How Important is Mobile to Book Publishers?

December 26, 2013 by Thad McIlroy

I published a blog post in mid-December at Digital Book World, mostly on the topic of mobile publishing. (I gently request that you read it alongside this post: otherwise I have to clumsily repost it here — and it’s only a click away). I’m probably the last blogger in the known universe to tackle mobile’s impact on publishing. I just felt that some commentators were firing off target. But I felt inhibited.

There’s been a vast amount written and published about the impact of mobile technology: is there anything left to say?

We’re all victims of technology hype. It goes with the territory. As technology managers our best approach is not trying to defeat the hype-masters. It’s to consider the question: if what they’re saying is correct then when will it affect my business? And exactly how much will it affect my business?

The hype-masters often miss the mark, whether they’re wrong or just premature in their enthusiasm. But we’ve learned a contingent strategy is required just in case they’re right. Technology moves forward at a variable pace. Sometimes it moves really quickly and we’re caught off guard.

So let’s take mobile.

The phones are expensive and breakable. The screens are small. We’re often staring at them while walking down the street or in a car or on a bus, none of which improves legibility.

And they’re completely addictive. There’s the rub.

Can you imagine, under any remote circumstance, that people are going to abandon their cell phones and resume staring into the desktop computers while waiting for the land line to ring?

I don’t think so.

But as Benedict Evans points out in the third slide I used in my DigitalBookWorld post, the publishing model for mobile simply hasn’t been determined. Evans notes that the web publishing model is clear and simple: “web page linking to web page.” Yep, that’s about it.

So what’s the mobile publishing model? It includes web browsers, and they matter for mobile. But apps are far more popular, and no one has discovered a reliable model to launch a new product into the app space.

Mobile reminds me of the early days of the World Wide Web: We can’t tell you exactly why you should be there. We can’t tell you exactly what you should be doing. But get over there, and hurry!

December 28, 2013: In a tweet today from very wise Joanna Penn, maestro of The Creative Penn notes: “I read on the Kindle app on the iPhone every day — mobile just another way to read?” It’s a solid point. But when you consider that there are over 3 billion smartphone users worldwide, I think that this is a relatively minor vision of a mobile strategy. What we learned during the web vs. print debate we’re only now learning with mobile: to flourish in a medium you need your software (and the way that you think about your presence) to be native. Repositioning an existing software application to an app will rarely fly. This isn’t a part-time job.



  • L. BeBe

    Dec 29th, 2013 : 7:10 PM

    1) Do you think that longform writers must adapt their content to be more interactive, concise, and readable for small screens as a possible adjunct to writing a book/ebook?
    2) How can apps be used to drive sales of longform material?
    3) If the future is with portable devices, do you see a new genre of app-specific writing that is designed to be read as short snippets, a variant of tweet mentality, such as flash stories.

  • Thad McIlroy

    Dec 29th, 2013 : 8:53 PM


    1: If writers want to take advantage of smartphone mobile I think that do need to either adapt existing content or create new content optimized for the strengths and weakness of these devices.
    2: As I say in the article, while apps are far more popular, and no one has discovered a reliable model to launch a new product into the app space (and this applies to all app developers…there’s still no certain road to success).
    3. So-called “Cell phone novels have found some success in Japan ( Canada’s Wattpad notes that “over 70% of our readers enjoy their stories using a mobile device, even when offline.”

    Thanks for writing.

  • Nate, of The Digital Reader bl

    Dec 30th, 2013 : 4:48 PM

    I’m going to have to fundamentally disagree with your focus on how the content is consumed. If I were a publisher I would put a lot of attention to getting people to buy the content and less on how people consume it. Sure, publishers should keep an eye out for new tech, but I think it better to keep the current customers happy rather than go off on a tangent which turn out to be a bad idea.

    Furthermore, based on your comment below it sounds like you are proposing that creators radically reinvent their content in the form of a new type of art. You want to replace the novel and the story, 2 types of art that have been around for hundreds of years with something that doesn’t exist yet. Why do you assume that it will work better that what we have now?

    New art fails more often than it succeeds, and that’s why I think your mobile-first strategy strikes me as the latest fad. I don’t see why it should get any more attention than the the ebook app fad, iPad-optimized blog theme fad, or the rich format ebook fad. None of those types of content have come to much more than a curiosity.

  • Thad McIlroy

    Dec 30th, 2013 : 5:08 PM

    Hi Nate: Glad to have your perspective here. Some responses, with your comment first:

    1. “If I were a publisher I would put a lot of attention to getting people to buy the content and less on how people consume it.” That sounds perfectly reasonable. But what I hear from readers is two-fold: (i) Because of e-readers and other mobile devices they often approach and read content differently. Some are reading much more (while often paying less overall). Some have become content skimmers. I agree with you about the importance of getting people to buy the content — but I don’t think publishers can afford to ignore the key factor of how media is consumed.

    2. “it sounds like you are proposing that creators radically reinvent their content in the form of a new type of art.” I can see that it would sound that way, but it’s the last thing I would suggest. Writers create as the muse calls them. The most obvious division is short story writers vs. novelists. Short story writers often point out that they are uncomfortable with the longer form of novels (though many have tried). And novelists generally have trouble with the shorter mode. I would hate to lose any of these voices: I hope that there are many more to come. All I’m suggesting is that, perhaps similar to “cell phone novel” or Wattpad’s approach, there’s a new opportunity for creative voices to find an appreciate (and sometimes participatory) readership.

    One thing I often observe about the current digital transformation is that it’s still (very) early days. I have had no success at predicting which new formats will fly, but that doesn’t worry me: it’s fun to watch.

    All I’m really saying is that the stats show that digital device usage is rapidly shifting from personal computers to tablets and dedicated e-readers. And most of the data shows that dedicated readers are losing marketshare to tablets, and then tablets to smartphones. Extrapolating on just these data points, and projecting that the new audience for creative prose will be consuming it most frequently on smartphones, what should a traditional publisher’s strategy become?

  • Rodrex Matthew

    Feb 3rd, 2014 : 9:09 PM

    mobile and other devices are really making a strong impact on the traditional printing and publishing. Reading habits of people have changed with the evolution of new devices and readers now like to read the online content which is easily available. Publishing industry is also adopting this change by making device specific versions of their books, magazines etc. to reach to the more readers. Know more about the latest trends in publishing on