Test Driving the Digital Reading Experience

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In the summer of 2009, a romance review website, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, collaborated with Sony USA and Harlequin LTD to place 30 refurbished Sony Readers into the hands of 30 novice ebook readers for 90 days. Over 200 curious and eager fiction readers representing a widely varied demographic across the US and Canada applied for the opportunity to be a Test Driver, and the final group of 30 were chosen not only for their enthusiasm but also for their honesty. Some were so eager they offered bribes; others were very frank in their hesitance to adopt digital reading. However, everyone wanted to entertain the option to try ebooks without the high price tag of purchasing a digital reading device for themselves. The Smart Bitches Test Drive, in partnership with Sony and Harlequin LTD, was a learning experience for all involved.

The Test Driver group represents male and female readers of just about every adult age group across several economic levels. Among the group are rural and urban librarians serving disadvantaged and affluent communities, writers and authors — some of whom are digitally published already, despite never having used a digital reading device. All are avid and eager fiction readers who thought that, just maybe, ebooks might be the solution to the neverending stacks of books that populate their households.

To make the program more successful and enticing to readers, Harlequin LTD, the largest digital publisher of romance fiction, worked with Sony to offer an exclusive gift certificate valid for any Harlequin book offered through the Sony ebookstore. Both Sony USA and Harlequin LTD jumped through some hoops to make this happen. Why the Sony ebookstore? Because at the time of the program’s inception, none of the digital books sold at Harlequin’s ebookstore were compatible with the Sony Reader. Yet both companies were invested in allowing curious and inexperienced readers the opportunity to thoroughly test the digital reading experience.

In this presentation, Sarah Wendell, managing partner of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, LLC, and the organizer and creator of the program, Malle Vallik, Director of Digital Content and Social Media for Harlequin Enterprises Limited, and Kate S. Dugan, Marketing Manager for the Sony Reader in the US and Canada, will share the key lessons learned from the experience, including:

  • How did these fiction readers adapt when switching from paper to digital?
  • Which of the Test Drivers would go back, and why?
  • Why were they so eager to give digital books a try, and what did they like best?
  • What was the number one complaint of the Test Drivers?
  • Why are format and device compatibility and DRM issues that affect readers, publishers, and manufacturers?

The collective experience also yields recommendations for those who advocate for digital reading from the publisher’s perspective, because the represented sample of readers had very specific suggestions on how ebook reading devices could be better developed and marketed to them as potential customers.

The Smart Bitches Test Drive with Sony and Harlequin represented a unique partnership between a blogger, a major electronics brand and a romance publisher with vast digital experience, and created an exceptional conversation between the three necessary elements to the success of digital reading: the manufacturer, the publisher, and the reader. This panel will share lessons learned and will reveal the real educators in the endeavor: the 30 Test Drivers who instructed all of us on the new marketplace for digital books among fiction readers.

Photo of Sarah Wendell

Sarah Wendell

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books LLC

Sarah Wendell is co-author of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, and co-founder of Smart Bitches Trashy Books.com, one of the most popular blogs examining romance fiction. The web site specializes in reviewing romance novels, examining the history and future of the genre, and bemoaning the enormous prevalence of bodacious pectorals adorning male cover models.

Sarah has been seen on The Today Show, the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Steven and Chris Show, and on Too Many Books. She has been quoted in People Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New York Post, USA Today, New Jersey Monthly, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Los Angeles Times Book Blog, Metro:New York, and Publishers Weekly.

Malle Vallik

Harlequin Enterprises Ltd

Malle Vallik is the Director of Digital Content & Social Media for Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. Her current focus is on establishing Harlequin as a leader in digital publishing for women. Her responsibilities include ebooks and downloadable audio. Harlequin leads the publishing industry by publishing its entire frontlist as ebooks as well as offering original editorial in programs like Spice Briefs, Silhouette Nocture Bites and Harlequin Historical Undone, enriched editions and prequels to many NYT bestsellers. Malle also concentrates on building Harlequin’s strong relationship with its consumer via social media like Myspace, Twitter, videos, podcasts, blogs and eHarlequin.com’s flourishing community.

Previous positions include editorial, sales and public relations. Malle is also the author of seven romance novels published under the pseudonym Molly Liholm. She is currently on the board of directors of the International Digital Publishing Forum and the National Association of College Textbook Stores New Media Solutions. She was selected “One of the Top 50 Women in Publishing” by BookBusiness Magazine, 2009.

Kate Dugan

Sony USA

Kate Dugan is the Marketing Manager for the Sony Reader line of digital reading devices for Sony USA.

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