e-Book Readers Learning Their ABCs

k2kindleWith print circulation and ad pages falling rapidly, magazine and newspaper publishers are anxious to find and count every single reader. And they’re turning to an old stand-by, the Audit Bureau of Circulation, for help. Yesterday, the ABC announced the addition of five new members in the electronic reader space:

  • Bite Sized Candy, a startup that adapts magazines for display on iPhones and distribution through iTunes;
  • PixelMags, developer of an iPhone app for magazines;
  • Plastic Logic, maker of large-screen digital reading devices targeting business users;
  • ScrollMotion, maker of the Iceberg Reader and developer of an e-book iPhone app;
  • Sony Electronics (s sne), maker of the Sony Reader.

With the new members on board, ABC will now be able to audit paid circulation of magazines that get delivered electronically to Sony and Plastic Logic e-readers, as well as other digital devices, just as it does for subscriptions and newsstand sales for print editions. The data ABC compiles are used by publishers and advertisers to verify circulation and to set advertising rates. “We share a number of customers with Plastic Logic,” said Neal Lulofs, ABC’s senior VP of strategic planning. “The newspapers and magazines they’re talking to are members of ABC, and it was those publishers who steered Plastic Logic to us.”

Currently, ABC audits newspaper and magazine web sites that are behind a pay wall, but tracking digital readership has been a relatively small part of its business until recently. “The big one, of course, is The Wall Street Journal, which has a substantial number of subscriptions behind its pay wall. But there has been a lot more interest in digital from everyone lately, especially in the last four or five months,” Lulofs said.

Digital circulation data are reported separately from print circulation. Currently, ABC doesn’t break out the digital data by device, but that could be changing, according to Lulofs, who said the ABC is tracking Kindle sales for The New York Times but expects to begin offering greater detail in our digital data soon.

For now, the digital data are mostly of interest to publishers seeking to understand how readers are accessing their content on digital devices, rather than to advertisers. Kindle editions currently do not carry display advertising, largely due to the limited capabilities of electronic paper displays, such as the lack of color. That’s likely to change soon, however. Amazon (s amzn) recently filed a patent application for a system to deliver ads to the Kindle. Plastic Logic has already signed up USA Today, the Financial Times and digital magazine distributor Zinio as content partners before its reader is even on the market.

With its larger screen and planned flexible display, Plastic Logic is targeting newspaper and magazine publishers, as well as business users, as it seeks a niche in a market dominated by Amazon’s Kindle. Plastic Logic has also promised to deliver a color display by the end of 2011, which would likely increase advertiser interest in e-book devices considerably. Whether digital reading devices can rescue print publishers from their current downward spiral is far from clear at this point. But publishers have no choice but to make every reader count.