The study, published in the journal Electronic Markets, found that adult consumers across all age groups perceive ownership of e-books very differently than ownership of physical books, and this could have important implications for those in the business of selling digital texts.
“We looked at what’s called psychological ownership, which is not necessarily tied to legal possession or legal rights, but is more tied to perceptions of ‘what is mine’,” said Sabrina Helm, an associate professor at University of Arizona in the US.
Peoples’ sense of psychological ownership is affected by three primary factors: whether they feel like they have control over the object they own, whether they use the object to define who they are, and whether the object helps give them a sense of belonging in society, said Helm.
“Psychological ownership is important in people’s perception of how they value certain products or services or objects,” she said. “In the context of digital products, we thought it would be appropriate to look at how people take ownership of something that’s not really there – it’s just a file on your computer or device or in the Cloud; it’s more of a concept than an actual thing,” said Helm.
Researchers convened four focus groups in different age ranges: one group of Baby Boomers; one group of members of Generation X; and two groups of millennials. The millennial groups were split into current college students and older millennials. The researchers moderated discussions with the groups about their feelings surrounding ownership of physical books versus e-books.
Participants across all age groups reported feeling a constricted sense of ownership of digital books versus physical books, based on the fact that they do not have full control over the products. For example, they expressed frustration that they often could not copy a digital file to multiple devices. Along similar lines, many study participants lamented restrictions on sharing e-books with friends, or gifting or selling the books, saying this made e-books feel less valuable as possessions than physical books.
Participants described being more emotionally attached to physical books, and said they use physical books to establish a sense of self and belonging.
Participants across age groups frequently spoke about their nostalgia for certain childhood books. They also talked about experiencing physical books through multiple senses – describing, for example, the sound, smell and tactile experience of opening a new book, and the ability to highlight or write notes on paper pages.
Participants also said they use their physical book collections to express their identity to others who might be perusing their shelves. E-books did not have these associations.
Minimalists expressed a preference for digital books because they take up less physical space, researchers said. Many participants said the e-book experience feels more like renting than buying.
While almost everyone expressed strong attachment to physical books, and no one embraced a fully digital reading experience, older consumers, contrary to what one might expect, saw more advantages than younger consumers to reading with an e-reader. They referenced physical benefits that might not be as relevant to younger consumers, like the lightweight nature of e-readers and the ability to zoom in on text.