It’s not the e-reader that will be driving future books sales, it’s the phone; How publishers are rethinking books for the small screen
Last fall, Andrew Vestal found himself rocking his baby daughter, Ada, back to sleep every morning between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. Cradling Ada in the crook of his arm, he discovered he could read his dimly-lit phone with one hand. That’s how he read David Mitchell’s 624-page science-fiction saga “The Bone Clocks.”
Mr. Vestal’s iPhone has offered him a way to squeeze in time for reading that he otherwise might have given up. He reads on lunch breaks. He even reads between meetings as he walks across Microsoft’s Seattle campus, where he works as a program manager.
Before he tried it, he wondered whether reading in snippets might be dissatisfying. But to his surprise, he found he could quickly re-immerse himself in the book he was reading. “I want reading to be part of my life,” said Mr. Vestal, age 35. “If I waited for the kind of time I used to have—sitting down for five hours—I wouldn’t read at all.”
Ever since the first hand-held e-readers were introduced in the 1990s, the digital-reading revolution has turned the publishing world upside down. But contrary to early predictions, it’s not the e-reader that will be driving future book sales, but the phone.
“The future of digital reading is on the phone,” said Judith Curr, publisher of the Simon & Schuster imprint Atria Books. “It’s going to be on the phone and it’s going to be on paper.”
For now, tablets like the iPad and Kindle Fire remain the most popular platform to read digital books. According to Nielsen, the percentage of e-book buyers who read primarily on tablets was 41% in the first quarter of 2015, compared with 30% in 2012.
But what has captured publishers’ attention is the increase in the number of people reading their phones. In a Nielsen survey of 2,000 people this past December, about 54% of e-book buyers said they used smartphones to read their books at least some of the time. That’s up from 24% in 2012, according to a separate study commissioned by Nielsen.
The number of people who read primarily on phones has risen to 14% in the first quarter of 2015 from 9% in 2012.
Meanwhile, those reading mainly on e-readers, such as Kindles and Nooks, dropped over the same period to 32% from 50%. Even tablet reading has declined recently to 41% in the first quarter this year from 44% in 2014.
The rise of phone reading is pushing publishers to rethink the way books are designed, marketed and sold with smaller screens in mind. It’s also prompting concern about whether deep, concentrated thinking is possible amid the ringing, buzzing and alerts that come with phones.
One reason people are reading on phones is convenience. If you’re standing in line at the deli, waiting at the DMV or riding home on the train, you may not have a print book or an e-reader or tablet. But chances are, you are carrying a smartphone. Some 64% of American adults now own a smartphone, up from 35% in the spring of 2011, according to the Pew Research Center. Forrester Research, a research and advisory firm, projects that smartphone subscribers will number 80.8% of the U.S. population by 2019.
“The best device to read on is the one you have with you,” said Willem Van Lancker, co-founder and chief product officer of the subscription-book service Oyster. “It requires no planning. My bookshelf at home isn’t any good to me when I’m at the park.”
Another reason people are turning to phones is the size and clarity of new smartphone models, which make reading much easier. The average smartphone screen in 2014 was 5.1 inches—compared with a 3.9-inch average in 2011, according to eMarketer.
Since the release of the bigger, sharper iPhone 6 and 6 Plus last September, Apple has seen an increase in the number of people downloading books onto iPhones through its iBooks app. Some 45% of iBooks purchases are now downloaded onto iPhones, an Apple spokeswoman said. Before that, only 28% were downloaded onto phones, with most of the remainder downloaded onto iPads and a small percentage onto computers.
Amazon has also noted the development. Among all new customers using Kindles or the Kindle app, phone readers are by far the fastest-growing segment, an Amazon spokeswoman said, declining to disclose figures. Among those who use the Kindle app, more people now read books on the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus than on any other Apple device, even the popular iPad Mini, she said.
To engage readers, publishers are now experimenting with ways to make the mobile-reading experience better. They are designing book jackets with smartphone screens in mind. (Handwritten scripts or small fonts may not be legible.) They are customizing their marketing materials—email blasts, Facebook posts and websites—to be read on phones. And some are trying to catch people on the go, offering free access to e-books in airports, hotels and trains.
“How do I serve something up to somebody who perhaps wasn’t thinking about a book two minutes ago?” said Liz Perl, the chief marketing officer at Simon & Schuster, which has teamed up with Foli, a mobile-distribution platform, to offer free e-books at specific GPS coordinates. “The read-anywhere option is amazing. It’s an obligation for us as publishers to find those people.”
Through the Foli mobile app, Simon & Schuster in May offered David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers” free at more than 50 U.S. airports. In June, it served up “Yoga for Life” by Colleen Saidman Yee at the Solstice in Times Square yoga festival in New York. Now the publisher offers free e-books at hotels and airport lounges in New York, California, Missouri, Florida, Texas and Hawaii. Users can read as much of each book as they like free, as long as they stay within the prescribed geographical area.
Earlier this year, Penguin Random House introduced free excerpts of e-books on Amtrak’s Acela Express trains, including, naturally, Paula Hawkins’s “The Girl on the Train.”
Most people who read on their phones toggle back and forth between devices, using whichever is closest at hand when opportunity strikes, according to a survey this year by the book-recommendation site Goodreads. Nearly two-thirds of respondents who read on their phones said they did so because they didn’t have their e-reader or tablet with them.
Amazon, Google, Apple and Barnes & Noble all offer smartphone apps for reading books. They automatically sync all devices linked to the same account, so a reader can open an e-book on her phone and pick up exactly where she left off the night before on her e-reader or tablet. Amazon and Google recently introduced custom e-book fonts, both designed to be more legible on smartphone screens.
Fully 55% of all Oyster’s activity is now happening on phones, and the company in June introduced a new display option called Lumin that reduces the amount of blue light emitted from smartphone and tablet screens to make reading easier on the eyes at night (its users’ peak reading time). “I think people are reading constantly now, and it’s because of phones,” Mr. Van Lancker said.
Publishers are also devoting significant resources to developing apps that complement e-books and offer additional content from authors—from smoothie recipes and diet guidelines to “Curious George” games and daily affirmations inspired by the best-selling middle-grade novel “Wonder.” All are intended to keep mobile users engaged, and coming back for more books.
The literary world is divided over whether a phone can deliver the experience of deep, concentrated reading. Scholars who study the subject note that smartphones are an important part of the effort to improve literacy in developing countries where books and computers are out of reach for many people. Reading on a phone is better than not reading at all, these experts all agree.
But there is debate about whether the phone is appropriate for long-form reading, if other options are available.
With all their ringing, dinging and buzzing, smartphones are designed to alert and distract users, notes Naomi S. Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of “Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.” Even when a phone’s alerts are turned off, your brain is still primed for disruption when you pick it up, she said. That could make a phone worse for reading than an e-reader.
“The phone is antithetical to deep reading,” said Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist at Tufts University who studies the reading brain. For most people, she said, a phone will make concentrated reading more difficult— though not impossible.
Anna Todd, writer of the “After” series on the serial publishing platform Wattpad, argues that phones are encouraging people to read more. Wattpad has 40 million monthly users—almost 90% of whom are on mobile devices. “People should stop worrying about how other people are reading, and be glad that they are,” said Ms. Todd, whose series generated 1.3 billion chapter views and a book deal with Simon & Schuster.
Many readers report being able to concentrate just fine on their phones. (Some turn off their alerts). On Twitter, people have celebrated major feats of reading, accomplished entirely on smartphones, including “Moby-Dick,” “War and Peace,” and “Swann’s Way.”
No one expects phones to replace print books altogether. And even avid phone readers acknowledge the devices have drawbacks. Many report feeling caught off guard when they reach the end of a book. They miss the physical sense of how deep they are into a book—and the feelings of accomplishment and anticipation that come with that. Others note that it is not as easy to share an e-book with friends as a hardcover or paperback. Many still read in print part of the time.
Laura Jefferson, 59, of Concord, N.H., reads on her iPhone for convenience —on the bus to Boston, in the doctor’s waiting room and eating lunch by herself at her favorite cafe in Concord. But when she knows she wants to lend a book to family or friends, she buys it in print.
Lloyd Miller, a musician from Brooklyn who reads on his phone and in print, used his iPhone to dip into Donna Tartt’s tome “The Goldfinch,” and found himself trying to read under his jacket in a Brooklyn movie theater, where he had taken his children to see Disney’s “Frozen.”
Mr. Miller, 41, said he prefers print, but downloads books on his phone for reading on the subway. He used his phone to read Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies,” and parts of Robert Caro’s fourth installment on Lyndon Johnson —which was too heavy to lug around. He also has his phone stocked with Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books and Judy Blume’s “Superfudge” series. Traveling around the city with his son and daughter, ages 7 and 10, the children often clamor for his phone.
He hands it to them, saying, “No games, but you can read a book.”
JENNIFER MALONEY, Wall Street Journal