Smartphones: The Next Home of the Ebook?

by | Feb 28, 2011

You can’t imagine Captain Kirk (of Star Trek fame) going anywhere without his communicator, can you? One device, so many uses. I was a kid who loved science fiction and tales of the possible future, and the communicator was a dream that wouldn’t die. Someday there would be a magic something sitting in our pockets and purses, a device we couldn’t imagine that would make life better in every way.

Now, principally thanks to Apple, we have these devices: iPhones and all the other smart phones that jumped onto the mobile highway once Apple had showed them the onramp.

“There are more than 200 million active users [40 percent] currently accessing Facebook through their mobile devices. People that use Facebook on their mobile devices are twice as active on Facebook as non-mobile users.” – Facebook official statistics (January, 2011).

I just made my first transaction by smartphone. You’ve probably been doing this for ages, but I just got the Starbucks app and used it at the register to pay for a black coffee and a croissant. I waved the phone at the scanner, which beeped, and I was on my way.

Since the 1990s I’ve been trying to find a personal organizer or to do list or task manager that would help me just remember tasks and deadlines and help me stay on track. Many looked good for a couple of weeks, only to get left as just another chore I could live without.

But the smartphone solved that problem for me too. I’ve got an automatically synchronized calendar, appointment alerts, scheduled email, alarms, and anything else that will help keep things straight and on time. And I have it with me all the time.

The top 5 smartphone manufacturers—Nokia, RIM, Apple, Samsung and HTC—sold over 140,000,000 smartphones in 2010 (IDC)

It’s partly the intimate connection we’ve nurtured with our wireless phones. You can forget your Day Runner, leave your Starbucks card in the car, and neglect to bring enough money with you, but you’re not leaving your house without your phone, are you?

How Content Creators Can Profit

This is where it starts to get interesting for content creators like self-published authors. As more people get used to the bright screens and beautiful resolution on today’s smartphones, reading apps are likely to get more and more use. Although reading on the phone hasn’t broken into the top 10 activities of mobile users, the quick growth of ebooks looks like it will accustom people to reading on devices just like their phone.

iBooks for self-publishers

iBooks - Click to enlarge

Combine this with the growing percentage of users who rely solely on a mobile device like a smartphone, and don’t have another computer of any kind. Some estimates put this figure at 25% of smartphone users in the U.S. There’s no doubt that the smartphone and the tablet are making major inroads into our technology habits.

Hungry, Hungry iPhone

Look, the iPhone has already eaten:

  • my iPod
  • our snapshot camera
  • a nice GPS unit
  • my entire 2GB+ photo collection
  • our Scrabble board and dictionary
  • my online recipe collections
  • my Paypal account that runs my business
  • the daily newspaper delivery

Hungry little bugger, eh?

Yesterday it ate my Starbucks card, which popped up in its new identity as a scannable QR code displayed on the screen of my phone. If it can eat my other plastic the same way, the only thing left in my wallet will be a driver’s license and some folding money.

In this environment, ebook readers like Stanza, iBooks, Amazon’s Kindle app, and the nook are going to become more and more popular.

Another lesson from Starbucks: What’s the first thing people do when they walk in and see a line? Take out their smart phones.

Text in readers, whether you call it a book or something else, text that’s chunkable and scannable, is perfectly suited to mobile engagement where you become a reader of convenience, finding odd moments to fill. Got two minutes to wait for your dry cleaning? Check out the latest from, just the right amount of time.

Even for longer reading I find the phone a perfectly usable format. The Stanza screen gives you a “page” of about 100 words, which will take you about 15 seconds to read. A typical page in a printed book has about 300-350 words. I don’t find that a great leap. iBooks adds page headers and page numbers, but still manages about the same amount of text.

Getting Onto The Smartphones

There are two ways to get your content onto smart phones:

  • ebooks, which are typically converted from files for print books into a version of HTML, and which are sold through Amazon’s Kindle store, Apple’s iBookstore, Barnes & Noble’s Nook store and many other ebook retailers on the web.
  • apps like Lee Foster’s great travel book applications, which are created by software developers as stand-alone programs and which are sold through the app store for each smartphone platform.

I’m going to be investigating both these avenues. Take a look at this simple but effective app marketing guru Chris Brogan published. It’s a great way for people to stay engaged with your content. This shows there are many ways to use this platform besides just selling ebooks.

No matter what your plans are for digital publishing in 2011 and beyond, smart self-publishers are making sure to include the smartphone market in their plans. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that the convenience, power and intimacy of mobile computing are going to make this the fastest-growing segment of the market. I want to make sure our content is there, too.

Photo: Apple

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Piotr Kowalczyk

    Joel, it’s great that you write about smartphones. Digital publishing professionals don’t touch them, because they’re interested in selling e-readers. The market is really huge, having in mind that this is a device you’ll for sure have wherever you go (not so sure about tablet and/or e-reader).
    Actually what is mostly needed is a proper communication for smartphone users. Only a small percentage knows that they can turn their phones into e-reading devices for free and in seconds.
    The most important thing is NOT to promise too much. A smartphone is great as a SECONDARY or EMERGENCY or TEST e-reading device, not a major one.
    Another are is an attitude – and this is actually a huge problem. People think that a smartphone is too small even to try reading on it. This is a myth, having in mind that it’s not too small for writing – if an average US teenager texts a short novella a month, he could be also encouraged to READ one novella a month.
    I could write for hours about it, my niche is mobile fiction and my blog is addressed to reach readers on the go.
    Just drop by from time to time and leave a motivational line – it’s not easy to go this way.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Actually, Piotr, I’ve found myself reading quite a bit on my phone with no trouble. Of course, the material has to be presented well, but the readers I’ve tried, like iBooks and Stanza, are excellent. The screen is not all that small, running 100-150 words per page. Thanks for your input, I’m sure lots of people would be interested in your excellent articles on the subject.

      • Linton Robinson

        There’s another answer to Piotr’s objection… creation of books for smartphones. Short ones, perhaps. Maybe visual, auditory type content.
        Maybe special smartphone ebooks that allow control for night reading, font size, etc. These exist, but at the moment are mostly produced by people who charge to create them, like apps.
        But there is a huge segment there.

  2. Blaine Moore

    From a publisher’s perspective, I’m going to make all of my content available in formats that will work on smartphones.

    From a user’s perspective, though, I’m not ready. I don’t have a smart phone. (I can’t justify the cost of a data plan and rarely use my phone for anything other than as an alarm clock and for making calls – I don’t even take calls on it as I leave it on silent or vibrate 90% of the time. It’s for my convenience to reach others, not for them to reach me.)

    I do have an iPod Touch (it came with my Mac) and I’d installed the kindle app on it a year or two ago. I read a few books on it, but the eye strain combined with the power consumption of using an app that requires the screen just doesn’t make it practical for me. I spend enough time looking at computer screens in my day to day life; I don’t want to spend more time doing it.

    That said, now that I’m starting to sell books and reports on the kindle, I decided I should buy one to see how they will actually look. I just finished my first book and I love it – it’s so much more convenient than dead tree books (can’t wait to travel with it) and it’s so much easier on my eyes than any computer monitor or device with a back lit screen.

    My wife figured it made sense as a business purchase but thought they were a stupid idea. Since getting it, she’s read 4 books, I think?

    I do hope that color e-ink technology does make it’s way to smart phones…heck, I’d consider buying a smart phone that used e-ink now if it were available and I finally got around to justifying the data plan expense.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Blaine, thanks for the interesting background. I avoided the smartphone craze for quite a while but finally got an iPhone partly to keep up with the social media marketing I’ve been very involved with the last year or so.

      I haven’t read any books on my Kindle apps, but I do read quite a bit on my phone in iBooks and on blogs, most of which have a mobile-friendly format, and I find it works well. However, I don’t have long reading sessions, that would get tiring.

      As I said in my blog post today, I’m moving all my content to Kindle and ePub which, although trailing at the moment, seems to have a lot more growth potential long-term than the proprietary Kindle format.

      I’ll be interested to hear how the transition works out for you and what effect it has on your ebook sales.

  3. maggie

    Joel: I imagine you were itching to correct this one:

    “… People THAT use Facebook on their mobile devices are …”

    But you can’t because it’s quoted material.

    I see/read this egregious grammar frequently from agents and writers and even from editors.

    People are WHOs, not THATs.

    • Joel Friedlander

      LoL, you are funny, Maggie. Sometimes there’s not much you can do, even though the “inner editor” is going crazy. Thanks.

    • Joel Friedlander

      That’s so neat, Tom, and I love the cover on it too. I’m currently converting all my content to Kindle and ePub formats and will have more to say on this as it moves forward.

  4. Grace Elliot

    Really interesting post, thanks x

  5. Christopher Wills

    I think you are almost right. Phone users may download a lot of books but will they read them? You can’t read a novel in bitesize chunks and the glare from backlit screens prevents safe reading (in terms of eyestrain) on phones for more than a few minutes.
    When e-ink technology has mastered the quick refresh in colour I think phones may switch over to that technology as it also has much lower power usage, meaning batteries will last longer. Or maybe there is another technology just around the corner; there normally is in this amazing time of ours.
    But I don’t think many novels will be read on phones using current technology.
    Great post.

    • Joel Friedlander

      I’m not so sure about that Christopher. eInk devices are pleasant to read, have low power consumption and can be read in broad daylight. However, I’ve been very pleased with the page display on the iPhone and have found it pleasant for reading. Screen brightness is controllable and the tremendous convenience you get from an item you always have with you make this a fine platform for books. Want to slug your way through War and Peace? Maybe not, but I see a big future for books on the smartphone platforms.

      • Erin Austin

        I have to agree with Joel. I get eBooks on my Blackberry and love it. It is especially convenient when I am already on If I click the option for a Kindle version (generally much less expensive than paper), with a single click it automatically delivers it to my Blackberry and charges to my credit card. There will always be books that I prefer to read on paper, but for ease of access when I find myself out-and-about can’t be beat. Also, I have no problem reading outside while the doggies do their business or inside in a dark bedroom. I believe the recommendation for reading is “20-20-20” (can’t recall the source): for every 20 minutes of reading, take 20 seconds to focus on something 20 feet away.

        • Joel Friedlander

          Erin, thanks for the input. That 20-20-20 rule is a great one, haven’t heard that before so thanks for sharing.

    • Bea Moyes

      Chris your right that mobile reading is not going to take the same form as reading long novels… It is ALL about short content and I say this with some bias but real enthusiasm for the possibilities which mobile publishing brings for reading and writing short content.
      I work for Ether Books which is doing just that, publishing contemporary short content fiction, articles, poetry and episodes to mobile currently through our iPhone App. Reading on mobile is about fast, accessible and great content which you can download ‘on-the-go’. A 15 minute ‘byte size read’ which you can recommend to friends on social media and store in an instantly available personal library. It will change what content is published, how we read it and how authors write it. It’s an exciting future..

      • Joel Friedlander

        Bea, thanks for your comment. I was not familiar with Ether but I think it’s a good concept. Short fiction and articles are naturals for mobile reading.

        On the other hand, there would have to be quite a bit of value added to justify the royalty arrangements Ether offers, and I wonder how many authors will be willing to forgo other arrangements, like Amazon’s 70% royalty and access to millions of devices, for Ether’s 20% royalty and fees to publish more than a few articles per year. Perhaps there’s some value there that I’m missing?

        But I like the concept very much and I’m sure someone will figure out a way to deliver this type of content in a way that works for publishers, authors and developers.

        • Bea

          Joel, thanks for your reply. Glad you like the Ether concept!
          A few things I would say in response about our value. We offer free submissions for writers and an option to upgrade to fast-track feedback. Our massive differentiation is that we are NOT a self publisher and as so we distribute only the best short form content via mobile. We are developing a growing community of writers who connect directly with each other and their readers through us which is invaluable both for writers and also for the readers who are enjoying their work. We also work with publishers, agents and other organisations to publish their content and are being used as a promotional channel for other longer content.



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