E-readers Aren’t Dying, They’re Entrenched

A new Pew report with all sorts of nifty data on tablets and e-reading suggests that the sales of dedicated e-readers themselves, like Kindles and Nooks, have stalled, and may be headed downward.

I think this is interesting, because the common view seems to be that this is due to the popularity and overall utility of tablets (like the iPad and Kindle Fire) obviating the need for reading-specific devices.

But I suspect that it's because the market for e-readers, and the work to which they are put, have more in common with, say, televisions than they do tablets and smartphones.

With things like iPhones and tablets, there's a kind of marketing and consumption mania that surrounds them, so that the latest-and-greatest is always tempting, and software is always rushing toward pushing hardware to its limits. So even if your iPhone 3GS from 2009 still works perfectly well, for example, you're going to feel behind in terms of functionality and performance.*

But I don't think this applies to e-readers. Think about your TV set. If you've bought one in the past eight years or so, you probably have a perfectly good flat-screen LCD or plasma HDTV set that you have no reason to upgrade, unless you're dying for a bigger screen than you have. But chances are the change in the performance of the device itself is not something you're probably even thinking about.

I think this is what it's like for Kindles and the like. You use your TV to watch video content, and that's about it. Very little has changed fundamentally in recent years to compel frequent upgrades. Likewise with e-readers: you're buying one to read books, and that's, again, about it. Yes there are subtle improvements generation over generation in resolution and contrast, but on the whole, a Kindle 1 from 2007 still lets you read books just fine. My wife has a Kindle 2 from 2009, and isn't the least bit interested in upgrading. She loves it.

So my guess is that dedicated e-readers as a concept, as a consumer product that is desired and used, has not, in fact, stalled, but rather, it's entrenching. Folks who want one for the most part now have one. Even if they bought one a couple of years ago, they're perfectly happy with it and have no reason to go poking around at the latest thing (or so they think: I do think the Kindle Paperwhite is a Big Leap Forward, but even so, not a necessary one if you already have a Kindle).

I think e-readers will also be hampered by the mere fact that most folks don't actually read. It sucks that this is so, but it is. Studies seem to show that those who do own e-readers read more books than those who stick to dead-tree books, but that will still find its ceiling with those who actually read and buy books. Once everyone who reads regularly gets an e-reader, well, it may take more than a flashy new iteration to produce another spike in sales for the category.

So I doubt that e-readers are in trouble as a thing ha folks own and use. But I do think they're somewhat exempt from what Jeff Bezos called “the upgrade treadmill,” a term he used when introducing the latest and greatest upgrades to his own line of Kindles.

* I should note that I'm one of those crazy upgraders, buying new phones, tablets, and yes, Kindles, as often as my finances and my wife will allow.

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19 thoughts on “E-readers Aren’t Dying, They’re Entrenched

  1. I have the Nook with glowlight. It replaced my first generation Nook with 3G. I purposely didn’t get the Nook websurfer, because I only use it for reading. The ONLY reason I upgraded was because my first Nook died. 😦

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  2. I rate my kindle as the best gadget I’ve ever had – and I would (and have) carried it with me travelling for some time. There are distinct advantages over tablets – my new Kindle touch is tiny, has a long battery life, very readable in bright sunlight.
    As long as you treat it as a book, and not as a low-functioning tablet, then I don’t think any of the (current) tablets can compete with it in the function for which it is intended.
    I can’t imagine reading a book on an iPad lying on a beach in Thailand.

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  3. And another thing!
    I don’t know what the carbon footprint of an e-book is, but I can imagine it’s tiny compared with that of one made of dead trees.
    Roll on the death of dead-tree books!

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  4. I can’t find a link, but in Japan there has been a trend toward books or comics that can be read on one’s phone. Each output contains single chapters or a few frames to be read daily or weekly. The goal behind it was to get readers to subscribe and pay regularly. Short snippets that are convenient to read might reverse the trend and get people reading, especially kids.
    PF says he’s the type to buy every new gadget and minor upgrade. I’m the reverse, I refuse to buy new things until the one I have wears out, features be damned. I don’t care that my last phone was over five years old didn’t couldn’t even handle PDF filres or Java – the thing still worked (until it died). It could, however, handed plain text, which I then read on it (from Gutenberg, copy/paste from the internet). My new phone is four or five generations ahead of it, and a year later I’m still working out all the features. (Screw apple, I will only ever buy Nokia.)

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  5. @ left0ver1under – Nokia are looking a little shaky! You may have to switch to Android. But I’m with you. If it performs the function, carry on using it.

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  6. I was given a Kobo Touch as an Xmas gift last year. I really like the thing. I don’t really trust Amazon so avoided the Kindle (or rather my wonderful girlfriend did!), and Nook isn’t an option in the UK. I was a bit underwhelmed at the software and store, but it gets flash updates regularly and the reader’s software is pretty nice now. PDF support is a bit iffy so I still avoid them. The store still isn’t as nice as Amazon, plus Amazon has content unavailable in epub, but there are ways & means… 😉
    There are still certain things that I will by in paper to add to my shelves, but I love the convenience of having an instant bookstore plus the light weight and small size.
    The new gen e-ink readers look interesting; on the other hand the last thing that I want is a tablet-format eReader. I spend my days looking at screens and find that the passive e-ink suits my eyes fine. I’d like to think that the eReader target market are more interested in function then “ooh, shiny” but this could cause a problem with market saturation as I know that personally I won’t look to upgrade my Kobo until something terminal happens to it.
    I’ll still be buying Iain Banks in dead tree format, mind you.

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  7. I think you’re probably right about the reason why reader sales are tapering off… but that leaves me wondering, why are some technologies more susceptible to new-mania than others? Is it that some devices are ‘seen’ more and thus become status symbols? I never really got that… I understand that some people feel a need to be at the bleeding edge, but I’ve always been more in tune with the “buy one and use it until it breaks, fix it, and if it can’t be fixed then upgrade” school of thought. Otherwise I only buy new things when they do something that my old things couldn’t.
    Huddling up in a cozy corner with a book is my happy place. I’ve toyed around with buying an e-book reader for some time, for the convenience factor, but I’ve never quite gotten to the point of buying one. I don’t like the DRM attached to the technology and I’ve never really liked reading off a screen when a paper copy was available. I have to admit that having an e-reader would let me pack a lot more reading material when I go out and about, though.

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  8. And another thing!
    I don’t know what the carbon footprint of an e-book is, but I can imagine it’s tiny compared with that of one made of dead trees.

    The e-book is just data, but the reading device itself (many advanced materials and manufacturing processes) has a high production cost both in energy and pollution. Once a single reading-device replaces more than a particular number of paper books, the footprint will break even, but it is hard to say what that number is without more data. It might be pretty high.

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  9. I have a second generation Nook. B&W. It does exactly and precisely what I want it to do. I have no need to upgrade.
    My iPhone can also download e-books, but I haven’t because the screen is too small for that purpose.
    I have no need for the other toys on the other tablets. So, I guess that makes me part of the “problem”, if it can be defined as such.

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  10. My husband got a kindle fire for Christmas, and passed his old kindle to my mother. I just replaced my kindle that I purchased in 2010 with another of the exact same model because I didn’t need to upgrade. It already did everything I wanted it too, and the lack of back lighting was a plus for me. Less eyestrain.
    I wish more books were available on kindle. I’ve run out of space for purchasing actual book-books, but there are still plenty more books out there that I want to have available.

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  11. Paper books and tree farms are carbon sinks. Kindles are energy intensive to produce. So whatever your reasons for preferring e-readers concern for the carbon footprint shouldn’t be one of them.

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  12. I have a Kindle 2. I’ve never even considered the thought of upgrading it (and honestly there’s no good reason to) but now it’s in my head. Thanks a lot! lol

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  13. I have a Sony Clie TH55 — Palm OS5, 240×360 full screenMobipocket reader for ebooks.
    Adjust font size — from tiny for many lines per page, to very large to suit my eyesight.
    Extensive font choice (with 3rd party software, tho’ I don’t use it, built ins are fine for reading.
    Dim brightness to near-zero for dark night reading (with 3rd party dimmer from Preuss)
    Reflective backscreen for excellent readability in full sunlight.
    User-replaceable battery (and parts!)
    Font colors: yellow on black for nighttime, for example; anything I want
    As a right-hander, I value the left-hand operation — thumbwheel on the back for page up/down works perfectly.
    Corner of a fingernail works perfectly well as stylus when the touchscreen input is needed.
    Read: anything. Convert to ASCII, then to palm format using PorDiBle on the Mac, or via Calibre.
    Huge available memory with Sony memory sticks.
    Mac sync with MissingSync.
    Amazon bought the Mobipocket software, and killed the product dead dead dead — they left the old archived software for a while but now the downloadable installation files are gone too.
    Nothing currently for sale comes close to the functionality for reading that gives me.
    The Palm was, marginally, a general purpose computer.
    I wish someone would build something as useful.
    Oh, and did I mention how useful Graffiti is for writing?

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  14. The only “new” features on e-readers nowadays are built-in illumination, colour screens and audio — none of which are exactly good for battery life. And more storage, but that’s almost irrelevant if you have a computer and/or it accepts a (micro) SD card. And they aren’t changing the e-book file formats anytime soon to something that will need the latest software. So unless you have a particular need for some feature, then an older, primitive e-reader is probably as good as it ever was.
    People will replace their e-readers when the screens fail, or the batteries no longer hold a charge; but my W.H.Smith Kobo Touch still works with paid-for and free e-books, and the lack of a backlight is hardly a problem. Paper books never had built-in backlights anyway!

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  15. The thing that’s stopping me from getting an e-reader at this point is the notion that my purchases can be redacted. I’m sure there are alternates on the market now that don’t have that ‘feature’, but since the flagship e-reader included it, I’m just suspicious of all of them. 😡
    I just want an e-reader that doesn’t cost the sun and moon and won’t suddenly decide books don’t exist.
    This should not be hard.

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  16. I kept using my old Kindle 2.0 until I got a new Kindle 4 as a Christmas gift. If that hadn’t happened, I would probably still be using the old K2 right now.
    So I think that you’re right – e-reader users will not tend to upgrade with every new update the way that smartphone and/or tablet users might. To me, that’s a more plausible explanation than readers being displaced by tablets.
    The e-ink display is so much better for reading on than a computer screen. I find it hard to imagine readers becoming obsolete anytime soon. There will probably need to be another step change in display technology before that happens.

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  17. StyleTap wasn’t the answer I was looking for (they don’t handle the Clie high resolution screen layout).
    So I bought another used Clie TH55.

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