Electronic Markets

, Volume 28, Issue 2, pp 177–189 | Cite as

Consumer interpretations of digital ownership in the book market

  • Sabrina V. HelmEmail author
  • Victoria Ligon
  • Tony Stovall
  • Silvia Van Riper
Research Paper


Technological advances in electronic markets, particularly product digitization, have transformed customer-product interactions. For example, altered ownership perceptions in the digital domain affect product acquisition, usage and disposition. This study’s goal is to explore how consumers conceptualize ownership of digital possessions in order to help marketers develop tailored positioning and commercialization strategies. Comparing physical books and e-books, we contribute to the literature on electronic markets, which neglects a consumer-focused perspective on digital possessions. Using focus groups with U.S. consumers, we identify six themes surrounding perceptions of psychological digital ownership, which mainly portray a constricted sense of ownership, limiting usage experience, and value perceptions. However, we also find that ease of disposition favors e-book usage. Typical assumptions about younger consumers’ preference for digital products were not supported. Based on our findings, we offer two managerial approaches: (1) enhancing the digital product experience or (2) emancipating digital products from their physical correlates.


Psychological ownership Digital ownership Digital possessions Digital products E-books Focus group research 

JEL classification



In 2017, the UK’s Daily Mail reported that one in ten people do not own a book; yet the same article quoted a study revealing that the average U.K. homeowner stored 158 books (Daily Mail 2017). While the quoted newspaper lamented what appears to be a decline or divide in book ownership, they remain prevalent in the majority of households. Few other products are held in similar esteem, laden with values and emotions. As symbols of the change of times, after centuries of unaltered appearance, few products have been subject to such rapid technological change.

In general, human-product interactions have been radically transformed by the emergence of electronic commerce and product digitization, particularly in product categories such as books, music and other information products (Bockstedt et al. 2006; Magaudda 2011). Past literature has addressed possible substitution effects due to the implementation of multiple channels consumers can use to purchase products (e.g., Wang et al. 2013) or access and use products (e.g., music streaming services, see Sinclair and Tinson 2017). However, substitution effects of one form of product consumption (digital) on another (physical) have found little attention beyond the realm of music. Indeed, the distinction between the digital and the material continues to blur in other product domains as well. For example, extant research has pointed out that a dematerialized product such as a book, photo, or video is unlikely to play the same role in consumers’ lives as its material counterpart (Belk 2013). Whereas physical product ownership and usage can affect consumers’ construction of individual identities (Mittal 2006), uncertainty about digital ownership may hinder individuals’ sense of selfhood and may become a source of frustration or confusion (Belk 2013). Today’s consumers are forming less rigid relationships with material possessions. Bardhi et al. (2012) describe these as liquid relationships to denote situational attachments to objects, which are primarily appreciated for their instrumental use-value stemming from their experiential qualities, as offered through rental or sharing of products. Independent of ownership considerations, many consumers prefer immaterial or “light” possessions and consumption practices as can be seen in the growing interest in access-based consumption (Bardhi et al. 2012).

Changes in patterns of ownership and consumption practices are particularly apparent in the book market. Against this backdrop, this study sets out to investigate how consumer perceptions of book ownership have changed with the availability of digital formats to better understand the development of this particular electronic market, but also to generally compare consumer experiences of ownership in digital and physical contexts as technological changes keep altering consumer behavior in many product domains. Prior studies mainly focused on music products that have been transmitted via devices since the invention of radio (e.g., Sinclair and Tinson 2017), or digital virtual goods that are improbable or unaffordable in material reality (e.g., objects acquired or used in video games, Denegri-Knott et al. 2012). We chose e-books as the specific digital consumption context for this study because e-books represent dematerialized digital artefacts (Siddiqui and Turley 2006) that have physical correlates, facilitating a comparison in both the material and digital realms. A study of a ubiquitous product category such as books offers new and additional insights. Compared to physical books, e-books are a recent invention, enabling a timely comparison of changing ownership perceptions in the physical and digital domain. As such, they are particularly suited for analyzing the ‘burning question’ already raised by Belk (2013): Do consumers perceive such digital artefacts to actually be ‘theirs’, despite dematerialization and storage on external servers or ‘the cloud’? Specifically, our study is guided by the research question of how consumers conceptualize ownership of digital books, as compared to their material counterparts. Answering this question is important because psychological ownership literature rather neglects digital possessions despite their rapidly growing footprint in people’s lives. Similarly, the literature on electronic markets rarely highlights possible differences in consumer perceptions of digital versus physical products. If, indeed, altered ownership perceptions exist in the physical and digital domain, these affect consumer acquisition, usage and disposition of products, leading to considerable implications for electronic markets that may offer the physical and/or digital version of the product. It should be noted here that we are not examining consumers’ conceptualizations of ownership of the device used to read digital books but rather the actual digitized book, separate from the instrument used to access it. We chose to conduct focus group interviews because these are particularly well-suited to obtain information about perceptions, opinions and feelings related to novel concepts, such as digital psychological ownership and the role of digital possessions in people’s lives. By eliciting participants’ views of what ownership means in the digital book realm and their related sentiments and objections toward digital and physical books, the results of this study can help marketers gain a deeper understanding of the role of digital products as possessions, thus enabling more tailored positioning and commercialization strategies.

Consumption and ownership of digital products

As digital consumption becomes ever more widespread, understanding the implications of choosing digital formats over material ones is paramount for consumers and marketers. Scholars who analyze digital consumption patterns point to fluidity in the transition from material to digital consumption (McCourt 2005), and warn against a tendency to dichotomize ownership and access-based consumption (Sinclair and Tinson 2017; Watkins et al. 2015) as consumers seem to move between material and digital realms without needing to clearly demarcate the boundaries of each while experimenting with novel and fragmented ownership configurations (Odom et al. 2011). Yet, the role of product ownership in this context remains nebulous in most accounts.

Legal ownership and digital possessions

In a traditional and commonsense view, ownership can be defined as the legal relation between a person and a physical object (Thorne McCarty 2002). Ownership refers to a bundle of rights, which include exclusive physical control of the object, a liberty to use the object, and the power to transfer ownership rights to another person (Thorne McCarty 2002). This means that whoever lawfully buys a copy of a book is entitled to the traditional ownership rights (make copies, resell it, rent it out, give it away) (Stefik 1997). Physical and digital goods, however, convey different legal ownership rights. Unlike material transactions, digital transfers result in a reproduction of the work as, usually, the transferor retains the source copy when electronically transmitting a new copy of the work to the recipient (Stefik 1997). The end-user license, to which all e-book purchasers must agree in order to proceed with the purchase, grants consumers fewer full title ownership rights compared to the purchase of a physical book (Akins 2010). Indeed, the devices needed to access the digital files (e-readers) are often tethered to content service providers; therefore, they merely afford the end-user permission to view the file rather than physical possession (Sanders 2010). In this way, Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies help digital content providers exert control over the manner in which consumers access, copy, or control their digital possessions (Singh et al. 2006). The distinction between purchasing a license to access an e-book on a given electronic device and purchasing a physical book is not clearly stated by retailers, leaving open the possibility that consumers are unaware that control over the digital copy remains in the hands of the e-book provider (Akins 2010). Thus, consumers’ inchoate understanding of the legal status of their transactions adds to the difficulty in the interaction between consumers and their digital possessions. Understanding consumers’ perceptions of the differences between legal ownership of material versus digital goods can help us shed light onto how this is affecting their consumption expectations and experiences.

Psychological ownership, self-identity and digital consumption

Legal ownership is only one aspect of human relationships with property (Etzioni 1991); another is both symbolic and experiential and directly relates to ‘proprietary feelings’ towards our possessions, independently from legal ownership (Belk 2014). Building on Furby (1978) and Dittmar (1992), Pierce et al. (2001) linked feelings of possession with feelings of ownership and defined psychological ownership as the state in which an individual feels that a material or immaterial object is experienced possessively (i.e., it is identified as ‘MINE’ or ‘OURS’). Interestingly, recent studies show that psychological ownership not only influences the way consumers value objects (Pierce et al. 2003; Peck and Shu 2009), but also that it can have a greater impact on their value perception than legal ownership (Reb and Connolly 2007). In that sense, physical possession of an object can be perceived to be even more important than legal ownership (Jiménez et al. 2013). The motivational forces that feed psychological ownership are grounded in three basic human needs that have been categorized by Pierce et al. (2001, 2003) into efficacy, identity, and place. First, possessing something gives an individual the opportunity to satisfy his or her need for being in control. This affords individuals a sense of power and security or, in other words, a sense of efficacy. Second, ownership serves an important function in terms of self-identity. Possessions can serve as symbolic expressions of the self for the purposes of both self-definition and self-image projection to others (Belk 1988; Wattanasuwan 2005). When individuals invest time to know and get familiarized with an object, it becomes part of their extended self (Pierce et al. 2001, 2003). Lastly, possessions can provide a sense of place or belonging. According to Jussila et al. (2015, p. 124), possessions provide a sense of home, symbolically speaking, or “a fixed point around which to construct one’s daily activities”. This sense of home affords the individual with a metaphorical refuge, thereby creating a personal history and sense of location in society (Pierce et al. 2001, 2003). Possessions, thus, serve to symbolically satisfy the basic human need of home. Each of these three needs fulfilled by an object allows individuals to develop feelings of psychological ownership towards their physical possessions.

Initial evidence on digital ownership has been unclear on whether digital possessions can instill feelings of psychological ownership in consumers (O’Shaughnessy and O’Shaughnessy 2002). Past literature has particularly questioned the ability of digital possessions to become part of the extended self (Belk 1988) because digital possessions lack the characteristics of material possessions that facilitate self-extension, such as tangibility, uniqueness, and memory marker capabilities (Belk 2013). Research also points to consumers’ reliance on their tangible possessions, such as digital devices, to make sense of their digital possessions, insofar as they fit consumers’ traditional sense of ownership and fulfill their ‘need to own’ (Stini et al. 2006; Hogan 2014), as well as to a lack of understanding of the social embeddedness of digital consumption (Hess et al. 2011). In the context of digital music, however, Sinclair and Tinson (2017) argued that many similarities to the use of traditional (material) music formats exist, albeit in a different fashion. In the digital book realm, devoid of a reading device, this understanding is still limited (Watkins et al. 2015). Digital reading has been characterized as non-linear and less in-depth than printed reading, as a result of which differing reading preferences are emerging. While digital books are preferred for casual or short text reading and browsing, physical books are chosen for longer text, in-depth or difficult reading, and for note-taking (Liu and Huang 2008). Interestingly, several studies have found that students’ preferences gear towards printed textbooks (Daniel and Woody 2013; Woody et al. 2010). Understanding consumers’ relationships with digital vs. physical books may thus shed some light into these emerging consumer preferences as to why consumers may not be ready to fully embrace digital reading.

Alternatives to ownership in digital consumption

In the last decade, forms of access-based consumption have proliferated, resulting, in part, from digital technology that enables market mediated transactions where no transfer of ownership takes place (Bardhi and Eckhardt 2012). Access-based consumption of material objects such as cars, tools, or clothes, may facilitate a shift from individual ownership to shared ownership or short-term rental (Belk 2014). While this is a recent development in traditional markets such as transportation (e.g. Uber), or housing (Airbnb) (Leimeister et al. 2014), collective access to physical books via libraries has a long history (see e.g., Harris 1999; Wiegand 1999). For digital products, such as music, internet-enabled streaming services are increasingly gaining a foothold (Sinclair and Tinson 2017), and digital books are available through several online service providers, including public libraries (Hodges et al. 2010).

Whereas, traditionally, ownership has been the normative consumption ideal (Belk 2014), consumers may prefer alternative forms of possession to actually acquiring and continually owning products, at least in some product contexts. Such ‘liquid relationships’ with material possessions are based on a more flexible and restricted value derived from experiential qualities and immateriality (Bardhi et al. 2012). Belk (1988, 2014) suggested, that, for many consumers, their sense of selfhood is increasingly being derived from what they can access, not what they own, and that ascribing meaning to individuals based on physical possessions may have lost relevance. If symbolic meaning derived from possessions is no longer predicated on ownership (Siddiqui and Turley 2006), a reassessment of the roles of ownership and possession in the digital realm may indeed be required.

Both traditional rental models and novel forms of access-based consumption via electronic markets are essentially forms of service provision. Moeller and Wittkowski (2010, p. 172) classified digital consumption experiences as non-ownership services, “in which customers acquire some property rights to an asset and are offered a certain degree of freedom in using this asset for a specified period while the burdens of ownership remain with the owner”. Instead of transfer of product ownership, products are offered with the aim of generating value-in-use (Lusch and Vargo 2011), as maybe best illustrated in modern music streaming services (Sinclair and Tinson 2017).


Data collection and sampling approach

Psychological ownership is a relatively recently adopted theory in marketing and much about this construct remains to be explored, especially its application to specific research settings and contexts (Jussila et al. 2015). Furthermore, e-book consumption is a relatively novel practice (Littman and Silipigni Connaway 2004) and academic understanding of this topic is still developing (Antόn et al. 2017). The lack of existing studies examining consumer viewpoints on digital and physical book ownership suggested the adoption of an exploratory qualitative research design (Threlfall 1999; Sinclair and Tinson 2017). As there is, as yet, no established conceptual framework through which to examine digital ownership, this research seeks to elicit new perspectives rather than confirm existing theories. For theory building in this context, focus groups seemed most suitable because of the collaborative nature of the method as pretesting showed that ownership of digital goods (books and others) was not a subject that most individuals had explicitly thought about prior to participation in our study. Pretesting consisted of one focus group of six individuals of similar age and same gender (females, 18–25) where participants’ reactions to questions about digital vs. physical ownership were explored. Group discussion allows participants to talk through feelings and experiences in relation to those of others, in the presence of a researcher-guide, and offers the opportunity to seek clarification which is particularly important when a novel concept is elaborated (for a similar approach, see Sinclair and Tinson 2017). The approach taken was loosely phenomenological in that questions focused on the subjective ‘lived’ experiences of the participants. Our goal in facilitation was to observe participants as they examined their own feelings, beliefs, and preferences in the physical book/e-book context and to allow participants to grapple with their own experiences in relation to the experiences of others in the focus group setting. The discussion was specifically circumscribed to digital and physical books of a variety of genres. Examples of facilitator questions included: “If you were planning to acquire a new book, what format would you choose to acquire it in and why?” and “How do you use e-books in your life?” Focus group moderation followed a semi-structured approach with a common discussion protocol employed across sessions. Key discussion areas and facilitator questions were identified during a pre-test that also involved a focus group setting.

Participants in our focus groups were recruited based on their usage of digital technologies and e-books. Potential participants had to own and use at least two applicable technical devices as determined by a pre-screening questionnaire, and focus group participants were purposively selected based on their use of e-books. This ensured both similarity among our participants (Krueger and Casey 2000) and relevant content expertise (Goulding 2005).

We conducted four focus groups split into generational categories as originally suggested by Strauss and Howe (1991): Baby Boomers born between 1943 and 1960, Generation X born between 1961 and 1981, and Millennials born between 1982 and 2000. The Millennial group was sub-divided into two sub-groups because of the markedly different life stages within this cohort (college students vs. post-college young adults). A total of 31 people participated in four one-hour long sessions (26 women, 5 men) conducted at a university in the southwestern United States. Participants were recruited from the local community at large and consisted of students, staff, and outside community members. The sampling strategy employed resulted in a purely coincidental gender imbalance and potential impacts from this outcome will be further noted in the limitations section.

Data analysis

Initially, transcripts of focus groups were examined to obtain a holistic impression of participant attitudes and cognitions (Thompson 1997). Emergent patterns were compared across transcripts and abstracted into a coding scheme with code definitions (Thompson 1997; Goulding 2005). Coding was done using data management program Atlas.ti. Transcripts were analyzed for themes and data categories by individual researchers and then refined by a team that included three of the four researchers. Disputed categorical definitions were reanalyzed individually and then discussed as a team to ensure consistent interpretation of meaning (Graneheim and Lundman 2004). Final conclusions were drawn from consensus agreement on data categories and the fourth researcher served as an independent judge of plausibility (Lincoln and Guba 1985; Spiggle 1994). Latent content of categories was refined into key themes based on patterns in the data we inductively identified (Spiggle 1994; Graneheim and Lundman 2004).

The use of multiple investigators with consistent findings amongst them can be interpreted as a form of data triangulation that supports the credibility of the research process (Lincoln and Guba 1985). Providing a rich set of quotations from the data to illustrate and evidence each key finding established a clear chain of evidence from data to interpretations, thus improving reliability of our findings (Healy and Perry 2000). The use of a software program (Atlas.ti) further enhanced the formation and development of categorizations and subsequent theory construction and development, as it enabled systematic sorting and searching to find common features and patterns in the data (Kelle 2004).

Main themes and interpretations

Based on data derived from our focus groups, we identified six main themes that elucidate the meaning of ownership of digital possessions. Our findings are summarized below, followed by an overview and interpretation of related findings.

Theme 1: a constricted sense of ownership limits the digital book usage experience

Based on the focus group findings, consumers perceive a disconnect between their ownership and usage expectations and experienced restrictions on legal ownership rights, which led to a sense of frustration with the digital usage experience as well as perceived unfairness. Accustomed to the property rights normally associated with the acquisition of physical goods, participants found general ownership expectations violated when buying and subsequently using digital products. Aware of legal constraints imposed by publishers, they could still not come to terms with the idea of a possession not being afforded full rights of control after purchase. For instance, Bob (Baby Boomer) expounded on the legal restrictions: “There’s one thing that people mostly overlook with e-books: you don’t actually own them. You’re given a right to use.” Rachel, one of our Gen-X participants observed: “Logically, yes [I understand the terms] but emotionally, it’s mine, I bought it”, which was seconded by Debra (Gen-X) who observed: “Well, it’s mine, I should be able to do whatever I want with it.”

In our participants’ minds, buying signified obtaining the full property rights that accompany a material product, and this expectation was not met in the digital realm. Participants were especially frustrated with restrictions preventing them from copying ‘their’ digital file onto multiple devices. As expressed by Debra (Gen-X): “I can reconcile the not sharing with someone else; I can’t reconcile the not sharing with myself…why can’t I give me my copy on my other device”? Becky (Gen-X) noted a loss in control over what information is shared in the digital repositories for e-books, explaining that she stores her e-books ‘in the cloud’, not knowing how to delete them or preventing her children from inadvertently accessing e-books not intended for their perusal. In addition to confusion and frustration generated by ownership restrictions, participants expressed a strong sense of perceived unfairness over constraints which, in consequence, affected their value perceptions. Participants expressed that pricing for digital products, particularly e-books, is not aligned with value experienced in possessing or using those goods. Kelsey (Millennial) argued: “E-books should be cheaper than they are, there should be a bigger difference in price. When you get a ‘book book’ you get something for that money later,” referring to options to sell or repurpose the book. Becky (Gen-X) noted that it seemed harder to keep track of expenses when buying digital books: “In terms of my digital book habit, it’s expensive … It’s $9.99 [for an e-book], every the instant gratification, the $9.99 every single’s kind of a luxurious extravagance …I think that purchasing [e-books] digitally … doesn’t feel as real, like it’s not really money that I’m spending.”

Theme 2: limited control over digital books hinders social exchange and bonding

Beyond this general sense that control of digital possessions was inadequate, three particular violations of ownership/control expectations were discussed: sharing, gifting, and disposition. According to property rights theory, among the fundamental rights ownership affords is the right to alienate the thing possessed, either by consuming or destroying it or by transferring it to someone else. Consumers value the ability to sell, gift, donate, lend, share, and bequeath possessions to others, pointing to the important role of social embeddedness in consumption, that is the extent to which consumers’ action takes place within a web of social attachments such as friendship and kinship (Hess et al. 2011). These forms of social exchange are significantly restricted in the digital realm which leads to a diminished sense of legal and psychological ownership toward e-books.


A common theme in all our focus groups was the enjoyment of book sharing with friends and family. Sharing equates to borrowing and lending and is known to play an important function in social relationships (Jenkins et al. 2014). Although e-books can be shared (e.g., allows an e-book purchaser to loan an e-book one time for up to 14 days; Amazon 2017), many consumers still feel unable to share their digital books (digital music was shared by many participants, albeit often illegally). Veronica (Gen-X) commented: “Well, usually if it’s something you want to read again, it’s also something you want to share. Even though digital is sometimes shareable, it’s not very easy to do. It’s a lot easier to hand somebody a [physical] book. And they can give it back to you”. While individual access to digital products is convenient, product sharing is intentionally hampered by legal and technical constraints, leading participants to express frustration and anger because, in general, participants saw social value in joint experiences which were diminished in the digital realm. Cynthia (Gen-X) summarized her disapproval: “Once you download it, it’s done. You can’t share the love”.


The practice of gifting is an essential aspect of human interaction in every society as gifts facilitate the expression of feelings and maintenance of social ties (Camerer 1988). Although e-books can be given as gifts, it appears that social custom dictates that gifts should be material (rather than digital) as several participants in this study expressed a belief that digital files make inelegant gift options. Ashley (Millennial) explained: “I’m more likely to send hard copies than to give a digital file. It’d just be awkward to give someone ‘a file’ for their birthday. You give them a book”. She expressed similar views on the bequest of books: “I have a bunch of books that I got from my grandmother before she died ... you can’t replace that... sentimental value.”

Disposition: Because of the perception that what you buy, you own and can do with as you please, some participants also lamented their inability to sell used e-books after reading them, especially e-textbooks. The following viewpoint expressed by Elena (Millennial) was echoed by many: “Sometimes I order actual books because then I can resell them. … You can’t do that with e-books, which is annoying”. Participants, thus, perceived digital products to be of lesser value as possessions given the restrictions to freely exchange or dispose of them, as summarized by Debra (Gen-X): “For me books have a longer life and so it’s less wasteful, in many ways, because … you can give it away, donate it to somebody that wants it, and it has a life.”

Theme 3: digital books preclude development of attachment, a sense of self, and belonging

As e-books offer fewer customization and personalization options than physical books, individuals felt hindered in their ability to relate to these items as unique and personal, preventing them from building a sense of identity with their digital possessions and from developing feelings of attachment and ownership. For example, our participants felt that the very act of writing or highlighting a physical book makes it ‘your own’. Although these options are, indeed, available for e-books, performing these tasks did not seem to facilitate a feeling of personalization. Therefore, participants’ attitudes toward physical products clearly differed from their digital correlates, including differences in how products serve self-definition functions and create a sense of place and belonging as part of psychological ownership.

Attachment to an object is further facilitated by information possessed about the target of ownership (Pierce et al. 2003). Based on our study findings, we argue that psychological ownership is enhanced through engagement of different senses which increases the amount of available information. This is a domain where digital products are falling behind. Reflecting on physical books, Becky (Gen-X) noted: “My daughter and I both have this sensation about opening a new book, and smelling it”. Beyond the olfactory sensation, tactile, and visual senses are also involved. As Bob (Baby Boomer) expounded: “There’s that rush when you open up a fresh book and there’s a smell that comes out of it... you get more information from a [physical] book. You have the cover and the back and the author’s statement and all those things that are always in front of you, which you don’t have with the digital copy.”

While the digital product seemed not to convey meaning beyond its (primary) entertainment or informational value, digital devices, such as smartphones or e-readers, were perceived by our participants to offer opportunities for self-extension (see also Sinclair and Tinson 2017). It appears that our core social identities are formed more through material goods than their digital counterparts (O’Shaughnessy and O’Shaughnessy 2002). In part, this is due to the private nature of digital consumption, which some participants lamented. Tom (Baby Boomer) noted a difference between digital and physical books as conversation starters: “I look at the [physical] book and see what somebody is reading and there is a bit of information right there about that person. It’s an opening for dialogue … with the computer it’s the opposite of inviting. All you see is a black box. It tells you absolutely nothing about that person.”

A way to express oneself via possessions is the display of collections. People collect and publicly display objects as symbolic expressions of their self-identity (Dittmar 1992; Pierce et al. 2003). However, according to our participants, it requires physical book collections to express something about the owner. Debra (Gen X) explained: “People come over to your house, and they’re like oh, you’re so well read. You don’t get that with e-books.” Elena (Millennial) noted how she gains an impression of other people by looking at their physical book collection: “If you walk into this person’s home [you know] this person is erudite and well-versed, they are engaged, they clearly have some disposable income. Everything that they value… I would learn from their bookcases.”

Overall, sentimental, important, special, and relational items need to be in physical form, need to be possessed and need to be kept because of their ability to create a sense of attachment and belonging. For many participants, digital products were temporary and easily replaceable, indicating a lack of connection. Rebecca (Millennial) said: “Material is material for a reason. Digital you can always find on the internet again”. In fact, it seems as if only ownership of the physical book really instills a meaningful connection with the product. Debra (Gen X) related that “If I have an attachment or a personal interest in it, if I think it’s something that I want to hold on to, that would make me buy the actual physical book compared to the digital. …If I want to read it again, I have a physical copy even if I might also have digital, I definitely have physical copies of my favorites.” Several participants alluded to the fact that they owned both, a physical and a digital version of the same book title. Becky (Gen-X) noted: “There are series where I have physical and digital copies because I couldn’t wait. So I bought the digital copy and then I went out and ordered the [physical copy] so I can have it on my shelf, because it’s so good.” Sara (Baby Boomer) pointed out the value in keeping both physical and digital copies: “When I was going through the house, I found some fabulous family history … which I will keep forever and my kids will treasure too, but the nice thing is, we can transfer it [to a digital format], so that we’ll be able to read it because the ink is fading and it’s hard to read it.”

Much of the perceived value in sentimental physical possessions derives from the fact that they once belonged to someone else (Swilley et al. 2014) or to a younger version of the self. Kate (Baby Boomer) related: “I have a story book of Snow White from when I was six years old and I still have it. I keep it in a case and I love it – the pictures and everything. It’s something that is so beautiful”. Children’s books were frequently mentioned as treasured items that could not be replaced with digital formats. Carla (Millennial) for example shared that she would always prefer Dr. Seuss books in physical format. Participants expressed the need to keep such treasured items, clearly valuing ownership and the memories associated with them, and the opportunity for continued possession in the family. Carla (Millennial) shared: “I think it’s really special if your mom reads you a book when you are little and then you can pass it on, like that actual thing”. Interestingly, series like Harry Potter can be read in digital format, but owning the physical versions was deemed important. When Debra (Gen-X) mentioned, “I have all the Harry Potters in hardback”, other participants concurred, “You have to have that” (Patricia, Gen-X).

While these statements are not indicative of participants’ general attitude regarding physical books as a product category as they only refer to a particular book title, participants proclaimed to be connected on a deeper level with certain physical books. Nobody mentioned that a particular digital book was an important and loved possession. Arguably, such special possessions do not exist in the digital realm.

Theme 4: a minimalist lifestyle encourages a preference for digital books

While all participants agreed that they perceived a reduced sense of ownership over their digital possessions compared to their physical ones, some saw ownership as a burden and used digital products to relieve themselves from maintenance work and storage requirements associated with physical objects. With respect to physical books, Rachel (Gen-X) explained that “I don’t want to dust them and have them around.” Several participants felt that, because digital products take up decidedly less physical space, they afford consumers a unique opportunity to dispossess often burdensome physical collections of ‘stuff’, enabling ‘lean’ consumption and ownership options. Elena (Millennial) expressed: “If someone stole all my hard books, … I would mourn it but there would also be that kind of freeing feeling…‘Uhh, no stuff’.” Debra (Gen-X) elucidated how she dealt with unwanted physical books: “I go the library, I just don’t want stuff in the house and, if I do own it, once I’m done with it, I take it to Bookman’s [a local used book store] or give it to a friend.” For her, “the clutter issue is huge. And even my kids are on this whole bandwagon, [they say] ‘let’s give all our books away and you can give us an e-reader’”.

Some study participants acknowledged that their perspectives on ownership evolved over time. Tom (Baby Boomer) described that: “It used to be I liked collecting books. I liked reading, I liked keeping the book that I read, I liked having the book on the shelf that I was going to read, just that kind of thing. But it seems as I’ve gotten into a different phase of my life, less is more. I don’t want all those books on my shelf and I don’t want to figure out what to do with them or have to have someone else have to figure out what to do with them … I think I have changed in that way. I think it’s a fundamental shift in my world view around books as possessions.”

Theme 5: preference for value-in-use encourages e-book usage

Our study participants found that e-books offer several unique benefits that are primarily derived from consumers’ usage of the products, rather than ownership. Access, as opposed to ownership transfer, appears to be gaining more acceptance among consumers as an alternative form of consumption (Belk 2013). Several participants agreed that their digital consumption habits resembled renting more than buying. Others were used to accessing digital content from services such as the local library. This familiarity made restrictions on property rights more acceptable, as outlined by Ashley (Millennial) who explained that “I think access is fine with me. I like to go to the library and check out a book and once I’ve read it, I’m good.” In particular, providing access seems sufficient, if not preferable, when no repeated usage was anticipated. For instance, many preferred more frivolous or racy books in digital format. Lisa (Gen-X) offered that “It totally depends on what kind of book it is. If it’s a book that I want or that I have more respect for, or that I’ll have more use for, I’ll purchase it and put it in my library. But if it’s Laurell K. Hamilton [an American fantasy and romance writer], or if I had to read ‘50 Shades of Gray’, I would get it digitally, just because of the quality”. Rachel (Gen-X) further elaborated on the advantages of the inconspicuousness enabled by digital products and, inferentially, access-based consumption: “I used to like that whole thing of having people see [my collection of books], then I thought, I really don’t like people knowing what I read”.

Theme 6: in the book realm, the generational divide is tenuous

In this study, we segregated focus groups along generational lines in order to examine whether generational assumptions about technology adoption would impact the ways that our participants interacted with their digital possessions. Marketing practitioners and academics have taken an interest in the Millennial generation, in particular, and media sources portray this age group as technologically savvy with digital experiences embedded into many aspects of their lives (Jones et al. 2010; Kilian et al. 2012). Belk (2014, p. 133) suggested that “to those who have grown up in the digital age, physical copies and individual ownership are less important”, making access and use the prime concern of younger consumers. This stereotypical notion is echoed by our participants. Elena (Millennial) assumed that different generations may have different preferences: “I feel that our parents’ generation probably feels more secure when they have the [physical book]…. For instance, my older colleagues like things printed so they can see the paper. I would much rather have it electronically because then I can’t lose it, there’s a back-up. I think that is totally generationalfor sure the younger generation are totally digital.” However, she herself prefers physical books: “I’m reluctant to buy e-books because I like the tactile factor of being able to feel the book and flip the page.” Overall, attitudes toward e-books were more negative than expected amongst the youngest age group. These young people expressed a strong preference for physical books which differed markedly from the older groups, where e-book adoption actually seemed more widespread. Bob (Baby Boomer) proclaimed: “I would go all digital but I have a fear that the libraries would go away. I’d hate to see that happen.” Amongst the oldest generational cohort, participants mentioned physical advantages in the e-book experience that may not be relevant to younger users, such as the ability to increase font size and forgo reading glasses, and the lack of wrist pain associated with holding an e-reader compared to a heavy hardcover book. Regardless of age, no participant was comfortable with the idea of a wholly digital reading experience as almost everyone expressed strong attachments to physical books in certain circumstances and contexts.

Discussion and implications

As the need to own and control property spills over into the digital realm (Hogan 2014), the findings from our focus groups suggest that the conceptualization of digital ownership is distinct from that of traditional material ownership. Digital goods are a unique product category with digital consumption playing a different role in individuals’ lives compared to consumption of material goods. Contrary to our initial expectations of a generational divide, we did not find evidence of marked differences in the perception of both digital and physical books across our focus group participants. Rather, the stereotypical ‘digital divide’ was refuted by our study participants in that a preference for e-books was more expressed among the older groups. This finding summarized above in Theme 6 aligns with research by Antόn et al. (2017) that attachment to paper books determines e-book (non)usage even amongst technologically oriented individuals. In this way, generational comfort with technological devices may matter less than has previously been assumed.

Referencing the three fundamental functions that possessions may serve according to Pierce et al. (2003) (efficacy, self-identity, and place or belonging), it seems consumers’ needs are met only partially in the digital realm. The ability to exercise control over the use of an object affords individuals a sense of power and safety, which is often not possible in the digital context due to restrictions in legal ownership, as crystallized in Themes 1 and 2 which both refer to publishers’ restrictive business models around usage. While aware of legal restrictions of product usage, study participants relied on previously established notions of ownership, and expected similar accompanying disposition rights in digital contexts. The value consumers experience in ‘owning’ books is at least partly due to dispositional control as consumers like to sell, gift, donate, lend, share, and bequeath their possessions to others. As these dispositional options are significantly restricted with e-books (see also Edmondson and Ward 2016), our participants articulated a diminished sense of ownership and value, finding e-books to be overpriced for what they provide.

Lending and borrowing seem to be an essential part of the ownership experience afforded by books, but existing options for sharing in the digital realm were either unknown or appeared impractical to our study participants, leading to discontent as identified in Theme 2., a dominant player in the e-book market, has started to enable e-book lending among consumers under the following conditions: ‘lendability’ must be allowed by the book’s publisher, each lendable book can be lent one time for a period of 14 days, and lending is only authorized within the United States (Amazon 2017). With social sharing becoming ubiquitous in our everyday social interactions, especially for Millennials, sharing-friendly options such as these are indispensable in digital products (Kilian et al. 2012). In addition, the online retailer offers gift card options for e-books. While these strategies clearly tap consumers’ perceived need to share or gift their physical books with others, the replication effort seems somewhat incomplete and not entirely appealing. The important role of sharing illuminated by our study findings would suggest that online book retailers consider the ‘trajectory of adaptation’ to consumer wants in the digital music market, and increase their efforts to emulate music consumption with regard to this distinct consumer need to share. For instance, similar to iTunes gift cards, which are gaining acceptance as gifts, combining e-cards or material gift cards with the distribution of a download link might compensate for the fact that e-books cannot be gift-wrapped or ceremoniously presented to the recipient.

Themes 3 to 5 directly relate to the physicality of the product or lack thereof. Product ownership and possession serve important functions in terms of asserting individuality which is directly referenced in Theme 3. Possessions can serve as prominent symbolic expressions of the self for the purposes of both self-definition and self-image projection to others (Belk 1988; Mittal 2006). We did not see that our study participants had a relationship with their digital possessions that would instill a sense of comfort (Furby 1978; Pierce et al. 2003) in their search for individuality and self-understanding, providing contrast to similar studies in the digital music realm. As Sinclair and Tinson (2017) found with respect to music streaming, consumers’ interactions across social media platforms, posting links to songs and playlists, and allowing other users to follow their activities present opportunities to convey their ideal self through their digital music collections, which, according to our findings, was not perceived as an option regarding e-books.

Digital books also did not help our study participants in establishing a sense of place or belonging. Our participants unanimously thought of material objects when linking personally relevant memories with past product experiences, or assessing options for social exchange and belongingness. In particular, certain physical books such as children’s books, cookbooks and favorite novels seemed integral to consumers’ identity. Moreover, and despite the ubiquitous digitization of even the most personal keepsakes, like photo albums kept in digital repositories or ‘the cloud’, our results seem to indicate that digital goods are less suited to the creation of memory traces or imprints in consumers’ minds. Perhaps one’s personal history and sense of belonging become less tangible in the digital world, which in turn challenges consumer ownership sentiments in digital contexts. In summary, ownership plays a much-downgraded role in the digital realm, diminishing consumers’ valuation of e-books.

The observations crystallized in our Main Themes lead to two oppositional marketing implications for the electronic marketplace, namely emulation versus emancipation. Notably, the themes identified in this research offer marketers starting points for both strategic directions. On the one hand, digital product development efforts can be directed towards narrowing the gap between digital and material consumption experiences (emulation strategy) by adopting certain features from the physical book experience, or by increasing personalization and self-expression options, which may lead to increased psychological ownership. For instance, employing skeuomorphism, a process through which functionally unnecessary features more commonly associated with material objects are added to their digital counterparts, like shutter noises on smartphone cameras (Page 2014; Atasoy and Morewedge 2018), into more technologically advanced e-readers may render individual e-books more “physical” by integrating sounds of turning pages, visually appealing book covers, pictures, or maps. This also creates a more inspiring, engaging and memorable product experience and can increase consumers’ feelings of psychological ownership of their e-books (Atasoy and Morewedge 2018). The improved digital reading experience would help alleviate consumer concerns expressed in Themes 1 and 3 of the Main Themes. In response to Themes 2 and 3, enhanced personalization features that enable setting customized bookmarks, inserting notes or drawings, putting the reader in a story, or integrating touch screen options to create more of a ‘pop-up’ experience for children, and facilitate a different sort of bonding between parent and child, may invite readers of digital content to revisit their e-books and value them more as individual possessions. Such mass customization of digital products may not only satisfy the consumer but also company needs (Addis and Holbrook 2001; Hunt et al. 2013), as digital customers today expect personalized products and customized services (Leimeister et al. 2014). Overall, this strategic direction would serve to further increase the value-in-use of digital books, Theme 5, while simultaneously addressing deficits of this format, thus, enabling increased self-expression and attachment through added product features and customizable versions of e-books. With that, some of the preferred features of printed books could be emulated, while retaining the perceived benefits of the digital product. This strategy could also address some consumers’ concern that the price of e-books is too high for what is being offered, as noted in Theme 1, and could augment consumers’ perceived benefits of e-book consumption.

On the other hand, and entirely contrary to the strategy above, digital consumption may be (re)positioned as unique and different from the consumption of physical products (emancipation strategy). We found that consumers who conflated digital consumption with meanings of ownership traditionally associated with material possessions showed the deepest levels of frustration. They also question price fairness when comparing digital versus physical book prices. The introduction of novel value components to the digital product experience, which set it apart from the physical, might help to better separate ownership expectations in the digital and physical domains, or even render them irrelevant as expressed with Theme 5. Novel value components such as recommendation or dictionary features are already available with e-readers. In much the same way that people develop taste practices around listening to genres of music (Hennion 2001), creating soundscapes related to book content could provide unique value in the digital reading experience, blurring the lines to video gaming. This could aid with Theme 3 by increasing sense of belonging in a purely digital way. Further, some consumers may enjoy selection features that identify textbook sections that have received the most highlighting by other readers to guide their own reading and learning process in response to Theme 2; others may value the instantaneous availability of newly-purchased books or songs on their devices. By framing digital consumption as a service, consumers may be more accepting of the limits that are already being imposed on usage in the digital sphere. After all, ownership rights do not seem to be implied or expected in subscription-based services like Spotify (Sinclair and Tinson 2017) or Amazon’s ‘Kindle Unlimited’. Underscoring the drive towards minimalism and value-in-use expressed in Themes 4 and 5, marketers may achieve greater customer satisfaction with digital products by framing e-book consumption as a (rental) service experience or form of access-based consumption (Bardhi and Eckhardt 2012), possibly including a repositioning of their offerings as providing a reading experience, as opposed to book selling. By offering access instead of product ownership, publishers and booksellers fundamentally transform their business model to become service providers. In this regard, it is notable that a small number of our study participants seemed to enjoy the flexibility and enhanced convenience that digital consumption offers, leaving them less concerned with retention of full ownership rights and the need to own physical possessions. Adopting an emancipation strategy by positioning e-book usage as a service instead of phrasing it in the traditional terms of ownership (e.g.,’s offer to ‘buy now with 1-click’) may also counteract consumer confusion that negatively impacts attitudes toward digital products and their adoption. Clearly delimiting purchase agreements and their accompanying rights will help consumers better manage their ownership expectations surrounding their digital belongings as noted in Theme 1. Once consumers have a better understanding of the core service offered, several value-added services can be promoted to enrich the unique value-in-use proposition of digital consumption, such as community sharing, online reader discussion groups and similar digitally-mediated services. This strategic direction would build on consumers’ perceptions of value-in-use of digital books and serve to set proper consumer expectations with respect to the legal and experiential limits of digital books. Current consumer dissatisfaction with e-book prices could also be prevented. Notably, this second strategy goes far beyond the enhancement of product characteristics as it requires adaptations of providers’ business models.

Limitations, outlook on future research opportunities and conclusion

Naturalistic inquiry as represented in our focus group interviews offers rich and symbolically meaningful data (Hines 2000). Research findings, however, are not generalizable as the sample size prohibits assumptions of representativeness (Krueger and Casey 2000) and focus group discussions are the product of particular interactions within a group (Threlfall 1999). Follow-up studies should address these limitations, as well as investigate the impacts of gender, as well as age on experiences of digital ownership in more detail. Our sample showed a notable, if purely coincidental gender imbalance and striking differences between age groups were mostly absent, although focus groups were convened around generational cohorts. The latter may have been a result of our intentional high-technology use sampling strategy. Future studies might employ a broader sampling approach.

Our research findings are circumscribed to the book context. Future research could also expand the context for studying consumer relationships with digital products more generally. We intentionally selected books because this product category offered the most similarities between digital and physical formats, but, as initially stated, many consumers perceive books to be rather special. A broader array of digital product categories such as music, audiobooks, photos, documents, or video games could be included in future research projects to examine how our findings apply to other digital product domains. Moreover, future studies could build on the themes identified in our focus groups and apply a confirmatory study design such as surveys or experiments to gain deeper insights into perceptions of and attitudes toward digital ownership. Continuative research might also focus on what approaches to enhance the digital product experience and emulate physical consumption are most effective in fulfilling ownership needs with respect to control, identity-formation and sense of belonging. Other studies can investigate whether an emancipation strategy of the digital product experience from its physical correlate might be a better approach in companies’ quest to shape consumer preferences, and what business models are best suited for such approach. The notion that consumers ascribe neither ownership nor possession to digital products they have purchased may limit their perceptions of value. As described by Thaler (1980), the goods that one owns tend to be valued more highly than identical goods one does not own (Reb and Connolly 2007). Future research on this endowment effect could focus on digital (intangible) products, or unravel how consumers’ relation to their digital devices (e.g., Kindle) impacts perceptions of ownership of their digitized content (e-book files).

As noted by Belk (2013), much still remains to be uncovered with regard to digital products, and how individuals and institutions deal with them. This study provides initial insights into how consumers perceive ownership in the digital realm. It contributes to current knowledge by showing that sense of ownership decreases when dealing with digital instead of physical books, which according to current marketing thought would signify that such products have less impact on consumers’ lives (Peck and Shu 2009; Belk 2013). This contrasts with the undeniable fact that digital products, in general, are by now deemed indispensable by many consumers. We offer a deeper understanding of consumers’ conceptualizations of book ownership in the digital sphere and develop two possible approaches, emulating the digital product experience or a complete emancipation from physical product correlates. This may allow marketers to better manage ownership expectations of digital belongings, and proactively design an enhanced digital product experience.

A small number of our study participants seemed to enjoy the flexibility and enhanced convenience that digital consumption offers, making them less concerned with retention of full ownership rights. Redesigning marketing practices by creating multiple tiers of usage – ranging from strictly access to full ownership – may create more alignable expectations for consumers surrounding their digital products. Admittedly, there is as yet no agreement as to what these expectations should be (Helberger 2011). We uncovered a more pronounced distinction between consumers’ ‘need to own’ and their ‘need to access’ in the realm of digital products. While the relation between the former and material possessions has been studied in the literature, the role of digital possessions in consumers’ lives is underexplored. The nature of these possessions as intangible and immaterial makes this investigation all the more interesting. This research project thus sought to expose the value of digital objects as possessions, identifying six unique themes that underlie consumer interpretations of ownership in the digital realm that may guide future research and marketing practice.


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Copyright information

© Institute of Applied Informatics at University of Leipzig 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Retailing & Consumer SciencesUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  2. 2.Take Charge America InstituteUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  3. 3.Department of MarketingTowson UniversityTowsonUSA

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