E-readers: Will They Save the Publishing Industry?

E-readers will save the publishing industry. E-readers will become the mobile equivalent to the eight track tape.

The answer, of course, likely lies somewhere in between these two extremes. But if you’re a newspaper publisher facing a struggling — some would say dying — industry, it’s hard not to get caught up in wishful thinking. And if you’re a gadget fetishist, it’s hard not to work yourself into a lather. At least two major e-readers launched in the past month (one just last week), and secret plans for e-readers from Microsoft and Apple have been leaking on blogs left and right. By early next year, we may be looking at a dozen entries in a category that was once a geeky cul de sac.

So are we all going to ditch paper and read everything on some sort of digital device? Probably not in 2010, but there’s reason to believe that the audience for e-readers will grow significantly in coming years. Predicting an iPhone — like breakout is perilous (and probably as likely as predicting the iPhone’s huge success five years ago). Thus, few inside the publishing world realistically see e-readers as a lifeline; most view it as a promising alternative distribution channel — and one for which they might actually get paid. (See also: “Digital Hot List 2009.”)

Most also recognize that e-readers present numerous challenges. “There is an optimism among publishers,” says Roger Fidler, program director for digital publishing at Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. “But nobody is seriously saying this is going to save the industry.”

Fidler is leading a digital publishing alliance and has conducted research on e-reader usage. He says most publishers are looking at e-readers as simply a fourth platform for delivering content — besides print, Web and mobile.
 
Much of the general optimism about these devices comes from the flood of new entries hitting the market. Only last week, Barnes & Noble rolled out its “nook,” while the week prior paper upstart Plastic Logic announced the “Que.” Those join the Sony Reader and Amazon’s Kindle, which have enjoyed modest success. Stirring up even more buzz are heated rumors that tech giants Apple and Microsoft are set to produce competing reader/mini computing devices that will take the category to another level.

“Apple could be a real game changer if they come out with a really cool device,” says Fidler.

And, perhaps surprisingly, bloggers are gaga over Microsoft’s rumored Courier. Gizmodo recently called it “astonishing.”

While new tech lust may drive some early adopters, Fidler believes that two more powerful, institutional forces could spur adoption in coming years: colleges and business. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see schools require e-readers at some point,” he says-particularly if they can replace heavy textbooks. That would help draw in younger demographics to e-readers; to date, the average Kindle user is around 40.

Plus, Fidler predicts that cost and green-conscious companies may encourage employees to start using e-readers as document readers. That’s one of Plastic Logic’s targets with the Que (shown right).

Yet even if e-readers take off, publishers aren’t counting on them as absolute saviours. “It’s important to remember that print is still the lion’s share of our revenue,” says Raymond Pearce, vp, circulation at The New York Times. “I don’t see that changing in the near term. I get very skeptical about people saying that these readers will save the newspaper business. I don’t view it as a print replacement.”

Indeed, it’s hard to see e-readers as a substitute for the printed page, since most of the current products in the marketplace have not been built with newspapers and magazines necessarily in mind. Both the Kindle and Sony Reader are first and foremost about reading books. Of course, that could change, if companies like Apple consult with publishers as they design new generations.