Catherine, Eun Kyung, Song


Growing up, my brother and I always appreciated our mother reading countless storybooks from “Anne of Green Gables” to “The Life of Thomas Edison” at bedtime. There were hundreds of books in our living room, which made packing difficult for our family when we had to move to another place. When I visited my uncle’s place last year, he was using an ipad to read to my five year-old cousin. The sight of my uncle reading brought back happy memories of my childhood. At the same time, this made me reflect on how much our society has changed in the last several decades.

In the last twenty years, people’s reading behaviors have changed along with a rapid development of technologies. In addition to the traditional paperback and hardcover versions, digital electronic books have come onto the scene and paper books are in danger of being completely displaced from the market. In turn, digital electronic books are not only transforming the reading environment, but also the business model of vendors in the bookselling field. However, it may be premature to assume that the future will see an end to the paper-based book (Nunberg, 1996).

Devices and Reading Experiences

Recently, Google developed the Google Glass and Apple launched iwatch last week. Some people predict that these wearable devices will be the preferred way for people to engage in reading books. However, I would argue that neither of these would replace books. In the next ten years, people will mainly listen to recordings of books instead of reading the books themselves. Hence, we will have gone from oral storytelling to aural storytelling.

According to a new survey by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group (Sporkin, 2014), publishers made more money from digital book sales than sales from brick-and-mortar bookstores for the first time in 2013. In fact, publishers had predicted this tipping point for a long time. However, this shift in sales focus is not all bad news since vendors were able to balance the losses from paper book sales with increased profits from digital book sales. Hence, from a sales perspective, it can be said that e-books are just as profitable for publishers (Roose, 2014). Still, there is some bad news in that the e-book market is changing. Increasingly, when people read e-books, they are doing it on existing tablets and smartphones instead of using standalone e-reading devices (Abrams, 2014)

People now realize that once they buy a book, they own their personal edition of that story and, with the exception of breaking copyright laws; they are free to do whatever they want with their book copy. There are no limitations to what they can do with it or to it. There are no licenses (though early print publishers futilely tried to force this issue with some of their titles), and no terms and conditions that must be followed on how we use the book. In this way, keeping a book does not require any legal agreement (Losowsky, 2013).

As readers use multiple devices interactively, software matters. More specifically, if a user has a PDF file of a book on her laptop and she wishes to read a copy of the book file on her iphone, the transfer of the book file to the iphone may not go smoothly due to an incompatibility between the laptop software and the relevant iphone application. However, this limitation should not be a cause for worry because companies developing communications and computer technology will certainly take care of these glitches in the future.

Among other electronic devices, the smart future reading device might be “paper”. For instance, when a person is reading a long chapter in a book, it may be much easier for him to refer back to the earlier pages of the chapter if he physically has all the paper sheets of the chapter in front of him. Conversely, if one wants to do the same thing with an electronic version of the chapter, it would certainly be extremely awkward and difficult to go back to an earlier page of the chapter to review or refresh one’s memory. Furthermore, Anne Mangen, a literacy professor at the University of Stavenger in Norway, argues, “perhaps the tactility and physical permanence of paper yields a different cognitive and emotional experience.” She asserts that this is especially true for “reading that can’t be done in snippets, scanning here and there, but requires sustained attention.” Mangen analyzed how people read on different media and found that people tended to read slowly and somewhat inaccurately on early screens. Although the technology has improved with the introduction of “e-paper” to the point where reading speed and accuracy are no longer issues, the more critical aspects of memory and comprehension have not been studied extensively (Mangen, 2013).

Another limitation is the users’ emotional relationship with digital technology. In particular, in many postsecondary institutions, students are able to access journal articles and books electronically through the schools’ libraries. While this service provides much convenience for students, a limitation is that when students download some reading materials onto their computers, the files do not have numbered pages and sometimes readers are not able to see multiple pages of the resource simultaneously. In other cases, users are unable to decipher the length of the literary source when they start reading it. This causes the reader much mental pain and anguish, as he has no idea about the length of the source and the time it will take him to complete his reading (Oblinger, 2012)

Furthermore, other research suggests possible differences in readers’ mental engagement with paper based and e based reading materials. Mayers (2001) found that students more fully remembered what they had read on paper. Those results were echoed by an experiment that looked specifically at e-books, and another by psychologist Erik Wästlund (2007) at Sweden’s Karlstad University, who found that students learned better when reading from paper.

Business Model

As readers’ behaviors change, publishers need to respond to the shift by formulating and implementing new business models. Today, fewer people use e-book devices to read literary sources and many will use their existing devices to fulfill their reading pleasures! Essentially, readers will use their smartphones or tablets to read books because readers prefer carrying fewer devices if they can. However, a major downside of using those devices is they are prone to push notifications, which can be distracting. As a result, the software one uses matters.

Next, Ruppel (2010) argues the contextual upsell will be a business model to watch that allows e-book publishers to interact with their customers in new ways. Imagine the scenario where customers are trying to learn statistics and they get stuck on a particular formula. They ask friends, but no one can explain it well. They then click a help button that guides them to the publisher site where they can download relevant tutorials about specific formulas for $2.99. They download the one they need and get a new learning tool that helps them progress and move forward in their class. Then, taking into account the hundreds of thousands of students who share similar learning gaps and who will purchase through the book (“in-book app purchase”), one sees that it eventually becomes a very lucrative marketing opportunity.

In addition, publishers will become more important. In spite of the hype around self-publishing via the web, publishers will play a greater role in an e-book business. Since commodity content is available free everywhere, top quality vetted and edited content – which takes meticulous work from expert staff, will be at a premium (Ruppel, 2010). For example, at McGraw-Hill, production of the average technical reference book engages teams of editors, copy editors, proofreaders and designers. In the digital world, the role of publishers will expand as new technologies provide an even greater user learning experience.

Furthermore, with skyrocketing amounts of content being served on the web, customers will seek and pay expert content providers that efficiently amass and contextualize information for them, providing highly accurate and specific search options. Indeed, publishers with expertise and resources in these and other emerging areas will be the ones that write the new rules of e-book publishing.

Eventually, many publishers will become service organizations. They will offer integrated services from content to interactive reader tools like one-on-one online chatting that is directly linked to authors, and extending to fulfill the needs of the readers.

As users are exposed to increasingly sophisticated and interactive online content, publishers should be able to provide more added values. This means the revenue it produces grows, while the online business becomes more exclusive and profitable (see Figure 1). This involves moving from static/dynamic content and smart tools to integrated workflow solutions. Static content is the simplest executable material that consists of ‘traditional’ online reference materials like encyclopedia entries on various broad subjects, where the Internet functions as a ‘super library’. Dynamic, multimedia online content is usually hyperlinked, navigable and ‘smart’, requiring live feeds and constant updating. Smart tools can include compliance and workflow tools, with integrated reference content. The richest and most executable content provides the greatest value for readers and consists of integrated workflow solutions. For instance, business books are equipped with software and content that is fully integrated, providing seamless workflow and business solutions (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2009).

<Figure 1: The added value of increasingly rich online content>

In addition, educational institutions frequently require the creation of the teaching resources they use. They also require continuous support from providers to ensure that the learning process stays creative. In this regard, gamification, which involves adding elements from games to help students learn core concepts in academic subjects ranging from history to mathematics, will be an important factor in product development for educational publishers in the future (Schilling, 2013).

Next, the publishers’ changing roles from content to service providers must enhance their organizational cooperation and improve synergy. In order for their roles to become a reality, communication amongst people in various departments will be important. This includes bridging the gap between sales, marketing, content providers, and the editing departments in an iterative process to have a “cook to order” production. In this way, the risk of creating titles that do not sell well is avoided. Still, the entire process demands an agile publication process and a visionary IT infrastructure that creates an overview of the process and a strong connection between customer needs and the publishing process (Schilling, 2013).

Role of Publishers

As the market progresses from the traditional print model with an integrated value chain to the new online model, the value chain becomes disjointed and the value of pure reference content is weakened (see Figure 2). Historically, the print model epitomized a domain where important segments of the value chain were ‘owned’ by publishers of paper-based products. Their established brands not only provided competitive advantage, but also brand value derived from quality content and packaging. Since the value chain of the online model is discombobulated, partnerships and alliances between publishers and technology service providers are important to reach the market successfully. As the information provided has become increasingly rich and executable, pure content and packaging is losing its value. Consequently, navigation, analysis and execution have become the highest value-added areas that have emerged as branded segments.

<Figure 2: The reduced value of pure reference content in the online value chain>

The future survival or demise of the book will be an issue of communication between readers and the medium. Inevitably, more and more electronic devices will be released over time. However, electronic devices will be unable to completely replace paper books until technology is further developed to mitigate the limiting factors of eyestrain and portability. As technologies change the entire publishing industry, readers’ experiences will be greatly affected. If past experience with technology development and application is any indication, the trajectory looks to be moving in the positive direction. More specifically, technology should move forward to make it easier and more convenient for people to read digital books. Furthermore, along with this transformation, publishers’ roles as service providers will become more important as consumers become more demanding of their digital reading experiences. Consequently, publishers will have to become more creative when it comes to producing and marketing and they will need to provide diverse resources online and offline to attract readers.


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