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Sorry, but e-readers aren’t dead

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A very dramatic report released Monday by market research firm IHS iSuppli says the e-reader market is “on an alarmingly precipitous decline,” with shipments estimated to fall to 10.9 million units in 2013, down from 14.9 million this year and 23.2 million in 2011.

The collapse is “virtually unheard of,” the company says, but it makes sense because “single-task devices like the ebook readers are being replaced without remorse in the lives of consumers by their multifunction equivalents, in this case by media tablets.”

“Replaced without remorse”? Let’s be clear: Buying a tablet instead of an e-reader isn’t immoral. Every time you buy a tablet, an e-reader jumps off a bridge? False.

It’s not surprising that fewer people are buying e-readers as more and lower-priced tablets come on the market. But it doesn’t correlate that e-readers are going extinct.

iSuppli says “uni-tasking” devices like “digital still cameras, GPS systems and MP3 players” and e-readers all “face similar pressures and battle dim prospects ahead,” replaced by multipurpose smartphones. However, while a smartphone can replicate GPS, music and most consumer picture-taking near perfectly, it is not a good substitute for an e-reader. It may be an acceptable substitute for limited reading, but it doesn’t provide a better reading experience.

E-readers also have major benefits over tablets. They weigh a lot less, their battery life is much better and their screens are easier to read on. For avid readers, those are major benefits. Front-lit e-readers — the Kindle Paperwhite, Nook with GlowLight and Kobo Glo — are an evolution and an example of how e-readers can continue to get better without adding tablet-like functions. That said, it’s not essential to replace an e-reader that often, as my colleague Robert Andrews points out:

“I think e-readers experienced very rapid uptake because they were essentially brand new. Once they’ve got an e-reader, I think many owners don’t feel the need to succumb to a fast upgrade cycle; it does the job. So I think sales growth will naturally be slower.”

Market research companies like iSuppli focus on growth metrics. Avid readers who like a certain device and don’t replace it often aren’t glamorous and don’t make for a good press release.

It’s also clear (and obvious) that, for people who don’t read much, a tablet is a better choice than an e-reader. But just as professional photographers aren’t throwing out their SLRs for an iPhone, heavy readers won’t swap their e-reader for a tablet — though they might own both.

18 Responses to “Sorry, but e-readers aren’t dead”

  1. Good point about DRM. As a life long publishing vet, book lover, I know we’re testing readers’ patience on that point. I understand the complicated back story, but consumers are annoyed to realize that their (not inexpensive) device only allows them access to (what seems to them) particular titles/content selection. This Christmas will prove e-readers aren’t dead (nor are p-bks, btw), but if Consumers Ruled and e-book mfgers really wanted to become a standard accessory for the next generation, they’d allow common content on all devices and compete for those consumers instead on DESIGN and useful FEATURES of their device and other REAL loyalty-building add ons…say, KOBO Only User Author meet/greets….or NOOK User opportunity to have James Franco message on your phone….or..or…you get the idea. If you don’t, get into another business, please.

  2. Edward Bear

    The basic question with an e-reader is: why should I carry an extra gadget just to read books when a smartphone and Aldiko can carry my schedule, contacts list, and perform a host of other functions?

  3. My Kindle was stolen from my bag in the pub the other day. It was later found stuffed behind the ladies loo. I’m sure that if it had been a tablet it would never have been retrieved. Thieves are not interested in e-readers, which is fine by me.

  4. Robert Cooper

    As a bookseller, delightful news. The second-hand book market remains robust. Buy a second-hand book — it’s like buying a nearly new car, and you can resell or trade in much cheaper than downloading books that have no value or character. I sell new and second-hand and allow trade between the two. The publishing and book retail industry can compete if it adapts to people’s needs and is logical in offering a good deal.

  5. Lisa Rowe

    I have 2 tablets, an android phone, and am on my 2nd Kindle (I early-adopted, then got a Kindle 3-Keyboard).

    I read books only on my Kindle. I use my Fire or iPad for magazines, apps, etc. Long-form reading on a tablet is just plain unpleasant.

    I don’t think ereader retailers are crying, either. Both B&N and Amazon benefit from ereaders long after they’ve gotten the initial sale. People keep buying books to read ON them. I’ve spent easily 20 times as much on ebooks than I did on any e-reader.

  6. The ‘computer’ is by definition a ‘general purpose machine’, so restricting computerised devices to single applications is bound to conflict with the general trend (this applies as much to tablets as to e-readers so Apple’s I-pad restrictions will go to in the long run).. It’s great to take an e-reader on holiday with a book to read, dictionaries for translation, guide material in PDF form, etc. but it’s also obvious that I could back up my photos (& look at them) on a computerised device., plus use location apps. Both tablets and e-readers have room to evolve yet. A technological fix might a multi-mode screen

  7. I wonder how much of the slowdown can be attributed to market saturation? I imagine that people hold on to e-ink readers longer than other types of electronic devices as there is less reason to upgrade on a recurring basis. For instance, I’ve had a Sony PRS-505 for over 4 years, read on it nearly daily, probably averaging over 30 minutes a day and it still works fine. While the screen isn’t as crisp and bright as the current devices, it is still very acceptable to me. I have no real desire to upgrade until a reliable lighted epub-capable unit is available; the Nook Glow reader, for instance, has way too many reviews of the device getting light “tears”.

    I could, however, see widespread use in tablets of a screen technology such as Pixel Qi drastically impacting e-ink reader sales.

  8. Matt Eagar

    Wow – rather surprised at the reaction here, as I think iSuppli is generally right. For what it’s worth, I also think you are correct in your assertion that as a niche market e-readers will exist for a long time. But a couple of years ago they were very clearly mainstream and popping up everywhere, and that party seems to be over. I do think there is a lot of overlap between e-readers and tablets, and that will cut into the industry, with the result being that weaker competitors drop out or get swallowed. Yes, I can almost guarantee that we will still have Kindles and Nooks 5 years from now, but there were a bunch of startups in this space, and I don’t think there’s much left for them now.

    The comparison to cameras is a good one. A few years ago I started to see a lot of D-SLRs at school events. Now I see a lot more smartphones out there taking pictures. The smartphones aren’t as good optically, but they are convenient and ever-present, and they’ve become “good enough” as far as the actual photo quality goes. Sure, there are still a few photo enthusiasts lugging around camera bags with lenses, flashes, and D-SLR bodies, but the mass market for these has been ebbing.

  9. Essentially you’re arguing why e-readers shouldn’t go extinct, but you provide no evidence that they aren’t going extinct, anyway. No doubt they would do a better job, but like a BB with a keyboard is a better tool for writing email, it nonetheless continues to decline in popularity.

  10. Lisa Baker

    I have both, and will never use a tablet soley for reading. I prefer my Nook simple touch as the written page mimics a book, is light weight, and easy to carry. I may eventually upgrade to the Nook with the Glow light, but have a book light I use now when I need it. Thanks for the good article. :)

  11. Taylor Trask

    Having owned both an iPad and a 2012 Kindle, I can say without question it’s easier to read on the kindle. After looking at LCD screens all day (laptop, phone, tv) the last thing I want to do is lie in bed with another LCD screen to read a book on. The kindle is as close to paper as we can get at this time, and with the price point of $65 – was totally worth it.

  12. I love my e-reader, the Nook SimpleTouch with GlowLight, and use other single-task devices in addition to my smartphone, computer, etc. With decreasing costs, consumers can have devices that are jack-of-all-trades and also devices that are masters of one.

  13. “heavy readers won’t swap their e-reader for a tablet ” -that makes isuppli’s point , the target audience is shrinking.
    But all that doesn’t even matter,an ereader is defined by the screen tech it uses (as it is ereaders can be easily seen as as a tablet subcategory) .As technology evolves there might not be any difference between an ereader and a tablet and at that point ereaders are really dead.