Paper, ereader, tablets, phones: Reading goes eclectic

 

The much-anticipated demise of the paper books hasn’t happened. And sales of e-readers have stalled as people read on other mobile devices, too

 
 
 
 
Peter Hudson, co-founder of Shelfie, demonstrates the app that allows a person to transform the books on their bookshelves into ebooks.
 

Peter Hudson, co-founder of Shelfie, demonstrates the app that allows a person to transform the books on their bookshelves into ebooks.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, Vancouver Sun

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It wasn’t so long ago that ebook readers topped holiday shopping lists.

Now they have dropped down the list, some say even disappeared completely.

Is the ereader dead?

While there’s no doubt sales are down from their high of 2012, news of their death has been somewhat exaggerated.

It’s not like people are all of a sudden ditching ebooks to return to the print paperback on the bedside table. Or stopping at the airport bookstore to lug 788 pages of the Goldfinch onto their flight, instead of downloading a digital version that won’t overload their carry-on weight limit.

Instead, perhaps it’s a maturing — if you can call a six-year-old mature — of a category that has become simply another way people read books.

While some predicted the demise of print books when e-reading arrived on the scene, that too hasn’t happened.

Instead, we are left with a sort of hybrid model, where we read on dedicated e-readers, we read on our multi-purpose tablets and smartphones, and we still pick up print copies of books. And while we can display our favourite print books on our home bookshelves, online, we can share, compare and comment on our favourite selections with what amounts to a virtual book club of bibliophiles.

A Vancouver start-up has positioned itself at this pivotal point in the evolution of books. Shelfie has a foot in both camps — with an app that serves both the ereading market and the print.

Shelfie lets book buyers and owners who already have a book easily convert it to a digital form that can reside in the cloud, on their ereader, tablet or other reading device.

So let’s say you’re rushing for a flight, you’ve always wanted to read a book that’s on your bookshelf but there’s no way you can cram it in your suitcase.

If it’s a book in Shelfie’s catalogue, with a few clicks of the Shelfie app, you may be able to get an ebook version at a fairly nominal price.

Hudson said about 30 per cent of the publishers signed onto Shelfie offer ebooks for free. If you were to take a Shelfie of 100 books on your bookshelves, he said, on average, 10 to 25 per cent would likely be publishers that have signed on with the company. About a third of the titles are free; of the rest most are priced at $1.99 to $2.99 for the digital version with a few higher, depending on the publisher. Shelfie’s catalogue includes more than 200,000 titles, with 1,100 publishers including indie publishers and such majors as HarperCollins and Macmillan. And that number is growing.

“If you tried out Shelfie a year ago, your experience would be vastly different from trying it out today,” said Shelfie co-founder and CEO Peter Hudson. “Over the past year, we’ve had over 500-per-cent increase in the number of titles that we have listed. “In the last year, we have been able to sign two of the big five publishers — five big publishers that represent about 50 per cent of all books, by revenue.”

While signing on the majors is key, the publishers haven’t turned over all their catalogues but portions of them.

To get the ebook version of a book you own, you take a ‘shelfie,’ a photo of your bookshelf and the app will let you know which titles are available in a digital form.

What’s to stop you from heading over to Chapters and snapping a Shelfie of bestsellers to claim at a greatly reduced Shelfie price? That’s exactly what book publishers asked Shelfie and the company has an answer: In the second step, to prove your ownership of the book, you have to take a photograph of the copyright page with either your name written on it or a bookplate, a printed label that’s on the page indicating your ownership.

“Now you can take a picture of your bookshelf and we can recognize the book’s spine — we can do about 45 million different book spines. So even if you’re not interested in a bundled ebook, what you can do is just take a picture of your bookshelf and we’ll just inventory your entire collection for you.

“Based on that we can actually give you book recommendations.”

So far the company has received hundreds of thousands of ‘shelfies.”

“So we have this really cool idea of how people actually arrange the books on their shelves. So for example beside Freakonomics, you have Rich Dad, Poor Dad.

“It’s not something that Amazon’s algorithm would ever turn out.”

Hudson said Shelfie’s business model works because people still want to buy print books, yet they like the convenience of digital versions.

When it comes to digital, it no longer matters whether you have a dedicated ereader or not. Many readers, especially millennials and younger will use multi-purpose devices for reading or, in another growing trend, for listening to audiobooks.

According to the Association of American Publishers most recent StatShot Annual, audiobooks topped ebooks in “subscription sales” at 3.88 million, compared to 2.47 million ebooks, although at less than one per cent of sales, subscriptions (all you can read from a list of books for a flat monthly fee) are only a tiny fraction of overall ebook sales. Overall though, downloaded audio grew by about 27 per cent, both in numbers and revenue,

Outside of subscription sales, ebook revenue grew close to four per cent.

According to the non-profit BookNet Canada, in 2015, 1.4 per cent of people are getting books through a subscription service. And people who read ebooks read on average 3.5 books a month, an average of one book more per month than their non-e-reading counterparts.

When e-readers were first introduced, they were totally dedicated to the single task at hand — delivering words in a digital format. But then the line began to blur. E-readers started to appear that doubled as tablets, with colour screens, with full browser Internet access including videos and games, apps and other features that were once the sole domain of tablets.

In turn, tablet screens improved so readers, especially those of the occasional variety, didn’t feel the need to have a single-purpose device to read on.

However, if you read a lot, e-readers are still a favourite. The e-ink screen is easier on your eyes and more like reading a print book than reading on a tablet. And prices have dropped so low that you can buy a good ereader for less than $100, a high end one for under $200 and still leave enough in the gadget budget to also get a tablet — although perhaps one of the lower-priced ones. Ereader battery life is much longer than on multi-purpose tablets and the smallest tablet is still about 50 per cent heavier than Kindle’s Paperwhite.

Digital books have gone through a similar experience to music and movies, but unlike CDs and DVDs, print books aren’t disappearing. In music, at least for the mainstream, CDs and records have been replaced their digital equivalents, with music sales now turning to music subscriptions. Book stores are still selling print versions and sales statistics suggest people are settling into a hybrid reading lifestyle — reading both ebooks and print.

Video rental shops disappeared with the exception of some specialty versions when digital movies arrived on the scene. Book stores remain and while some have gone out of business, the trend line is no longer straight down.

In fact, earlier this year Waterstones, the largest book retailer in the United Kingdom, took over display space that had been used for Kindle sales and reverted it to paperbacks and hardbacks because the print books were better sellers.

There are several ways to access ebooks for free, including your public library.

But while there are some subscription services, including San-Francisco-based Scribd, which offers its $8.99 all-you-can-read model in Canada, publishers aren’t racing to follow the recording industry into the flat fee subscription offerings.

Scribd, which lets readers access books from a catalogue through an app on their smartphones, tablets or computers, has taken the Netflix model and applied it to books. Whether or not it’s sustainable is still to be seen.

Oyster, another book subscription service in the Netflix subscription model, announced the closure, in September, on the service it launched in 2012.

Shelfie’s Hudson, who is staking his business model on the survival of print books, doesn’t think he has to worry about print disappearing.

Publishers and writers simply can’t make enough money by selling their books in an all-you-can-read model. In fact, the subscription model is counting on you not to be a voracious reader. Typically the company only has to pay once a reader has completed a specific portion of the book — although exactly how far into the book you have to be to count as reading the book isn’t a public number.

If everyone were to sign on at $8.99 a month and read 10 titles a month from start to finish, the subscription model wouldn’t sustainable for long.

Instead, to be sustainable it has to work like gym memberships, says Hudson. In January, gyms will rack up big dollars in sign ups, but as New Year’s resolutions are forgotten, they know all those people won’t be turning up at the gym every day.

gshaw@vancouversun.comvancouversun.com/digitallife

 
 
 
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Peter Hudson, co-founder of Shelfie, demonstrates the app that allows a person to transform the books on their bookshelves into ebooks.
 

Peter Hudson, co-founder of Shelfie, demonstrates the app that allows a person to transform the books on their bookshelves into ebooks.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, Vancouver Sun

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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