"More than machinery, we need humanity."

An Obituary for the E-Reader

Do you remember MiniDiscs? If so, kudos to you. But if not, know that you are far from alone. For a brief moment in the 90s MiniDiscs seemed like they would inevitably replace full sized CDs. And then they didn’t. Why not? Well, the answer to this is not simple, but I will offer a very simplistic answer: MiniDiscs were defeated because as they were taking a half step forward another technology jumped in front of them.

Indeed MiniDiscs seemed like they had a promising future. Until mp3 players knocked them out of the running.  And today it seems that a somewhat similar scenario may be playing out with e-readers and tablets.

Though it has been less than a decade since e-readers drove books, and all those with an emotional or economic interest in them, into a state of existential panic, the future of the dedicated e-reader may already be in doubt. Such is the gist of a recent article appearing in Library Journal’s technology site The Digital Shift, in an article by Matt Enis titled “As Tablets Supplant Ereaders, New Challenges Arise for Publishers.

Enis’s article examines a recent study conducted by the global research and advisory firm Forrester, a survey of publishing industry personnel that was executed by invitation. In his article Enis quotes from James McQuivey – VP for Forrester’s Consumer Product Stratey Professionals division – who says of the findings “I would warn you not to take that [the findings] too seriously yet.”  But, with McQuivey’s warning in mind it is worth looking at some of the findings that we are exhorted not to take “too seriously yet.”

The real attention getter is in Enis’s first paragaph: “Sixty percent of publishing executives believe that tablets have become “the ideal reading platform,” and 45 percent believe that dedicated e-readers will soon be irrelevant.” Zounds. While Enis presents a quote from McQuivey stating that e-readers remain popular, Enis still adds that “tablets seem destined to eclipse dedicated ereaders at some point.” Enis’s article goes on to describe the difficult choices facing publishers as they consider what it means to present materials in a format for tablets (which celebrate items that are much more interactive than a simple text [apps instead of e-books]). Enis’s article is quite interesting, I would recommend it, but I’m going to take a step away to focus on the question of the future of the dedicated e-reader.

Before I go any further I would like to make it clear that there is a difference between the future of the e-book and the e-reader. An e-book is an electronic text that can be read on an e-reader (or a tablet, or a smartphone, etc…), and e-books are not going away anytime soon. The e-reader, on the other hand, is a device designed specifically to access e-books, and it’s future is in question, largely because of the rise of tablets.

E-readers have not been on the market for long. The arrival of e-readers is tied to the release of the Sony Reader in 2006, this was followed by the Amazon Kindle in 2007, the Barnes and Noble Nook in 2009, and there have been other entrants into the field as well (though the Kindle and the Nook are the main forces in the field). The e-reader presented book aficionados with a sleek simple device that allowed them the ability to easily carry hundreds of books at a time, and the ability to purchase (or borrow from libraries) e-books with the tapping of a few buttons. For the reader wary of carrying around a heavy book, the e-reader was a fantastic device. Granted, at first, the e-reader had a rather expensive price attached to it, but the cost of ownership has quickly declined. A would be e-reader owner could by a Kindle for $399 in 2007, then $299 in 2009, $109 in 2011, and today they could get one for $69 (granted these devices are all slightly different, but the trend is unmistakable).

The appearance of e-readers runs parallel to the introduction of other trendy handheld consumer electronic devices; consider that Apple released the first iPhone in 2007 (ushering in the era of smart phones that are basically mini-tablets), while the first iPad appeared in 2010. The significance of this being that smart phones and tablets support applications (“apps”) that allow users to read e-books on those devices (for example there is a “Kindle” app available for the iPhone and for the iPad).

The e-reader is a rather funny device in some ways. True the e-reader allows a person to carry what would be a ton (weight wise) of books on a device that weighs a few pounds, but how many people were really struggling with that problem? How many people were truly carrying fifty pounds of books around? The e-reader was certainly a device that found and blossomed in its market niche, but the e-reader was a solution to a problem that not many people considered to be all that serious. Especially seeing as the e-reader offered relatively limited functionality beyond the ability to read.

The tablet, on the other hand, offered the same e-book access as an e-reader (swift access, ability to carry many texts) and added on significantly. A dedicated e-reader is hardly meant for movies, games, music, or exploring the Internet, but the tablet excels in all of those areas. It seems that e-reader makers were well aware of this potential problem as some of them swiftly moved into the tablet market themselves (the Kindle Fire, the Nook Tablet), and so successful were these companies in selling mid-sized tablets that Apple was eventually driven to introduce its own mid-sized tablet.

E-readers are neat, but they are devices that only really appeal to a rather narrow demographic: those who read a lot and want a device that can carry very many books. Tablets appeal to a much broader audience, and thus it only makes sense that they are on the ascendant while e-readers are hitting something of a plateau.

I do not think that the dedicated e-reader will totally disappear. Rather, I would predict that the fate of the e-reader will be like that of what is now termed the “iPod Classic.” The iPod Classic can hold tens of thousands of songs, and while some want the ability to carry that much, many more are satisfied with devices that can carry less music but have greater functionality. The same will prove true for the e-reader, some people want to be able to carry a thousand books, but most will be content to carry less whilst being able to do multiple other things.

This should not be a cause for celebration amongst the lovers of paper books. After all, e-readers were similar to traditional books in that they were primarily text, a shift that moves in the direction of a tablet is one towards a device that holds no loyalties to one particular function. Though I am hardly a worshiper in the church of the e-reader I will at least recognize that an e-reader was still a device for reading, the tablet on the other hand is a device for complete mass-cultural immersion. The triumph of the tablet would therefore be less a triumph of technology than a technologically enabled victory for images over text.

Enis’s article makes many interesting points about publishers’ feelings towards the shifting e-reader/tablet market, but the decision, ultimately, is less driven by the publishers than by those who make and sell these devices. It is significant that “sixty percent of publishing executives believe that tablets have become “the ideal reading platform,” and 45 percent believe that dedicated e-readers will soon be irrelevant.”

But what really matters is what percentage of the companies making e-readers and tablets think that e-readers will soon be irrelevant.

My guess is that it’s a heck of a lot more than 45 percent, and I wonder what percentage feel that the publishers will soon be irrelevant.

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

5 comments on “An Obituary for the E-Reader

  1. FloweryHedgehog
    February 14, 2013

    I’m not convinced, which might just mean I’m part of that narrow demographic for whom e-readers are the best thing since sliced toast. Two years ago, my husband bought me a Kindle for my birthday. When we were in the store looking at devices, he suggested I check out the iPads instead (I think he was secretly hoping I’d opt for an iPad instead). They were impressive, but what I really wanted was a dedicated e-reader.

    I like having my books displayed on a screen that isn’t backlit, as I can definitely feel the strain on my eyes if I’ve been up too late using the computer. I like a device that does just that one thing, but does it well–on a tablet, I might be distracted by easy internet browsing, but when I pick up my Kindle, all I’m going to do is read. The e-reader will never completely replace paper books for me (for one thing, it isn’t so great at displaying illustrations), but it’s a terrific supplement to my reading habits.

    • theluddbrarian
      February 14, 2013


      Thank you for your reply. I will acknowledge immediately that the above post (particularly the title) was written to raise a question rather than to declare the definitive death of the e-reader. I’m not totally convinced one way or the other myself.

      There is a lot to be said in favor of the dedicated e-reader, and your comment expresses many of the reasons why people enjoy those devices: people like having a device just for reading, people prefer something that isn’t back-lit (as it lets them read for longer), and so forth. Yet I think that your comment also illustrates some of the other elements at work with e-readers: several studies have shown that those who read a lot on an e-reader are already big readers in other formats, and dedicated e-readers tend not to have the same replacement rate as other pieces of consumer electronics (you note that your e-reader was a gift from two years ago).

      I don’t think that dedicated e-readers are about to totally vanish – though the market might think that they are heading in that direction. I think that dedicated e-readers will become not unlike the iPod classic, dedicated devices for those who read a lot and who want to be able to read a lot. But the dedicated e-reader remains a hard sell to those who do not read a lot; and as there are more people who read lightly (or barely) than heavily the expansion potential for the e-reader remains limited whilst the market for the tablet is wide open. Lovers of text will continue appreciating the e-reader in much the same way that lovers of music will continue appreciating the availability of the iPod classic (it can hold a ton of music but is not as good for anything else), but these smaller sets will not be the driving forces behind the company’s profits, and thus the company’s will focus their attentions on the areas with greater growth potential (such as tablets).

      Granted, I could be totally wrong on this and the e-reader could trounce the tablet. Or maybe Gutenberg shall rise from the dead and declare through his decay: “What hast my invention wrought!?” Although if Gutenberg comes back from the dead (zombies!) we probably have bigger problems than e-readers.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      Zachary (aka The Luddbrarian)

  2. Matthew Jude Brown
    February 16, 2013

    I think it’s worth mentioning that the tech press is immensely faddy, loves ‘X and Y: fight!” narratives, and is frankly untrustworthy when it comes to matters social.

    Of course tablets are more exciting for hardware manufacturers, who are the tech press’ bread and butter. The advertisers, for one thing. They sell for more money, they upgrade more often, they’re more like computers.

    But bear in mind that the two best known e-readers — the Kindle and the Nook — are sold essentially at cost by booksellers. Neither Amazon nor B&N are that interested in making money with the hardware itself. Neither of them cares that the hardware lasts for years — in fact, given that they’re not making money on the hardware, that’s ideal for them!

    E-readers will only get cheaper, and will continue to sell quietly for many years to come, I’m sure. And if any e-reader owners buy a tablet or the like and don’t need their e-reader anymore, they’ll likely sell it or give it to someone else, further expanding the market for ebooks.

    I also have a lot of skepticism about the idea that books will need to become more interactive because of tablets. We’ve seen this before. It doesn’t happen.

    • theluddbrarian
      February 17, 2013


      Thanks for your reply to the post. I think that you make some very valid and interesting points.

      Certainly, the tech press (and all press) enjoys being able to advance a storyline of “x versus y;” however, the article that I was drawing upon in the posting was not from a tech site but a library one. And while the library press also loves an “x versus y” storyline the interest there is less upon celebrating and bashing new gadgets, but more in line with the question of: “what will this mean for libraries.” Furthermore the parties being discussed in the article (again, that’s the article I was commenting on) aren’t tech makers, they’re publishers who have a different view on this matter than those who make the devices.

      You are absolutely correct in indicating that the Kindle and Nook are less about the money spent in the original purchase and more about all of the money that will be spent to load these devices with content. After all, the Kindle is really just a gateway device to make you spend money on downloads, which is certainly supported by the continuing drop in e-reader prices. This is somewhat in line with my comment within the post that while there is plenty of discussion about tablets versus e-readers, the e-book is here and it isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.

      The part of your comment that I found most interesting was your note that “e-readers will only get cheaper, and will continue to sell quietly for many years to come.” I agree. But I think that part of the reason why this will continue “quietly” is that the majority of innovation by the tech sector is going to be directed increasingly towards tablets (such as the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet, as opposed to their basic e-reader models). And while they will certainly continue to sell, they will sell at a lesser volume than the tablets produced by the same manufacturers. After all, a dedicated e-reader is a device for a pretty narrow subset of people (those who read a fair amount), while a tablet appeals to a much broader group. Thus there is simply a larger potential market for tablets.

      I share your skepticism about books becoming more interactive for the sake of tablets. But I think it may be premature to say that “we’ve seen this before,” the number of tablets that people have is growing, and as more people have these devices it will put a new and increased pressure on publishers to tailor content for the devices.

      Again, we shall see. Thank you for your comments!

      – Zachary (aka The Luddbrarian)

  3. Pingback: E-readers Soon To Be Dead? | christinanathanblog

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