Who’s the digital reader?

Some weeks ago we published the results of a large-scale survey that measured the digital reading and buying habits in Flanders, Belgium. This research was conducted by Prof. Dr. Valérie-Anne Bleyen (Valerie-Anne.Bleyen@vub.ac.be) and Olivier Braet (Olivier.Braet@vub.ac.be) of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (research group iMinds-SMIT, Digital Society Department). The project is coordinated by the industry confederation Boek.be, and supported by Instituut voor Wetenschap en Technologie (IWT) within a large-scale project called Publisher of the Future [1].

Questionnaires were sent to 5,000 people in May and June 2014, of which 1,094 were completed. Thanks to the strong response, this survey provides a well-founded picture of the market potential of the digital book in 2014. While there exists a lot of research on the characteristics of book readers in general, this research is as far as we know one of the first that focussed on the willingness to pay for digital books.

Profile of the digital reader

 Digital reading on the rise, but digital readers read less

A respectable 35% of the respondents already read digital books, while 63% only read paper books. Note that of those that reported already reading digitally, only 3% read exclusively digitally, while the majority (32%) combines paper and digital.

Paper books are read very regularly: 38% reads daily and 24% weekly. Those that read digital books on a tablet 7% do this daily and 12% weekly. Digital reading on an e-reader is done more frequently at 22% daily and 13% weekly, showing how a dedicated device coincides with a stronger reading habit. The population distribution of the reading frequency is curvilinear: the largest groups are those that read many books (29% of print readers read more than 20 books/year) and those that read little (1 to 5 books/year for 23%). More women are voracious readers than men: 33% read more than 20 paper books/year versus 25% for men.

One could ask whether the >20 books segment is correct, but from sales statistics we know that about 60% of the Flemish population (sometimes) reads books (2.34 million people), and that they purchase an average of 2.65 books per year (=15 million books yearly sold in Flanders). The chance that there is in the +20 segment a significantly large group of people that purchases for example 30 or 40 books/year is extremely slim.

Digital readers tend to read on average less frequently. Among digital readers the largest segment reads 5 or less digital books per year (36%), followed by 6 to 10 digital books per year (22%). 13% of the digital readers consume more than 20 books per year. Within the group that only reads digitally, men are still strongly overrepresented with 73%. The table below splits the amounts of books read by age. The numbers are unique respondents, not percentages. Next week we will provide the same table for the amount of books purchased. It is striking that in terms of age the distribution of both paper and digital book readers shows no significant deviation from the general population distribution. There are in other words no age categories that read more or less digital or paper books.

Number of books read per year

15-29 age

30-39 age

40-49 age

50+ age

Row totals

Less than 1 digital book






Less than 1 paper book






1 to 5 digital books






1 to 5 paper books






6 to 10 digital books






6 to 10 paper books






11 to 15 digital books






11 to 15 paper books






16 to 20 digital books






16 to 20 paper books






Over 20 digital books






Over 20 paper books






I don’t know (digital)






I don’t know (paper)






Total digital






Total paper






Ownership and use of electronic devices: a saturating market

87% owns a laptop, making it the most popular device among the Flemish population. Since reading a digital book feels more natural on a smaller device, the ownership of tablets and e-readers is here more relevant. 42% of our sample only owns a tablet, 7% only an e-reader, while 13% owns both devices. Tablets are used more intensively: 30% uses these 1 to 3 hours or more on a weekday, and 43% during the weekend. These tablets appear to be especially popular to read digital newspapers and magazines (29%), to play games with/do TV voting (20%) and to follow the news (19%). It is striking how the market growth of tablets and e-readers is beginning to stall. When asked whether one plans to buy a(nother) tablet or e-reader, only 8% responds in the positive, 23% doubts, and 68% resolutely says no. Large majorities (70% tablet and 66% e-reader) have owned these devices for longer than one year.

Adoption segments: from innovators to laggards

6% considers buying the digital version of a given book ‘certainly’ if the digital version were available, and 13% ‘probably’. But the majority says it would ‘probably not’ or ‘certainly not’ consider this (resp. 36% and 29%). These numbers must be nuanced in that an important part of the Dutch language book supply is not (yet) available digitally, so most of the population is not yet acquainted with this format.




Figure 1: If you are planning to buy a book and know there is a digital version available of that book, to what degree would you choose for the digital version of this book?

These segments show who are the ‘innovators’, ‘early adopters’, ‘early majority’, ‘late majority’ and ‘laggards’. This segmentation also offers a look into the future, assuming these segments might sequentially come ‘online’. The cumulative line shows the rough adoption curve for the entire population, with the provision that these numbers only show how many people would be prepared to buy digital books, not what their paper-digital mix would be and how many digital books they would buy. We will return to this issue in the third article of this series, when we report on the willingness-to-pay for digital books, and in the fourth article on business model strategies. It is not sufficient to know how much the average reader is prepared to pay for a digital book, but also whether there are variations in willingness-to-pay between those that already buy digital books, and those that will take this step in years to come.


The lending and buying of digital books

Purchase and lending frequencies

As was the case with the reading frequencies, those that purchase very little and those that buy a lot of paper books dominate. The size of the population shrinks as one buys more books (36% buys 1-5 paper books per year; 22% 6-10; 12% 11-15; 7% 16-20), and starting from >20 books per year this trend goes up again (16%).

Among digital book buyers this upward trend is absent. The digital book readers count relatively fewer high frequency buyers than the paper readers. Of the 276 respondents that already purchase digital books, 35% purchase 1 to 5 digital books per year, and 23% 6 to 10 per year. Over 10 books/year (including the +20 category) are purchased by only 26% of the buyers.

Analogous to the reading frequencies of last week, we provide hereunder the purchase frequencies of paper and digital books, by age.


 A curvilinear overrepresentation of those that buy few and those that buy many books can also be observed when looking at the amount of books lent from a public library. Considering the very recent introduction of a digital loan procedure in Flanders, our research only looked at the loans of paper books, so this result mainly shows how paper loans and paper purchases reflect one another. The most important difference with the purchased amounts is that people lend significantly more books: 21% loan more than 20 books per year, while 16% purchase more than 20 books per year. While there are no significant differences between men or women or between age categories in the purchased amounts, women do significantly lend more books per year: 35% of women lend over 16 books per year versus 21% of men.

Reasons for purchasing books: emergence of the free download

People buy paper books most often for themselves (91%) or as a gift (89%), but with digital books the free option suddenly becomes the most dominant one. The majority obtains digital books via a free legal download (36%) and 12% admits already having downloaded pirated versions. The number of people saying they purchase digital books is already a respectable 24%, although not all titles are (immediately) available in digital form.

Lending a book from friends or family, or from a library, are very popular options for paper books (respectively 70% and 66%), but these are (still) completely absent for digital books (barely 4%). Very little people exchange digital books among friends, but this is also relatively rare for other digital media, seeing that people tend to obtain pirated media from other anonymous users. Finally, there is a negligible popularity of lending digital books, but this is most probably caused by the very recent roll-out of the local “Bib e-boeken” app by the public libraries in Flanders. Moreover, most loans in this app are paying (and are therefor a form of sale), and the readers are forced to visit their local public libraries in person to activate their user account, creating an additional adoption hurdle.

Where are books bought?

Paper books are bought most frequently in a physical store (78.1% of the buyers). One out of five people order paper books online for home delivery (19.2%). Picking up paper books in a bookstore or at a drop-off point are done rarely (merely 1.1%). When purchasing digital books the picture shifts dramatically towards a clear dominance of foreign distributors. Bol.com is with its 51.6% the most popular site for buying digital books, followed by Amazon.com (35.4%) and Apple’s iBookstore (23.8%). 1 out of 5 respondents buy digital books via a dedicated publisher website, and 10% provided names of other channels such as Standaard Boekhandel, Audible, Acco, ebook.nl, or Google Books, among many others.

No cannibalisation, but substitution of the paper book

In the first article of this series we reported that 35% (or 389 people) of the total survey already read digital books, often in combination with paper books. In what degree does the adoption of digital books lead to a change in this subgroup’s general purchase behaviour?


 About 4 out of 10 digital readers claim their purchase behaviour did not change since going digital. 38.5% say they buy less paper books since they read digitally, but do buy more digital books, which points towards a substitution effect from the paper by the digital book. 5.2% of the digital readers have stopped buying paper books since they started reading digital, which shows there is no cannibalisation either. There is neither any complementarity effect: only 5.4% of the digital readers say they buy more paper and digital books since the shift to digital.

Willingness to pay for books

Willingness to pay: 50% of the paper price

We estimated the willingness to pay for two kinds of digital books: simple pdf-versions of a paper book, and a digitally enriched version. We presented each respondent with the fictional example of a paper book that costs €19 in a bookstore, and asked which prices would in their minds be way too expensive, expensive, cheap and too cheap. From this the unique average willingness to pay was calculated for each individual, and the population averages were inferred from these individual outcomes.

The willingness to pay for a digital book which in its paper form would cost €19 in a bookstore, has an optimal price range between €7 and €10 for a simple digital copy, and an optimal price range between €9 and €11.5 for a digital version enriched with all imaginable audio, video or hyperlinks. The most striking aspect of these results is not so much the lower price for the digital version of a formerly physical cultural product—a phenomenon that persists among all digitized cultural goods—but that the price ranges are so narrow. With other digital media such as games or movies one observes much wider margins between the lowest and highest acceptable price. In the case of books the readers appear to give the publishers and booksellers very little room to manoeuvre.

The optimal price setting, where the penetration and turnover would be highest, is €9 for a simple PDF version. Remarkably enough the optimal price for an enriched digital book is only 50 cents higher (€9.5). Considering the high production and maintenance costs (due to accelerated obsolescence of digital formats) for enriched e-books, the added potential profitability of enriched vis-à-vis simple scans appears to be low. It could be that readers consider certain functionalities as so inherent to digital books that the publishers will have no choice but to invest in certain forms of enrichment. Certain sales volume thresholds will have to be reached to offer a positive business case for these more expensive formats.

Which functionalities are appreciated?

The search function is seen as very important in digital books (73%), followed by audio (28%) and video (21%). Games and exercises are features that are considered as not as important by the respondents. The most important characteristics of a digital book were: readability (84%), followed by storage space (77%), the e-ink technology (76%) and the cost (76%). Note that although the cost is quoted as important, this does not necessarily mean this is the defining reason why some have never bought digital books. The specific adoption obstacles are tackled in the next section. The integration of social media are explicitly quoted by 70% of the respondents as being (very) unimportant, and only 36% finds the possibility to annotate, share and archive (very) important.

Specific adoption obstacles for the purchase of digital books

When asking those who have never bought digital books to give a maximum of three reasons what causes this, the largest groups responded that they preferred reading on paper (81%), preferred a visit to a physical bookstore (43%), or that they like collecting paper books (41%). 36.7% said they do not read digitally because they don’t own a tablet or an e-reader. Only 6.5% quoted the cost of digital books as an important adoption obstacle.

The largest obstacles for digital adoption turn out to be the force of the paper habit, and non-ownership of a good e-reader. Considering the constantly improving reading devices—with flexible screens that read comfortably outside in the sun, and a longer battery life—one can assume that at least those that indicated not reading digitally because of not owning an e-reader could start making the shift to digital readership. But not everyone from the group that has a strong paper reading habit could turn out to be immune to the advent of digital alternatives either.

Willingness to pay per adoption segment

In order to ascertain the willingness to pay per adoption segment, we confronted each respondent with a unique rebate price (half of the average willingness to pay of each unique person), and a marked-up price (20% above their average price). For both the rebate and the marked-up price we asked whether they would certainly, probably, maybe, probably not or certainly not buy the digital book for this price. The most striking result was that the acceptable price for non-enriched digital books went down with later adoption segments, while it did not go down for enriched digital books, so later adoption segments appear to have a higher willingness to pay than the earlier adopters.



Our research showed that people were still willing to pay €4.9 for the paper version of a book they already bought digitally, and €2.4 for the digital download of a paper book they already own. These average prices become even more interesting if one looks at the entire response series. These show that, firstly, respectively 25% and 41% are not willing to pay anything for a paper or, respectively, a digital sale-after-sale. Secondly, it shows the distribution of responses has offshoots towards the €10-region for a digital purchase, and even €15 for obtaining a paper book of a previously bought digital book.


Figure 5: Extra price for paper book if one already owns the digital version


Figure 6: Extra price for digital book if one already owns the paper book

A positive point is that a significant group of readers is still willing to pay an additional sum for a digital download—a rare luxury compared to other cultural industries such as the movie or music industry.

Business model for digital book selling

Payment formula: pay-per-item dominates

When asked in what form one would like to pay for a digital book, pay-per-download turns out to be the most popular option (35%). 15% of the respondents would be interested in lending/hiring digital books, and a subscription formula would be preferred by 12% of the sample. Free books with advertisements were only appreciated by 10% of the respondents.

The unattainability of a pure advertisement-based business model for e-books is confirmed by economic theory as well as other empirical research. Since there is too little money in the advertising market for e-books in order to create a viable advertisement-based platform, this option is unbalanced on purely theoretical grounds. Other empirical research also shows the strong resistance of readers against advertisements within e-books. An e-book platform could be supported in an un-irritating fashion by a few institutional advertisers or sponsors, but this would not create the necessary large volumes of advertising incomes, since these platforms would never be visited as frequently than for example news websites, which are usually visited daily.

Only if an innovative company with an advertisement-based platform and free e-books would enter the market, book publishers should consider reacting against this market entrant with the same business model, only to push this entrant out of the market with slightly lower advertisement tariffs. This model assumes that the publishers retain the rights to their own book titles, since it is especially the higher (perceived) quality of the incumbent’s book portfolio that would allow them to attract the most lucrative advertisers away from the newcomer.

The digital challenges for the book industry

Last week we noted how our respondents were still willing to pay on average €5 for a paper copy if they already bought the digital book, and €2.5 for a digital version if they already owned the paper version. But these were the averages, and we also showed how there were offshoots towards €15 for paper sale-after-sale and up to €10 for digital sale-after-sale. This shows there is room for experimentation with windowing, where the paper or digital counterpart of a book is introduced at a slightly higher price in the market in a first stage, and only later the bundled price is lowered to the bottom price of €5 for the paper and €2.5 for the digital version.

Digitalisation will nevertheless have a negative impact on the turnover and profit margins of book publishers. Based on the results of the articles of the past three weeks, we can summarize that as a rule of thumb a publisher is able to ask half of its paper price for a digital book to about half of the market population (which is already willing to buy digitally), and which unfortunately buys books less frequently than the original paper book readers. But one should be careful in drawing definitive conclusions from this concerning the final market opportunity of digital books. 37% of the respondents indicated not wanting to read digital books because they do not own a table or e-reader. Once this group would own these devices, the total market could quickly grow.

Book publishers can also be grateful that the pay-per-item model is the most preferred model for most readers. Firstly this is a luxury that few other cultural industries can enjoy. Secondly authors also prefer this model. It involves a less complicated negotiation over revenue sharing than there would be in a loan or advertisement based sales model.

Technical consequences of the sales model

Each decision about the commercial side of a business model has immediate consequences for the technological functionalities. It would be advised to offer the readers a sense of ownership of their digital book files in exchange for the pay-per-item model, particularly since books score high on collectability. 41% indicated that their love for a paper book collection prevented them from buying digital books.

Given the justified suspicion of possible piracy, a combination of social DRM and the occasional control of the user license—as applied in the games industry by for example the Steam platform—could allow for offline ownership. This would simultaneously respect copyright holders and the wishes of the reader. Core is to leave the platform choice in the hands of the publishers, and not in the hands of external actors whose long-term strategy conflicts with the long-term goals of publishers and bookstores. It would be good to keep in mind that the popularity of the pay-per-item model also helps Apple or Amazon to remain dominant. Even the CEO of Apple recently said that not Google but Amazon is seen as their biggest threat, since they are better positioned to become inevitable in the field of audio-visual distribution.

Since 43% said their love for visiting a bookstore similarly lowered their appetite for digital book buying, this can create an opportunity for bookstores. Many people order paper books online if they are not available in a bookstore. Instead of the bookseller telling customers: “We can order the book for you”, they might reply with: “We can immediately order it and arrange quick house delivery, or offer immediate digital delivery”, which would satisfy the impulse book buying behaviour of many readers.

Government role

Besides the several cultural and educational instruments that our local Flemish government has to stimulate the reading habit, Belgian federal policy can still do an effort to lower the VAT on digital books, and introduce adapted fiscal rules for authors or translators. Excluding a part of the author income from income taxes appears to be a logical instrument (although the implementation of such a measure is always more complex than it appears). Considering the low sales volumes of most books, the chance that the government would lose out on many income taxes seems slim, while publishing books adds to the charisma of a linguistic community.


[1] Publisher of the Future (Uitgeverij van de Toekomst) is a multidisciplinary research project financed by IWT (Instituut voor Wetenschap en Technologie). The research institutes iMinds-SMIT (VUB) and iMinds-MMLab (UGent) investigate the industrial and technological challenges of the digital book, together with the confederation of the Flemish book profession Boek.be, and all Flemish publishers. Project lead at the Knowledge Center of Boek.be: Annemie Speybrouck annemie.speybrouck@boek.be

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