Bookish behaviour and the benefits of bundling

In a recent post we argued that Canadians are still reading—huzzah! But now, publishers must find solutions that best accommodate a new breed of bookish behaviour.

For Tech Forum, BookNet conducts an annual leisure study that asks 750 English-speaking Canadians about their reading habits. Among respondents in 2015, the top two leisure activities included browsing the Internet (44%) and watching TV (29%). Now, I’m guilty of spending a questionable amount of hours binge-watching Gilmore Girls, but I also enjoy spending my free time reading a good book, much like 23% of respondents (up from 21% in 2014), who are also known as: my people. Reading as a leisure activity has remained relatively stable over the past three years and 84% of respondents read a book last year–down slightly from 88% in 2014, but within the margin of error. This is good news and indicates that people are not only reading, but also reading for fun.

Changes in reading habits

Although respondents continue to have an appetite for reading, we are noticing considerable changes in reading habits. In his presentation on content marketing at Tech Forum, Brian O’Leary commented that “new platforms and new formats emerge as often as new books seem to.” In particular, device ownership is informing how consumers acquire and consume content. According to the leisure study, 78% of respondents own a smartphone and the use of smartphones for reading has increased from 10% in 2014 to 15% in 2015. Conversely, only 20% of respondents own a dedicated e-reader and usage has dropped from 35% to 27% among readers.

As we mentioned in a recent post, there is also a notable correlation between genre, format preference, and a decline in print sales. Perhaps not surprisingly, the subjects popular as ebooks are also popular as audiobooks, as represented in findings from our consumer report, Listen Up: Audiobook Use in Canada. Popular categories among audiobook listeners include Fiction General, Mystery/Detective, and Biography/Autobiography. (Because what’s better than reading Yes Please by Amy Poehler? The sound of Amy Poehler reading Yes Please.)

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At Tech Forum, Mary Alice Elcock of BitLit presented on ebook bundling and publishing in the age of the new “hybrid reader.” She began by suggesting that “the ebook proposition was framed incorrectly. It should not be an either/or debate, but a case of one with the other, dictated by convenience.” Perhaps the solution to getting more Canadians reading is not more content, but easy accessibility to content in any format.

Much like ebook users, audiobook users are also creatures of convenience. Among listeners, portability (28%) and the ability to multitask (32%) are the primary reasons users opt for audiobooks. Additionally, 27% of listeners say they either “always” or “often” switch between formats and, perhaps surprisingly, 36% “always” or “often” listen to audiobooks that they have previously read. As a long distance runner, I often switch between formats and listen to the audiobook edition when running… because running with a print book seems dangerous. Often, I will buy the print book and borrow audiobooks from the library, where accessibility to many titles is, unfortunately, limited.

Enter: bundling and subscription services

Bundling and subscription services offer publishers a unique opportunity to accommodate the reading habits of the new hybrid reader. Although bundling is not a new concept, only 27% of publishers currently bundle digital formats with print books and 20% are considering doing so in the next year, according to The State of Digital Publishing in Canada 2014; ECW and Coach House Books are among the publishers offering free ebooks with proof of print purchase. Now, third-party organizations like Matchbook and Angry Robot (which also publishes its own books) are working with publishers to help bundle their print books. BitLit offers a bundling app available on iPhone and Android devices. Using BitLit is simple: just download the app, take a shelfie, get your ebooks, and read in whatever format your heart desires. For BitLit, the answer has always been “to make the book easier to read… Make it simple and convenient for readers to read when and how they want by providing them with the book in both the print and digital format” (Elcock). For more information on BitLit and the benefits of bundling, you can watch Mary Alice’s full talk here.

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In The State of Digital Publishing in Canada 2014, publishers cite three major reasons for publishing ebooks: 77% hope to increase sales; 63% are satisfying consumer demand; and 55% want to meet accessibility needs. Not only does bundling allow publishers to increase the revenue of the initial print sale, it also promotes brand recognition by meeting consumer demand.

In the world of children’s book publishing, Scholastic has been successfully experimenting with transmedia properties—i.e., a book series with an accompanying online game, community, or other digital component (e.g., The 39 Clues, Infinity Ring, Spirit Animals). The concept of transmedia properties is similar to bundling, in which the same content is available across different platforms (print books plus online games), much like different publishing formats (print book, ebooks, and audiobooks). By having the story exist on multiple platforms, Scholastic is able to seek out readers wherever they are and attract book and game lovers alike. For example, The 39 Clues book series packages print books with trading cards that allow kids to unlock game content on the website. In his presentation at Tech Forum, Keith Fretz of Scholastic US spoke to the benefits of strategic innovation: “I guess the romantic in me likes to think that innovation in and of itself is worth it. To try to do something different, to try and take risks, and reach a path that might not have been traveled before.” (Watch his full talk here.)

The best of all worlds

I would love to live in a world where I could have my cake (print book) and eat it (hear it) too. I recognize that I’m being somewhat selfish in this sentiment, but according to Listen Up: Audiobook Use in Canada, 15% of audiobook listeners also said they would spend slightly more on a print book if it came bundled with an audiobook or ebook; 27% said “probably,” and 40% said “maybe, depends on book.” Bundling and, similarly, transmedia properties are a reflection of the new hybrid reader and their bookish behaviour. Like Elcock, Fretz acknowledges the benefits of transmedia storytelling as creating a unique experience for the consumer, reaching a wider audience, and being able to evolve the product through usage data (i.e., how is your product used?). This kind of user data is difficult to obtain from the print format, but is essential to succeeding in a rapidly evolving market. Digital content offers publishers similar data-driven opportunities to track reader engagement, as discussed by Nathan Maharaj of Kobo regarding how price points affect reading habits (watch the full talk here).

Many of the presentations at Tech Forum show “limitations inherent in our conception of the book” (O’Leary) that directly conflict with readers’ new bookish behaviour. By widening this conception, publishers can experiment with solutions that best meet the consumer demands of the new hybrid reader… and, perhaps, increase sales!