People feel more ‘ownership’ over physical books than e-books

Physical books feel more like they belong to us than e-books, according to a study of adult consumers of different ages.

Researchers at the University of Arizona undertook the study to help producers and sellers of digital text to improve their marketing.

physical books on yellow bookshelf - pixabay 846984The study found that we like to use our collections of physical books to express our identity. Image: pixabay 846984

You can read about the research, which drew on focus groups of adult consumers in the United States, in a paper published in the journal Electronic Markets.

The results show that consumers perceive ownership of e-books and physical books differently. And this appears to be true of younger and older adults alike.

Psychological ownership

The researchers investigated “psychological ownership” – which concerns perceptions about “what belongs to us” – as opposed to “legal possession,” which is more about our rights and claims under the law.

There are three key ingredients to psychological ownership:

– Do I feel that I have control over the object?
– Do I use the object to “define what I am?”
– Does the object give me a “sense of belonging?”

“Psychological ownership,” says lead study author Sabrina Helm, an associate professor who specializes in investigating consumer perception and behavior, “is important in people’s perception of how they value certain products or services or objects.”

For their study, Helm and her colleagues invited four differently-aged focus groups to discuss how they felt about owning physical books compared with owning e-books.

Two of the groups consisted of “millennials:” with students currently attending college in one group and older millennials in the other.

A third group consisted of “baby boomers,” or seniors, and the fourth group consisted of those aged between baby boomers and millennials – the so-called “generation X.”

Baby boomers or boomers were born between 1945 and the mid-1960s.

People felt ‘constricted’ about e-book ownership

The researchers found that the following themes emerged from the discussions:

– All groups reported feeling “constricted” in their ownership of digital books compared with physical books.

– Many said e-books felt less valuable than physical books because of restrictions on giving, sharing, and selling them.

– Some talked about feeling “emotionally attached” to physical books and that they gave them a “sense of self and belonging.”

– All age groups talked about how certain books they had known as children made them feel nostalgic.

– These also discussed how physical books engage all the senses, recalling the sound, smell, and feel of opening a new book.

– It was also remarked that it was easier write notes and highlight passages in physical books.

– Some mentioned that they used their collections of physical books as a way to “express their identity” to those who might scan their bookshelves.

– Many also felt that ownership of e-books “feels more like renting than buying.”

– A preference for e-books was expressed by those who valued the fact that they don’t take up space.

Also, contrary to the stereotypical view that younger adults might prefer e-books, older adults mentioned several advantages of e-books over physical books, such as the fact that you can enlarge the text and that e-books tend to be lighter in weight.

E-books and physical books are ‘different products’

The researchers concluded that e-books and physical books are different products that occupy different places in our lives.

“E-books feel like more of a service experience,” says Helm, “overall, they seem to offer a more functional or utilitarian experience.”

In contrast, when you deal with physical books, there is more “richness” and “all your senses are involved,” she adds.

Helm also points out that physical books have been with us much longer, and occupy a special, sometimes nostalgic, place in our lives that reaches back to childhood.

“Digital reading is still fairly new, digital books are still a fairly new product category, and thinking about ownership in the context of these kinds of products is new for most people,” she explains.

However, she and her colleagues believe that their findings offer some valuable insights for marketers of e-books and they recommend that they should consider going in one of the following two directions:

– Focus on making the experience of e-books more like that of physical books. This might entail making it much easier to scribble on pages, make notes in the margins, plus share or give books away.

– Focus on making the e-book experience completely different and more like an entertainment service with features that you cannot get with physical books, such as an “integrated soundscape.”

Consumers might be prepared to pay more if there is “an obvious added value,” says Helm. With a physical book, you finish reading it and you still have the book in your hand; you can then put it on the shelf, where it clearly adds to your collection.

With an e-book, when you finish reading it, “nothing is left,” says Helm. She says that many participants saw e-books as “too expensive for what they deliver, because they don’t offer the same richness as a physical book.”