of the end users. The term “reader” has come to refer to the tool, not the person using it. The same tendency to overlook the individual reader seems to apply to discussions of eBook distribution, where the struggles among Amazon.com, publishers, and libraries grab the headlines.

What I’d like to see in the year ahead is more user-centered commentary on eBooks, informed by a more nuanced understanding of the different kinds of people who read and their very different needs and goals. The rabid mystery novel consumer who goes through a book a week, the business traveller who only reads on long-haul flights, the student reading for school, the parent who reads with her kids, the book club member, the teenage graphic novel fan – when you consider the diversity of users, it begins to seem obvious that there may not be just one device (or one way of accessing books) to rule them all.

Looking back over the mass of eBook information I digested in 2011, a presentation from Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn stands out for its unique focus on the characteristics of the different types of people who read eBooks. Based on Kobo’s user data, the findings are fascinating for the differences they reveal in device preferences, purchasing behaviour, and reading habits.

Tamblyn concludes his presentation with the line: “Know the reader. Sales will follow.” Even for those of us who aren’t selling and just want to understand the shift to eReading, “know the reader” seems like good advice.

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