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Kindle users skew older; does that impact news biz’s revenue hopes?

Publishers Lunch is a daily pay newsletter for the book publishing industry. (Speaking of business models, here’s one: Find a niche; create great content that serves that niche; hide it behind a pay wall and charge. I pay $20 a month for that daily email, and I don’t even expense it to my employers! There are more Publishers Lunches out there waiting to be founded.)

Today’s issue points to this page on Amazon’s user forums, which is dedicated to surveying Kindle owners about their age. (And, along the way, a variety of other details.) More than 1,000 people have posted their info to the forum, and Publishers Lunch took a sample of about 700 of them and ran the numbers.

I won’t steal their thunder (seriously, they’re worth $20 if you’re interested in publishing), but I’ll note two of their findings. First:

…over half of reporting Kindle owners are 50 or older, and 70 percent are 40 or older.

I caught some flak a couple months back for questioning the potential success of the Kindle by noting that at a conference dedicated to ebooks and the electronic future of publishing, filled with the nerdiest slice of New York’s publishing world, barely anyone there owned a Kindle. I said that those folks (and nerdy booklovers like me) are the Kindle’s target audience, and I don’t see the device getting much market penetration with them.

Apparently, I surmised the target audience incorrectly. It’s older folks — not the gadget crowd, not the young bookloving crowd, and not the mathematical intersect of the two.

The second finding of note from Publishers Lunch:

So many users said they like Kindle because they suffer from some form of arthritis that multiple posters indicate that they do or do not have arthritis as a matter of course. A variety of other impairments, from weakening eyes and carpal-tunnel-like syndromes to more exotic disabilities dominate the purchase rationales of these posters.

In other words, it’s primarily a particular segment of older folks that the Kindle appeals to — those for whom the traditional dead-tree reading experience is painful or difficult.

Publishers Lunch’s numbers match up pretty well (although not exactly) with those crunched by a forum user named Zach Sherwood, who posted last week that he is doing his own survey of Kindle owners:

Age correlates, in a positive direction, to ownership — up to the age of 60. The largest percentage of Users, at almost 30% are in the 51-60 year old age category. 24% are 41-50, 19% 31-40 and 16% are 61 plus. I am still processing results, but thought I would crunch these quickly as this is clearly a popular question in the forum. I’ll share other demos when I process them (preview: 66% of you are women).

I’m thrilled that the Kindle is reaching an audience that is not being well served by printed books. (There’s a lot of arthritis running through my family tree.) But to my non-business-school eyes, that doesn’t look like the makings of a breakout hit on the scale that the oft-repeated phrase “the iPod of books” implies. After all, the Kindle audience demographically looks an awful lot like the print newspaper audience.

I continue to maintain that ebooks will be huge — but that the most likely technology for ebook distribution and consumption remains a cell phone or a netbook-like device that will do many things other than be an ebook reader. Few people will sign on to carry one more gadget with them when there’ll be a perfectly capable web-enabled device already in their pockets. And the Kindle’s famously clunky interface design makes me think that multipurpose device is much more likely to be developed by someone like Apple than by Amazon.

Amazon’s made moves in this direction in the last two months — by creating an iPhone app that lets you read Kindle books and, just two days ago, buying Lexcycle, the creator of Stanza, the first-mover iPhone book-reading app.

Amazon hasn’t released sales figures for the physical Kindle or download numbers for the iPhone app, but I’d wager there are already significantly more iPhones that can read Kindle books than actual Kindles. On a recent trip, I used the iPhone app to buy Dalton Conley’s very fine (and lengthily subtitled) new book and read the whole thing in a few inflight hours. It was a surprisingly pleasant experience; if the book’s good, it seems, you can get the same feeling of absorption in the work on an LCD screen as on 80-pound bond.

One last note: I wonder if knowing Kindle users tend to be older dampen some of the enthusiasm for newspapers looking to the Kindle as a revenue source?

Many news organizations love the notion that the Kindle magically transforms digital freeloaders into people willing to plop down $13.99 a month for an electronic edition of their favorite newspaper on their ebook reader. But if Kindle users are disproportionately older, that means that those people paying for newspapers on them are largely the same people who already pay for newspapers — the older print audience. In other words, it looks like the Kindle isn’t training young people to be willing to pay for news; it may just be moving existing print subscribers to a digital subscription.

That could still be a good thing, depending on how print and Kindle margins compare to one another. But it’s not the lifesaver some news folks were hoping for.

What to read next
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
  • http://toughloveforxerox.blogspot MichaelJ

    “After all, the Kindle audience demographically looks an awful lot like the print newspaper audience.”

    Point well taken. Boomers and near boomers who finally have the time and leisure to read. Still the biggest money spending cohort in the population. The retired population looks like they are going to live a lot longer than ever before. The age pyramid of every advanced industrial society is getting boomer fat in the over 60 category.

    Sounds like a great market to this old grey beard. Just a note, it’s not arthritis. It’s the ability to carry 20 or 30 books when we go on vacation.

  • Stephen Peters

    I took a sample of almost 1,400 responses on the Amazon Kindle age thread and created a couple of charts if anyone is interested:

  • Jay Liew

    Interesting find indeed! I’m one of the “young” people, here are my thoughts, FWIW:

    * I already get excellent free news from free sources on the web , easily accessible with a good mobile browser (like on the iPhone); thus I have very little incentive to pay for news. Can’t think of a use-case where I would actually pull out my credit card and “bite the bullet”. If it’s something so niche and so important to me that I would actually pay money for the news, then it’s something that I would pay for, irrespective of device I consume it on: I’d pay for it if it’s web access, or through an iPhone app, Kindle ..

    * Does this report imply young people don’t bother much with the Kindle? For me anyway, I like the Kindle because it’s portable; imagine having to load up 10 books to take on a trip, vs. carrying a smaller device. I suppose you could do this with an iPhone app, sans some of the hardware features in Kindle. For a college student (I am not one), I would *kill* for the free no-monthly-charge Wikipedia access alone, provided by Kindle.

  • Rudolph

    “We’re grateful and excited that Kindle sales have exceeded our most optimistic expectations.”

    Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos reporting a 24 percent increase in first-quarter earnings in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

    Sounds like a market to me, Josh.

  • abhi

    There are actually 2 main reasons why kindle ownership skews towards an older demographic –

    1) most young people don’t read much.
    2) most of the reading that younger people do is mostly for school and college and there isn’t a Kindle for that demographic yet.

    while it’s true that kindle is great for people with fading vision that’s hardly the big factor here.
    Publishers Lunch have not done their homework -Perhaps 10% of owners buy it for vision reasons or health reasons.

    Any self-respecting journalist or publisher should not have written something as stupid as -
    “A variety of other impairments, from weakening eyes and carpal-tunnel-like syndromes to more exotic disabilities dominate the purchase rationales of these posters”

    Especially Based on something as random as ‘a portion’ of the responses on a forum thread.

    Kindles do encourage reading and if kids start using them for school they’ll start reading more which should do them much more good than playing video games on their nintendo ds or watching youtube and playing iphone games.

  • Travis Mason-Bushman

    The real problem is that the Kindle hardware and books are just too expensive right now. $359 plus $10-20 per book? When I can go to a good used bookstore and pick up a physical hard-copy book for $5-10?

    That price hit is why the Kindle is still in the early-adopter stages. They need to get the price down, and that means particularly the e-ink screen. $359 will buy a netbook these days – not surprising that a single-purpose book-reading gadget at that price point has yet to achieve wide penetration.

  • http://toughloveforxerox.blogspot MichaelJ

    For a retired baby boomer the price is worth the convenience and ease of use. Plus no wireless charges. Push the button get the book. Read the book. Get another book. Single purpose reading machine for a market that is willing to pay the bucks.

    Me, I don’t have the money for an iPhone. Just means it’s not worth for me. But then it wasn’t designed for me.

  • Barbara Clements

    Most of the people using the Kindle aren’t disabled. Infact I think there are only two. One is a man and I have severe, spastic Cerebral Palsy and use a headwand. True, I’m 60, but big deal. I enjoy reading.

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  • Zack S

    Abhi – I think your assessment of the young is right on. In my survey I gave respondents the option of selecting the ways in which they use the Kindle – pleasure, professional/work, educational/school – they could select all that applied.

    98% indicated pleasure
    22% indicated work
    19% indicated school

    It seems the market for non-leisurely reading either isn’t developed or the Kindle is not conducive for this act. As a grad student I am inclined to lean towards the former … as in my personal experience it was much harder to do the research for this study on the Kindle than with a computer or on traditional ink-on-paper.

  • Andrys

    This article about a very self-selected forum audience answering a ‘forum poll’ purporting to be of ‘all’ types of Kindle owners indicated only that the older Kindle audience has time and the inclination to sit on forums and discuss the Kindle itself :-)

    Yes, at the normal $30/month web-data access for cell phones (and that is a minimum charge), the yearly cost for 24/7 access to the web alone is at least $360. The Kindle 2 does access most of the global web and one can choose between Basic web, Advanced, and Advanced with Javascript On. And that’s at no cost.

    – Andrys

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  • maggie leung

    The New York Times is suddenly getting my subscription dollars through Kindle. I freeloaded for years because I prefer online to paper. Now that Kindle lets me easily take an online NYT on the road, I’m paying. I’m youngish, and I hope the NYT is around for decades, to take my money.

    I recently bought an iPhone. I synched my Kindle to read on both, but I can’t imagine wanting to spend hours reading on my small iPhone screen, especially because the battery drains like crazy. And I have to pay a monthly fee for my iPhone, unlike with my Kindle’s free Whispernet.

    Going by everything I’ve read about the Kindle — and there’s been plenty of coverage — it’s already a success.

  • Marco Gustafsson

    Agree with Maggie about reading on iPhone. It is hard to understand people who prefer it to Kindle for the purpose of reading.
    Kindle is still a niche product, but only until Amazon able to reduce price on it and available titles, plus develop a used eBook marketplace.

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  • Skye Fox

    Thank you for the info. I recently found that amazon is running deals on kindles and my friend showed me which made it easy to get my kindle and accessories. Hope this helps!

  • marijoy

    No. As a lifelong reader and 12 yr. Arthritis sufferer (much of it in my hands), I find the kindle heavy & awkward to position comfortably.
    And yes, I KNOW there are “holders” for the darn thing, this does not, however, help me to use it while lying in a comfortable position in bed – something I can accomplish with my trusty paperbacks quite well, thank you.