On Tom’s Guide, writer Marshall Honorof has an interesting, lengthy report looking at the apparent fate of the e-ink e-reading device. Honorof begins by noting that the ebook format is doing just fine, but use of the dedicated reader device itself seems to be dwindling.
Why could this be? Honorof observes that people don’t necessarily need to buy new e-ink hardware as often as they might tablets, since older readers still work just fine, but that doesn’t provide the whole answer. He cites a Pew report showing that the percentage of people who own any e-ink reader is also decreasing.
Honorof also hears from an Amazon representative, who provides the expected but not terribly useful statement that Kindle sales are still doing just fine, thank you, nothing to see here, move along. (Barnes & Noble doesn’t say anything on the record about ereader sales.)
The report gets a little confused from here, as it wanders off into noting that authors are still selling plenty of ebooks—which, while it does support the earlier contention that the format is doing just fine, nonetheless doesn’t say anything about why use of the hardware device is decreasing. It also notes that genre books are especially popular as ebooks, since they tend to be “doorstoppers” and a lot easier to carry around on your Kindle than in paper—which, again, is probably true, but doesn’t speak to why the e-ink version’s use is dwindling.
But as to the report’s main point, I don’t think there’s any great mystery why e-ink reader use is dwindling. When the Kindle came out, smartphones were in their first couple of really usable generations, and consumer-friendly tablets weren’t a thing at all. In fact, the first truly consumer-friendly tablet, the iPad, would only be introduced a couple of years later. In fact, a big part of the purpose of the iPad’s introduction was to be a “Kindle-killer,” via the launch of the iBooks store and the introduction of agency pricing.
In the end, that didn’t work out quite the way Apple wanted. But in the longer term, iPads and their ilk have made reading on tablets a lot more attractive—and Amazon, with its new line of super-cheap Fire tablets, has further cannibalized itself by making a decent, useful media tablet available for significantly less than its very cheapest e-ink reader.
In the Kindle’s early days, people who wanted to do a lot of ebook reading, and could afford the price, would invest in e-ink readers because they offered the biggest-screen, most legible reading experience available at the time. But now, for casual readers, it’s a lot more economical to buy a tablet that can not only read books, but view all sorts of media and browse the Internet as well. Maybe there’s a little more eyestrain than e-ink, but not too much, especially if they’re not going to be reading for long periods at a stretch—and they can do other stuff with it, too. (Though research from the Codex Group suggests that people with tablets buy fewer ebooks than those with e-ink readers, it still remains to be seen whether this is actually a long-term trend.)
The only people buying e-ink readers now are the ones who care enough about reading to spend the extra money on a superb, distraction-free e-ink experience. (Or are otherwise in situations where e-ink readers would be useful. I’m not permitted to use Internet-connected gadgets like smartphones or tablets at my day job, but an e-ink reader is just fine.) Amazon seems to be taking note of this, as it’s shifted its focus lately toward more expensive models like the Oasis line, with few or no upgrades to its bare-bones models in quite a while. I suppose they think that, if someone’s prepared to spend a hundred bucks or so on e-reading already, why wouldn’t they be willing to spend two or three hundred?
It might also be that part of the reason behind this is that people are simply reading less in general. There’s an article in the New York Times along these lines, and a Mike Shatzkin column that mentions it, suggesting that text is on the decline in general, being supplanted by all the new audiovisual media that the Internet is making possible. But this mainly seems to apply to on-line stuff; I’m not so sure it extends to the books people read for relaxation.
But at this point, does e-ink reader market share even matter anymore? Every major ebook vendor has mobile apps as well as e-ink readers. Plenty of people read ebooks on phones, tablets, desktop computers, and other devices. Even if e-ink reader usage dwindles, and even if Big Five publishers don’t seem to understand ebooks’ appeal, there’s still every indication ebooks will continue to thrive as long as people have any interest at all in consuming printed words.