Adam Parks is an avid reader of digital books. But you won't find him downloading the 20 or so titles he reads each year onto an electronic book device like Amazon's Kindle. Instead, Parks flips through pages—Web-site design manuals and Sun Tzu's The Art of War are recent favorites—on his trusted iPhone.
Parks is one of a growing number of people getting their book fix via mobile phone, a method he considers more convenient than using a dedicated e-book reader like the Kindle or Sony's (SNE) Reader Digital Book. "I travel a lot in Asia and in the U.S.," says Parks, a marketing executive who resides in Palm Beach, Fla. "If you are running from airport to airport and from city to city, bringing an extra piece of equipment loses some of its value."
Owning a Kindle appears to hold plenty of value for the consumers who are snapping up the devices so fast that it's been sold out since November. Yet the idea of downloading a book onto a device you already own may appeal to cash-strapped and space-constrained consumers.
Downloading Royalty-Free Books
And as smartphones have become more ubiquitous, in part thanks to the popularity of Apple's (AAPL) iPhone, so have the tools that make it easy for users to download a book for a fraction of the cost of buying one elsewhere. Users of the iPhone and its cousin, the iPod touch, have downloaded William Shakespeare's collected works more than 300,000 times from the Apple iTunes App Store, according to Readdle, the Ukraine-based startup that created the free application that makes the download possible. The books section in the Apple iTunes App Store lists about 700 titles; Apple separately offers 72 audio books.
It's hard to beat the price of a smartphone book. While new titles like Twilight may cost as much as a paperback at a book store, many royalty-free classics are available for 99¢ or less. The most purchased book on iTunes is a 99¢ collection of 14 children's books, including Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels, and Robinson Crusoe. At Amazon's Kindle store, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland alone sells for 99¢ to $2. At Borders (BGP), the lowest price for the Lewis Carroll classic is $3. Many new books on the Kindle cost $9.99.
Amazon (AMZN) doesn't disclose sales figures for its e-readers but Citigroup (C) estimates that Amazon sold 380,000 Kindles in 2008. In December, Sony said it has sold 300,000 units of its e-reader since the device was introduced in 2006. Representatives of Amazon and Sony declined to comment for this story.
Romance Novels Are a Favorite
Some book publishers embrace the mobile-book trend and see it as a way to attract new readers. "There's a chance for us as publishers to reach a wider audience, maybe people who weren't walking into the bookstore or going to Amazon," says Matt Shatz, vice-president for digital at Random House. In some cases in emerging markets, "the opportunity is a lot greater via a phone than for a physically printed book." In the coming years, the cell phone may become the most popular vehicle for reading digital books as well, Shatz says. Analysts estimate the makers of e-readers have sold fewer than 1 million units since the devices were introduced. But cell-phone makers shipped 36.5 million smartphones, capable of carrying e-books, in the third quarter of 2008 alone, according to Gartner (IT).
In December, Random House made some of its best sellers available through the iPhone iphoneand iPod touch. A month earlier, publishers Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster made their books available for the iPhone through a free application called Stanza, made by Lexcycle. Users download the software to gain access to Stanza's own bookshop, which offers more than 100,000 titles, about half of them free. Lexcycle Chief Operating Officer Neelan Choksi says users are downloading about 40,000 books a day. As is the case in traditional book publishing, romance novels are the most popular genre, he says.
Some books are adapted specifically for the cell-phone medium. Free children's book Buddy the Bus No. 1: There's Always Tomorrow from iOrbi lets users tell part of the story in their own voices. Bible application TouchWord Pro lets users take audio notes and insert bookmarks while reading.
Finding Readers on iTunes
Authors are turning to iTunes to get discovered by readers who might later pay for material. Author Matt McHugh, for instance, used e-book software maker TouchBooks Reader to create a free, iPhone version of his book, Scrooge & Cratchit. "The market is already splitting in two directions: the blockbusters and the indie or niche authors," says Alex Brie, developer of TouchBooks. "The App Store Books section will always be a great place for authors or editors to promote their work through branded or freely downloadable e-books."
Developers and publishers also plan e-books for other smartphones, including Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry, and devices that run Android, a cell-phone operating system developed by a consortium of companies led by Google (GOOG). Lexcycle intends to release an e-reader application for Android in the next three to six months, Choksi says. "Ultimately, we are interested in working with everybody," says Shatz at Random House, which hopes to have 15,000 titles available in the e-book format by mid-2009. "Our job is to help our authors reach the widest audience possible."