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.