The three tiers of readers
There was a time when only the rich could read.
Literacy was actively limited. It was illegal to teach some groups of people to read.
For example, there is this bill from 1830 in North Carolina:
Books were also very expensive: rare, hand-crafted items.
Certainly, Gutenberg was one of the most important changes, in the mid-15th Century. The new tech made books more easily reproduced, and more widely distributed.
The early 19th Century, with the Industrial Revolution, brought a new level of literacy and leisure…cheap books in “low brow” genres flourished: penny dreadfuls in England, and later (into the early 20th Century), dime novels in the USA.
Another major change came in the 1930s with the rise of paperbacks: inexpensive, “mass market” versions of the same books that came out in relatively expensive hardbacks. That was the notable change from the penny dreadfuls and dime novels: while mass market paperbacks did have genre novels, it was also possible to read the same content as the upper class.
In the 21st Century (especially following the release of the Kindle in 2007), e-books further democratized books. Super low cost distribution transformed publishing from being mostly in the hands of a few companies that could afford to develop and distribute p-books (paperbooks) to something anyone could do.
Those traditional publishers (tradpub) still exist, and still have a concentration of power. There is still prestige in owning books. As reading competes with other forms of entertainment, it hasn’t simply become what television was before “pay TV”, where almost everyone could see the same shows.
I’m seeing indications of a three-tiered market for books. This is not something I’m saying definitively exists right now. It’s a hypothesis for what may be happening, and how things may develop.
If things do turn out to follow this pattern, it will matter to you as a reader.
Publishers and retailers would develop for and market to the different tiers differently. Since advertising is now very channeled (different people see different things), you might not even be aware of a book you would otherwise want to read.
What I’m going to do next is lay out the characteristics of the three tiers of readers. I’m also going to poll you, to see which one you think you might be. I also want to be clear…you could be more than one, but my guess is that one of them will be the strongest affiliation for you.
- Price point: ten dollars and up
- Buying window for new releases: right away
- How much they read: usually reading one book, but might take a couple of weeks or more to read a novel
- High end brand user: more likely to use an Apple tablet than an Amazon one, but may own a Kindle Voyage or other top of the line EBR (E-Book Reader) in addition
- Authors: John Grisham, Michael Connelly
- Publishers: the tradpubs, limited release editions from specialty houses
- Discovery: old media, especially magazines and newspapers, like the New York Times
- Summary: doesn’t compromise, likes paying more to get a book right away
- Price point: under ten dollars, but still costing something. $1.99, $2.99, $0.99, $4.99 are popular
- Buying window for new releases: waits for them to go on sale, but will likely read a favorite author within a year or two of release
- How much they read: usually at least a book a week, may be more than that
- Doesn’t worry about having the very best brand: wants value for the dollar. Still wants functionality. Reads e-books on an Amazon device, but more likely to have a Paperwhite than a Voyage
- Authors: Marko Kloos, Jana Aston
- Publishers: many independents through Kindle Direct Publishing and other sources; some tradpubs, but mostly backlist and frontlist on sale
- Discovery: the Amazon website, Goodreads, word of mouse (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media)
- May use subsers (subscription services, like Kindle Unlimited ((at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*))
- Summary: committed reader, but money matters. Willing to experiment to save some money
- Price point: almost always zero (including getting gifts from others)
- Buying window for new releases: release day doesn’t really matter
- How much they read: constantly, but quite likely to abandon books before they are finished. Doesn’t waste time on a book they don’t like
- Reads on a SmartPhone, a computer, or a cheap tablet. May have an inexpensive EBR, maybe one they got as a gift. Doesn’t have the latest generation
- Authors: people you’ve never heard of (and possibly they’ve never heard of), but also a lot of the classics which are free because they are public domain
- Publishers: indies, especially authors who self-publish
- Discovery: digs around for book bargains, uses Project Gutenberg, Twitter, free book forums, the public library. Update: reader Kacey Llano made the excellent point that some Lower Tier readers will use the same discovery as the Upper Tier readers. They’ll find out about a newly published, frontlist, tradpub book…and then go to the public library to get it (or to go on a waiting list for it). They still aren’t directly spending the money for the book
- Summary: passionately committed to reading, but doesn’t care about the status of having read the latest book. It’s not so much about what you read: it’s the reading itself that matters
Those are my initial ideas on it. I’m interested in your feedback on it, which may help to refine it. For example, I think the top tier readers may use subsers…and may have several subscriptions, but don’t end up using them very much. Middle tier readers may use the public library.
Let’s do the poll next…if you think you are equally two or more tiers, you can choose more than one.
Update: reader Kacey Llano asked me if this was about your reading habits or how much you spend, in terms of choosing a tier. It’s about how much you spend. My whole thinking on this is about the marketing of the books. If you get the books from the public library, the publisher has to market to the library, not directly to you. Certainly, they could try to get public buzz to influence a library to buy a license, but I think they would be more likely to market to top tiers and directly to libraries (or library suppliers).
Now, what do you think? Am I underestimating how much Top Tier readers read? Are there other strata you would suggest? What other characteristics identify these three? Is it too soon to figure out where marketing is going to go for e-books? If these are right, how do you see it affecting publishers, retailers, and readers? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.
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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. Shop ’til you help!
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.