Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Who’s there?

Wouldn’t I like to know. I’m a copywriter and marketer; my work is driven by my audience. But in the case of ebooks, nobody quite knows who that audience is. How many people are reading on mobile apps and how many are on web apps? How many readers use Android systems? How many are on Kindle, Nook, Fire, Kobo…

It’s not just me having this problem. It’s universal. Ebooks are the elephant in the room—publishers aren’t talking about them the way they should be. And in part, that’s because we don’t have all the tools we need to talk about them in the way they should. Specifically, we don’t have the data to prove how important any of these new platforms are, both relative to physical books and relative to each other. 

And this is a big problem. Take Ania Wieckowski, managing editor at Harvard Business Review. Ms. Wieckowski is spearheading some of HBR’s electronic book initiatives, including producing digital-only books and creating iPad apps for HBR titles. I recently spoke to Ms. Wieckowski about her work, and of course asked her my burning question: do you know who you’re designing these things for?

“No,” was her (pained) answer. “We have no idea who is using them, or how, or where.”


It’s not for lack of trying. One reason it’s difficult for publishers to know anything about their digital consumer base is because much of their consumer information isn’t actually owned by the publisher. This information—format, demographic, frequency, etc—is captured from consumers at the point of sale, but is then owned by the retailer—or, in this case, etailer. Amazon, Apple, and Google are the biggest digital sellers, and therefore own the most consumer data. Which is great for the etailers: it allows them to define their markets, to better understand their product, and to anticipate trends in the market.

Yeah. Publishers would like to be able to do those things, too.

But instead, for now, we’re imagining audiences that we aren’t sure exist and blindly feeling our way forward into the uncharted territory of e-formats and digital versions. To use the words of Bruce Springsteen: we’re dancing in the dark.

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.


This entry was posted on November 27, 2011 by in Culture, Technology and tagged , .

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