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Tablets and E-readers: The Next Wave?

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 at 5:21 PM

Examining the results of the Harrison Group/Zinio digital reading survey.

By Meredith L. Dias

Editors everywhere are responding to the explosion of tablet computing and e-reading devices. Tablets and e-readers are poised to make an even bigger splash in the coming year, reveals a September 2010 Harrison Group and Zinio survey. "'We are forecasting that tablet-based devices and e-readers together will exceed 20 million units in the next year," says Harrison Group's vice chairman, Dr. Jim Taylor, "and they may well be the Christmas gift of 2010."

The survey results, however, tell a more modest story about digital readership that editors ought to consider before making any sudden moves. According to Harrison Group/Zinio, 28 percent of respondents read digital magazines or books. While this constitutes nearly one-third of the survey respondents, it means that over two-thirds of the 1,816 18- to 64-year-olds surveyed are not yet digital readers. The percentage of digital readers is likely to explode in coming years, but the survey results tell us that, for the time being, there is still a significant contingent of non-digital readers.

What's more, Harrison Group/Zinio quantifies the aforementioned 28 percent of respondents as "up from less than 10 percent in 2008." This is a somewhat misleading statistic. It is like saying that 2010 car model sales have boomed because more people are driving 2010 cars than they were two years ago. The digital technology has changed significantly since 2008. Back then, there were fewer e-reading devices on the market and tablet computing was still in its infancy.

In the press release, Dr. Taylor claims, "'[Tablets and e-readers] are associated with substantial increases in adult reading.'" However, the survey results simply tell us that 58 percent of tablet and e-reader owners "are reading 'more digital content than [they] ever thought [they] would,'" Does this mean that e-readers and tablets are creating more avid readers, or could it mean that avid readers are more likely to purchase the devices?

The press release also reveals that "33 percent [of tablet and e-reader users] acknowledge that they are spending more money on buying things to read." True, these device users are spending more on reading material, but the survey doesn't tell us whether they are actually buying digital, print, or both -- or even whether or not they actually read what they're buying.

In an October 6, 2010, article on Folio's website, Jason Fell leads with another statistic from the survey: "Consumers who own tablets and other e-readers generally spend 50 percent more time reading magazines (presumably on those devices) than consumers who do not own those devices.'" Can we infer conclusively from the data given that these readers are reading their magazines on their tablets and e-readers? The survey speaks simply to the increased time spent consuming magazine content -- but, again, not the mode of content delivery.

When developing a strategic plan for smartphone and tablet editions, it is important to look at the hard numbers and ignore any unsupported postulation. We can make assumptions based on available data, but we can't bank our publications' futures on them.

Meredith Dias is senior research editor of Editors Only.

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