Where are our e-readers?

We want to buy, publishers want to sell, vendors want to ship. So where are our e-readers?

We want to buy, publishers want to sell, vendors want to ship. So where are our e-readers?

Michael Carney


What if you gave a party and virtually no-one came? That’s what happened to US daily newspaper Newsday.

Newsday is a suburban daily newspaper that serves the New York City borough of Queens on Long Island. In 2009, Newsday was the 11th most popular newspaper in the United States, with a daily circulation averaging 357,124. In other words, it’s one of the biggies, selling about twice as many copies as the New Zealand Herald.

Like newspapers everywhere, Newsday has been looking for ways to monetise its content on the web. In October 2009, Newsday put up a paywall, restricting access to most of its content to paying subscribers. If you subscribed to the print edition, or were a subscriber to the cable television services of Newsday’s owner, Cablevision, you had unlimited access to the site content. Otherwise, you had to pay US$5 a week for the privilege.

Redesigning the web operation to implement the paywall reportedly cost Newsday US$4 million dollars. So how much additional revenue did this new strategy create?

After three months, Newsday’s publisher revealed in mid-January that just 35 people had signed up to peek behind the paywall. Yes, just 35 people—about the capacity of a medium-sized bus. That’s a cost per acquisition of about, oh, US$114,286 per person.

Add Newsday to the steadily growing list of newspaper publishers who have proven that the general public won’t pay for content online—or at least, not for news that they (rightly or wrongly) perceive they can read for free elsewhere.

Which is why print publishers in particular are so desperately interested in the Apple iPad, the Amazon Kindle, the Sony eReader and similar gadgets: because these standalone electronic reading devices are constructed around a model of at least micro-payments—and sometimes a whole lot more. Both consumers and content providers bring a completely different mindset to the e-reader: convenience, but with a cost. This is the best chance since the mid-90s (when publishers first agonised about how much content to give away online but failed to find a unified solution) to extract a toll for information expensively gathered and currently given away.

The world-changing digital devices are not available in New Zealand. You can read e-books on your computer—but it’s not easy, it’s not fast and it’s certainly not convenient. Will Kiwis pay for that stunted experience? Not many and not much

E-reading devices offer a lot of promise, not just to print and magazine publishers but also to those other purveyors of printed matter, book publishers. And the devices are catching on fast: the Kindle was Amazon’s most-gifted item in the 2009 holiday season. Not only that, but on Christmas Day 2009, for the first time ever, Amazon customers purchased more e-books than physical books.

That was a seasonal blip, of course, but the underlying statistics are staggering: Amazon now sells six e-books for the Kindle for every ten physical books with the same titles.

Getting digital down under

The writing has been on the screen rather than the wall for some time now. Which is why leading lights in the New Zealand book industry have been steadily working towards digitisation of their content. International publishers already have their current titles available in e-book format, and local publishers are moving in the same direction.

Attendees at the Future of the Book conference in Auckland in mid-2009 enthusiastically endorsed an initiative to create and market an e-book list of some of the best New Zealand titles, dubbed the 1,000 Great New Zealand eBooks programme. A new venture spearheaded by Copyright Licensing Limited is turning that programme into e-reality. Our leading bookselling group is going digital too: from May this year, the REDgroup (operators of Whitcoulls and Borders) is planning to offer customers a broad selection of e-books and other content for download via REDgroup websites.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that none of the world-changing digital devices are yet available in New Zealand. Frustrating for publishers of all stripes, for retailers and especially for bookaholics (we know who we are). Yes, you can read e-books on your iPhone or your computer—but it’s not easy, it’s not fast and it’s certainly not convenient (in comparison to dedicated e-readers offering instant gratification through wi-fi or mobile).

Will Kiwi consumers pay a toll for that sort of stunted experience? Not many and not much.

Stand by, caller

New Zealand publishers had a momentary frisson of excitement back in October 2009, when Amazon announced the global launch of the Kindle to more than 100 countries. Alas, include us out—New Zealand wasn’t on the list. It seems that our telcos, needed to provide the instant-access capability that makes the Kindle drop-dead gorgeous, weren’t getting with the programme.

And now there’s the iPad. All the stuff you like about the Kindle, plus colour. When will it arrive in New Zealand? Don’t know (international release dates are not announced as we write this). Hopefully we won’t have to wait three years—the time it took for the iTunes Store to open a New Zealand branch.

The Sony eReader? Not currently available in New Zealand and no release date is imminent.

A plan so cunning …

Maybe it’s just us, but the whole e-book situation in New Zealand is such that we suspect a plan sculpted by Niccolò Machiavelli—or at least the legendary Blackadder. We have:

  • Publishers frantically eager to monetise their content through these new eWeapons of Mass Distraction
  • Frictionless delivery, negligible incremental costs
  • Retailers gearing up to sell products that absolutely demand these new tools
  • High value customers salivating at the notion of anytime, anywhere e-reading
  • Stunning sales results in other markets
  • Limited price sensitivity because of lack of alternatives
  • Relentless publicity from offshore, evangelising about these products
  • Totally restricted access—the ultimate exclusivity

That sounds like a marketer’s dream. So can someone, somewhere please push the ‘go’ button already?

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