The legacy publishing industry keeps bleating about "screen fatigue" as the cause of why people are buying fewer of their ebooks (because it could not possibly be that Big 5 ebooks cost too much, oh no).
Industry accomplices in the press are more than willing to repeat this claim without question, which is a pity because it doesn't even pass the sniff test. It's not just that the industry has never shown any evidence, but also that larger trends in online behavior do not support that claim, either.
I was reminded of this when I read this morning's Shelf Awareness newsletter. They had someone at yesterday's CEO Talk at the Frankfurt Book Fair, recording the various claims made by S&S CEO Carolyn Reidy.
From beginning to end, the piece is nothing more than a record of the industry telling itself the emperor is wearing clothes, but this part in particular caught my eye.
Noting that it's been 10 years since the mainstream adoption of e-books began, Reidy and Dervieux talked about why they think the dire predictions of the death of print have not come to pass. Reidy proposed that while nothing "went wrong" with e-books to cause the leveling-off of their popularity, consumers most likely simply "got tired of screens." She noted that for years before e-books, publishers had been "taking pennies out of the cost of making a book," but when digital became widespread, publishers began "spending years putting value back into the book." Dervieux wondered if perhaps the industry expected "too much, too soon," from the e-book format, and remarked that even by the "grace of Jeff Bezos and huge discounts," such a large shift in consumer habits could not happen in such a hurry.
Reidy added that she believes "very firmly" that a new version of the book based on digital delivery will come eventually, though she does not know what it might look like. "Some person who is young and grew up with the screen will come up with something that I hope we recognize," she continued. "There will be a new form of it, because there has to be."
Yeah, we've been hearing that bit about screen fatigue for what, a couple years now?
While it sounds plausible and it is a great distraction from the fact that high ebook prices are negatively impacting sales, the simple truth is that it is utter bunk.
If screen fatigue were a real thing then you would already be reading stories about people using Facebook less. If it were real then there would be headline stories about Nielsen data showing people are spending less time online (they're not).
If this were a real thing then a Google search for "people spend less time online" would turn up a hundred stories on the trend (it doesn't).
I could go on, but do I really need to keep finding zero evidence to back up this claim?
If you have any, I would love to see it.
And it had better be good, because there is also a fundamental flaw with the current discussion of screen fatigue: The term describes a decline in an activity (use of screens) and it is being used to explain away a drop in commercial sales.
It goes without saying that there is no direct connection between the buying ebooks and using a screen any more than a decline in DVD sales would automatically mean people are watching fewer movies on their TVs.
You're welcome to make the argument, but good luck with that.
image by Johan Larsson