Skip to main content

Digital Fatigue, or the New Industry Spin on eBook Sales

binkydogFor the past three years or so pundits and the mainstream media have pointed to sales figures from groups like the AAP and proclaimed that the ebook apocalypse had failed to occur and that ebooks weren’t going to replace print.

Over the past year that recurring story has been recognized as a trope, and a false one at that. Even The Bookseller has acknowledged that data from the AAP did not represent the full market, and that presents a problem for anyone who wants to spin the topic as "ebooks are failing".

Fortunately for the pundits, a new spin is just arriving on the scene. It was introduced on Friday by Publishers Weekly, and picked up by Flavorwire.

Folks, meet "digital fatigue":

Preliminary figures from the Association of American Publishers found that sales of e-books for trade publishers fell 14% in 2015 compared to 2014 and accounted for 20% of overall trade book revenue, down from 23% in 2014. Going beyond AAP’s member publisher sales performance, the Codex Group’s April 2016 survey of 4,992 book buyers found that e-book units purchased as a share of total books purchased fell from 35.9% in April 2015 to 32.4% in April 2016. The Codex survey includes e-books published by traditional publishers and self-publishers and sold across all channels and in all categories.

In light of the April study results, Codex president Peter Hildick-Smith believes that the book industry’s experience with digital sales differs from that of music and video because of two factors. First, electronic devices are optional for reading books (unlike for listening to music or watching video), and the current range of e-book reading devices—including smartphones, tablets, and dedicated e-readers—has not delivered the quality long-form reading experience needed to supplant print, even with e-books’ major price and convenience advantages. Second, Hildick-Smith said, a new consumer phenomenon, “digital fatigue,” is beginning to emerge.

The piece then goes on to cite a blizzard of data about declining ereader ownership, before ending with this paragraph and a couple graphs:

Unless the e-reader device market is recharged with lower-price, higher-quality options, Hildick-Smith expects that consumers tiring of their digital-device experience will have further digital fatigue, leading to continued e-book sales erosion.


Coincidentally, Teleread covered the same story last month as part of their coverage of BEA 2016; they have a different selection of data from the same report from the Codex Group, but make no mention of  "digital fatigue" (otherwise I would have credited Teleread as the source of the spin).

And yes, I do think it’s spin. My problem with the claim of digital fatigue is that it is too convenient of a label. It fits with exactly how the Codex Group’s customers, legacy publishers (also PW’s customers), want to spin their declining ebook sales when it doesn’t really explain the larger demographic trends.

Are people reading fewer ebooks? According to other sources, yes. But is it due to digital fatigue?

That is debatable.

The Codes Group says that fewer book buyers are reading ebooks, but when we look at the general population we see a very different picture.

pew read book americans 2015Last fall the Pew Research Center released the latest in their semi-annual reports on American reading habits. It showed a slight dip  in the number of respondents who had read an ebook in 2015 vs 2014, but it also showed an even steeper decline in the number of people who had read a print book.

You can see the data in the chart at right.

If fewer people are reading fewer ebooks as a result of digital fatigue, then what’s your explanation for the fact they’re also reading fewer print books, and fewer books overall?

I don’t have one, myself, although I am looking forward to when Pew (hopefully) releases the next survey report this fall.

The obvious explanation would be that consumers are getting distracted by other activities, including digital activities on their mobile devices, and that goes against the idea of digital fatigue.

But it is a convenient label, which is why you’re going to hear it a lot over the next few months.


image by IntangibleArts

Similar Articles


Ed Bear June 21, 2016 um 12:27 pm

It’s possible that the fact that high-school graduates these days average at about 7th grade reading level may have something do do with it.

Will Entrekin June 21, 2016 um 1:15 pm

Isn’t that what most fiction is written at, anyway? Stephen King et al.? From what I remember, the Gettysburg address is almost junior year and IRS forms and legalese are college (I’m thinking Flesch-Kincaid here). Basically, seems like the higher you go, the more obtuse and obfuscating the language becomes. So yes, these publishing pundits favor the higher end because they take a whole lot of words to usually say very little (I’m thinking very specifically of Shatzkin here).

I also wonder if reading books might be dipping slightly but reading in general might be up. With the proliferation of the internet/social media, it’s not just about shorter attention spans but that there’s so much information to consume now.

The latest excuse for why ebook sales have gone down: digital fatigue – June 21, 2016 um 12:55 pm

[…] to a post I spotted on The Digital Reader this morning, the publishing industry’s new spin on why people aren’t buying as many […]

SteveHut June 21, 2016 um 1:19 pm

Hmmm…looking at the charts and seeing tiny dips in the last year brings three words to mind: margin of error ?

Reader June 21, 2016 um 3:03 pm

"Percentage of Book Buyers Who Want to Spend Less Time on Digital Devices" is lowest for oldest readers. Didn’t a Kobo executive say that the 55+ group constituted the biggest readers, and also the most likely to read on a dedicated e-reader? As Intenet connections tend to be lousy for dedicated e-readers, it is no big loss to turn on WiFi and thus not get distracted.

"Percentage of Book Buyers Who Want to Spend Less Time on Digital Devices" is highest for youngest readers. Perhaps because they read more on tablets and are thus more likely to get distracted by all the Internet bells and whistles. If they simply turned off WiFi, they could reduce distraction.
After using the Internet to register an e-reader, I hardly ever use the Internet, so I don’t get distracted when on an e-reader.

MKS June 21, 2016 um 3:39 pm

Do people count listening to a book as reading a book? Do they count listening to music, books, and podcasts as "time spent on digital devices"? I think there may be a survey hole there, as people consume books audibly while performing other tasks (housework, driving). This is time that wont be displaced by video games and television.

DavidW June 21, 2016 um 5:19 pm

The past five years have seen the rise of streaming video like Netflix. With more opportunities for abundant entertainment reading is losing popularity. Since I started teaching 9 years ago I’ve seen a dramatic decline in the number of students that read for entertainment. This has to do with reading in general and not ebooks in particular.

I don’t think this is digital fatigue, if anything it’s the exact opposite.

Chris Meadows June 21, 2016 um 6:49 pm

For what it’s worth, I checked my photos of the slide and "Digital Fatigue" is, in fact, mentioned in the original report, so I wouldn’t be able to take credit for coining it in any event.

Fjtorres June 22, 2016 um 8:09 am

One problem with the Pew numbers is the category is too broad: "read at least one book in whole or in part"?
That brings in the bandwagon social readers, people who aren’t actually part of the book-buying market on an ongoing basis and who merely show up for the occasional "phenomenon" like 50 Shades, Harry Potter, or movie tie-ins like Hunger Games.

You do not build a healthy business off those buyers, much less gauge the long term health of a business by their practices. More, those buyers can’t typically justify dedicated ebook readers so they will be disproportionately pbook and cellphone readers so a decline in those says nothing about the "digital fatigue" meme the propagandists are trying to sell anyway.

No buying.

carmen webster buxton June 22, 2016 um 1:13 pm

I think you called it, Nate. Totally sounds like PW soothing the "customer" (i.e., publishers) that nothing is going to change. If the coloring book fad doesn’t persist, print sales will take a hit next year. The real danger is people reading fewer books, regardless of format. They need to focus on that instead of dithering about digital reading.

Write a Comment