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Is it Too Early to Plan a Wake for the eReader?

7042234055_608e71f484_h[1]Counting the Sony Data Discman, ereaders have been around for over two decades but the market only really exploded in late 2007 with the launch of the Kindle.

And now, 7 short years later, some are already predicting its death. And while it might shock you to hear an ebook fan say this, they’re not entirely wrong.

From what I have seen and been told by contacts at device companies, the ereader market is in a decline.

And that’s why when I read this week that Mashable is ready to hold a wake for the ebook reader, I was not surprised. They’re noting that the major US companies are trying to get out of the market as analysts project that it is going to decline:

The outlook for e-readers, however, is more dire. Forrester forecasts that e-reader sales will fall to as low as 7 million in the U.S. by the end of 2017, compared to a high of 25 million units in 2012.

"Those 7 million will be the people who read more than two books a week," says James McQuivey, principal analyst at Forrester. "Tablets and phones have already begun the process of making e-readers a 'nice to have.'"

McQuivey thinks Amazon will eventually give Kindles away as a thank you gift to consumers who renew their Prime memberships. (An Amazon rep did not respond for a request to comment on this, and the company hasn’t made any such claim publicly.)

I don’t know how accurate that analyst’s predictions are, but I would bet they are not too far off. As you might recall, E-ink makes most of the ereader screens in the world and they have been reporting steadily declining revenues over the past several years. In the two most recent quarters, for example, they lost money in one quarter due to a seasonal drop in screen productions and only turned a profit in the other quarter because of royalties.

E-ink is simply not making as many ereader screens as they used to.

Nevertheless, when I read pieces like the one in NY Magazine the other day I might agree with the trend but still can’t help but roll my eyes at the people who want us to put in pre-orders for sack cloth and ashes. In a post which starts off by misunderstanding the publishing industry and recent statistics, Kevin Roose argues that:

The death of the standalone e-reader might be good news for consumers, who will have one fewer gadget to buy and lug around. But it’s bad news for the book industry. If you’ve ever tried to read a book on your phone, you’ll know why. Reading on an original Kindle or a Nook is an immersive experience. There are no push notifications from other apps to distract you from your novel, no calendar reminders or texts popping up to demand your immediate attention. And this immersion is partly why people who use dedicated e-readers tend to buy a lot of books. (One survey indicated that e-book readers read about 24 books a year, compared to 15 books a year for paper-and-ink readers.)

E-book sales aren’t necessarily correlated with the popularity of standalone e-book readers, and the publishing industry could still have a successful digital transition if it convinces iPhone and Android users to buy e-books in the same quantities as Kindle and Nook users. But there’s no getting around the fact that smartphones aren’t designed for focused, sustained reading. They have small screens, for starters, which make long reading sessions tough on the eyes. But the bigger problem is that smartphones breed short attention spans. On a phone or a multi-function tablet, e-books have to compete for attention with Facebook, Instagram, Pandora, Angry Birds, and everything else you do. It’s the difference between watching TV intently, and watching TV while folding laundry, talking on the phone, and doing the crossword puzzle.

Mr Roose got his causality all turned around. He seems to think that having an ereader turns readers into heavy book buyers, when in reality it’s the big spenders who got into ereaders because the portability justified the cost. (Also, heavy reader =\= heavy book buyer.) Mr Roose would be just as wrong if he assumed that buying a gaming console would turn someone into a heavy gamer.

Most heavy ebook buyers were already heavily invested in paper books; we simply shifted our buying habits. Many other readers wanted to be into books but lacked the time or space for paper books.

Really, what Mr Roose seems to have missed is that the people who are into ereaders now saw the technology when it first appeared, and made a conscious choice to adopt it and use it to read. Give those people a tablet and I would bet that many will choose to use it to read.

In short, gadgets come and go but book buyers tend to stick around for a lot longer than whatever device is the latest fad. Or am I wrong?

image by nickbrett


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Amber June 29, 2014 um 9:38 pm

I can’t see the "death" of ereaders effecting ebook. More likely people buying ebooks are transitioning over to now lower priced tablets with more bells and whistles than just an ereader. In the next few years I look for there to be less ereader choices out there but there are always going to be book geeks like me that just want a cheap easy on the eyes reader for their book collections.

Ray June 30, 2014 um 2:00 am

As long as there is an e ink reader for me to buy, I will continue to read and buy ebooks. I just cannot read for more than 5 minutes on smartphones or tablets. They hurt my eyes.

Void June 30, 2014 um 5:20 pm

I have trouble finding an e-reader now. I am still using my PRS-350 because I haven’t found a good replacement.

William D. O’Neil June 29, 2014 um 10:22 pm

I have a Kindle Fire tablet and a Kindle Paperwhite e-reader. I almost always use the latter to read books because it is lighter, less cumbersome, lasts longer between charges, and seems easier on my eyes. I can easily hold it in one hand while I read, which I cannot do comfortably with any tablet I’ve ever tried. Reading on smartphone screens quickly gives me eyestrain. I’ll give up e-readers if mine breaks and no more are available, but otherwise I cannot imagine switching to another platform unless and until they can duplicate the virtues of the e-reader.

With the present state of other reading platforms I expect that killing the e-reader would significantly hurt the e-book market. Of course the folly of corporate executives knows no bounds, so it may happen.

neuse river sailor June 29, 2014 um 10:25 pm

Yes, my next ereader will be a tablet, because while I enjoy reading text-heavy books on an ereader, it’s just not the device for picture books or illustrated articles. I also have hundreds of old magazines that were digitized as bitmaps and converted to pdfs – they’re never going to flow right on a little ereader. A tablet with a ten or eleven inch screen sounds like the sweet spot for me.

Peter June 30, 2014 um 2:03 am

Personally I have no real interest in a tablet. I’ve used them, but remain convinced that (for me, at least) they’re a solution in desperate search of a problem – they’re useless for doing productive work on (that’s what my laptop’s for) while being too bulky to just stick in a pocket for checking email or doing a bit of Web surfing on the go (my phone fills that niche nicely) and the reading experience just doesn’t compare with a Kindle (or other e-ink device).

All that said, I’m not really surprised ereader sales are falling off – the sad truth is that most people just don’t read for pleasure, and that’s the niche ereaders fill exceptionally well. I’m quite sure that a lot of the boom in early sales was to people who buy the latest and greatest gadget because it’s new and cool, not because it’s something they’ll actually use on the daily basis, and a lot of those first-gen Kindles are now gathering dust in closets next to last year’s tablets, and the year before’s smartphones, and old PDAs, and other unused tech toys.

But for the 5% of the people who buy 95% of the books? I really don’t think they’re going anywhere.

LS July 1, 2014 um 3:56 am

I’m an avid reader, but I prefer my iPad 3 to my older Sony Reader. Although the iPad is heavier, the screen is larger, so I have to turn the page less often. I can’t read on the standard setting though, I read on the night setting which is easier on the eyes. I like being able to email books to my iPad too, it’s faster than syncing new books to an old reader.

Peter July 1, 2014 um 5:31 am

Emailing yourself books is handy, yes – I do it fairly often on my Kindle 🙂 (Not sure if the Sonys have that capability or not).

LS July 1, 2014 um 9:02 pm

I know the older ones don’t, and I don’t think the newer Sonys do either. I have considered buying a newer ereader, but it would have to be a decent price, have at least a medium sized screen, have email capabilities, and be able to hold a vast ePub library. I just haven’t found one that screams buy me, but I’m keeping an eye out.

nighty June 30, 2014 um 2:37 am

In my opinion there are TWO important factors to the second in e-reader sales and people only focus on one. Yes, many people opt for convergence and use a tablet. I have a ten inch galaxy note (the original model) and also had a seven inch tablet which was to allow for my normal use but sufficed for reading but I still preferred my Kobo. Yes, I prefer a tablet for comics and text books but for reading fiction or text only files in a proper format, I prefer an e-reader.

Heavy readers will continue to buy e-readers as long add they’re available in my opinion but even so sales will decline. The first few years dealt with adoption, now it’s one part adoption, one part replacing old devices. But e-readers last a lot longer than tablets and cell phones. The batteries last four days or weeks, meaning that those initial five hundred charges before you notice a drop in capacity take a lot longer. The processor doesn’t need to be the fastest or multi-core (a faster processor and more RAM are appreciated but the difference isn’t as marked and we don’t FEEL a need to upgrade based on them). So while a tablet can feel outdated in one or two years, maaaaybe three (it all depends on what you buy and what you use it for), an e-reader can last longer. Go to mobile read forums and you’ll find people happily using first gen devices. With phones and tablets I’ve read about slowing growth and that’s with drastic jumps in tech and people upgrading cheaply thanks to plans and work sometimes. So what do people expect of e-readers?

But devices do die out, screens crack, something goes wrong. People upgrade because they want they shiny new toys (and give the old tech as hand-me-downs for theirchildren/friends/family. Some of us truly value the advantages of their weight, sunlight readability, and battery life (I love being able to fall asleep reading without worrying about waking up with a dead cell phone battery). So yeah, as long as they offer them,well continue to buy them. Let’s just hope they stick around.

But if they make a seven inch mirasol tablet that’s as light and with comparable battery life, I might just let it do double duty as tablet and e-reader.

Edward Bear June 30, 2014 um 2:53 am

Readers have a major drawback: they’re single-purpose devices. When I switched to an iPhone, I switched to Stanza, victim of the Dread Pirate Bezos, and now use Marvin in the same role.

As a reader, it’s the BOOKS that are important, and as long as I can set the type size to "comfortable," just about everything else is irrelevant.

Bart Anderson June 30, 2014 um 3:03 am

Funny, this post the end of e-readers coming on the heels of enthusiastic articles about the e-ink offerings from Onyx.

I have seen the future and it is e-ink devices running on Android.

The prophets of e-reader doom are right, if by “e-reader” they mean an e-ink device tied to a vendor’s e-book ecosystem. One that is incompatible with e-readers from other manufacturers.

The e-reader market reminds me of the early days of personal computers. There were dozens of different systems – Commodore, Atari, Radio Shack, Apple, IBM, CP/M, etc. all incompatible with each other. It was an exciting era, but wasteful and confusing. With so many different operating systems, there was no incentive to invest in high quality software. Only when the market settled down and there were only two or three operating systems (IBM and Apple’s) was it possible to make rapid progress.

With Android, there is now that common platform.

Hardware manufacturers can build on the existing Android system. Book sellers can concentrate on making apps for Android, Apple and Windows. They finally can get out of the hardware business.

Customers will not be locked in to Kindle or Kobo or B&N. They will load their e-ink tablet with whatever apps they need – just as people are eagerly doing now for Onyx.

Hopefully, the devices and apps will improve now that there is a steady base to build on.

The e-ink technology is ideal for reading books, and so I think there will continue to be a demand for it. It’s just not going to grow 50% year after year.

Danimus June 30, 2014 um 3:29 am

My opinion is that predicting e-ink death based on the current statistic data is completely wrong.
My opinion is that selling of e-ink is decreasing because of the lack of innovative e-ink products.
E.g. I own 9,7″ e-ink reader Onyx Boox M92 from 2012 and I still don’t see any product that would be reason for new buy.
Reason for new e-ink device in my case would be 9,7″ or 13,3″ e-ink device with plastic screen (e.g. e-ink Mobius) with support for all major formats (pdf, epub, doc, …) and good writing support.
So in my case until there is something that combines Sony DPT-S1 and Onyx M96 I’ll just wait.

jjj June 30, 2014 um 5:42 am

He’s wrong and not.
Books are competing for our time just like everything else so using devices that fit reading less well would have a negative impact on the total market but most likely a minor impact.
On the other hand there is a lot of room for smartphone and tablet install base growth in developing markets, phones are getting bigger and bigger and they better fit the needs for reading. Mobile devices screens are also getting better and that help a tiny bit.
So there is a negative effect from the decline of ereaders but it shouldn’t be taken out of context, there are other trends that more than offset the negative.
Btw have you though about how reading should be on a device like Oculus?

PS: last week i think you missed the launch of the Flipkart tablet , the Digiflip Pro XT 712
Not great specs or price but a bunch of freebies that kinda make it ok , for the target market anyway.

Greg Weeks June 30, 2014 um 8:17 am

My take on E-ink’s decline is a combination of market saturation and the expiration of their patents. Most of the E-ink patents date from the late 90’s and are expiring. They have competition from other screen vendors now for non-backlit paper-like screens.

Name (required) June 30, 2014 um 8:44 am

Yes, it is to early.
You see, a typical reader lasts longer, much longer than a tablet. Has much longer charge cycle, has much less demands on processor or memory power.
The first iPad is practically unusable now. PocketBook 360 was released half a year earlier than the first iPad, and it is still perfectly usable for its purpose nowadays. A contemporary Android device from the late 2009 would have Android 2.0 or 2.1, if it was particularly cutting-edge at the time. I have tried to use a little bit more modern device recently and it was not a pleasant experience. The only thing the PB360 misses in comparison with the newest, cutting-edge devices is a front-light. Otherwise it is still one of best readers out there, with unsurpassed form-factor.

I personally have *very* limited use for a tablet. I am either reading a book, for which e-ink reader is better, or I am working on a PC, or wasting time on Internet, visiting places like The-digital-reader. I have tried browsing on a device with a small (smaller than 17″) screen. No, thank you.
The phone I carry is a Nokia running Symbian. Much snappier for use than phones with 10 times faster processors (and 10 times shorted battery life) with the poorest Android version.

William D. O’Neil June 30, 2014 um 9:06 am

The predictions that e-readers will be replaced by multi-function/multi-format devices need to be viewed with skepticism. Most buyers of Kindle books from Amazon place a high value on the convenience: click and the book shows up automatically on your screen, within less than a minute. Techies who don’t mind managing their own download process are not enough of a market.

And multi-function devices not only tend to have inherent compromises in readability but again can present more complexity in management than most readers want to put up with. Amazon will surely find it worth its while to ensure continuing availability of devices that suit non-techie readers who may lack eagle vision. No one every lost market share by making things easy for unsophisticated customers.

fjtorres June 30, 2014 um 10:18 am

They are misreading the trends.
Yes, the improved features and declining prices of tablets and phones are eating (somewhat) into market for dedicated readers but not to the extent that many think. There are enough differences in user profiles and *usage* profiles that the overlap is smaller than the multifunction device advocates think. In fact, many people who adopt ebooks via phones are likely to supplement them with eink readers instead of tablets.

What we are seeing isn’t a real decline but rather a stabilization after an abnormal boost.
The big bulge in ereader sales that came in 2010-2011 was a result of the switch to near-cost pricing by the walled gardens. This effectively saturated the market, soaking up all the likely buyers for 2010, 2011, and a good chunk of 2012. The numbers we are seeing since are still impacted by the bulge (the readers are durable, as pointed out) but reflect a more normal normal, mature market where sales are driven mostly be upgrades, replacement of worn units, and late adopters. And since most three year old readers are still running fine the replacement market is driven more by new features than dead or dying devices.

It may be that instead of the 50M units a year the "analysts" projected in 2011, the natural post-bubble market for dedicated readers will be closer to 5 – 10 million once the true replacement cycle kicks in, say in late 2015. Just in time for the Liquavista Kindles. 😉

Gary June 30, 2014 um 10:44 am

I will point out that they still manufacture and sell a large number of basic calculators.

Sure, everyone with a smartphone or a tablet can use a calculator app on their multi-function device, but sometimes, such as when you are doing your taxes, it is just better and more convenient to use a specialized, single purpose device; i.e. a "calculator". And basic calculators are ridiculously cheap these days, because they have few if any "bells and whistles".

In the same way, some people prefer to use a single purpose device to read their eBooks.

The only question is market size and economics. Will there be a large enough number of committed eBook reader buyers to support mass production and low prices for eBook reader devices? I think that yes, there is enough demand, and therefore stand-alone eBook reading devices are not going to vanish or die out.

There may well be consolidation in the market, with fewer brands, and fewer models available in the future, but the devices will be available.

DavidW June 30, 2014 um 11:24 am

Many posters have already stated this, but it bears repeating over and over. The mass adoption phase is over, but the tech is not. And there is no reason to keep buying new ereaders because the difference between an old ereader and a new ereader is subtle.

I love ereaders and I collect them because I love them. And I can say that the Kindle 3 and the Paperwhite v. 2 are not that different. They display text on the screen, have easy to use stores, look like paper, and have long battery life. The majority of people will not buy a new ereader until their old one dies. People interested in buying an ereader mostly have done so already.

We’re hitting a plateau not seeing the death of a device. FYI I own an Ipad Mini and I do not read on it. It just doesn’t compare to the experience of reading on an ereader.

JimS June 30, 2014 um 11:54 am

Dedicated e-ink readers will continue to be in demand by avid ebook readers until another technology comes around which offers comparable features – compact size and weight, easy on the eyes, reasonable storage capacity and comparatively low price.

I read 3 to 5 ebooks a week, all on e-ink Kindles. I have 2 tablets but use neither for reading ebooks. So long as Amazon continues selling ebooks, I’m confident they’ll continue to supply e-ink readers or something comparable to them perhaps with newer technology. A tablet isn’t a comparable substitute.

carmen webster buxton June 30, 2014 um 1:29 pm

I prefer reading on my Kindle Paperwhite to anything else. My husband prefers reading on his iPad to his Kindle Touch, but that’s because a) he doesn’t mind LCD and b) he likes the two-page layout. He takes the Touch with him on trips, though, because it will fit in an oversize pocket, just as my Paperwhite fits in my purse. I have the Kindle app on my phone, but I don’t like ready on that tiny screen. Some people do. I also love that my Paperwhite has 3G so I don’t need a wifi connection to download a book.

I don’t think Amazon is ready to give up on ereaders yet. They are still developing for the Paperwhite.

Paul June 30, 2014 um 3:25 pm

While I was in Barnes and Noble yesterday getting my Nook Glowlight fixed (and I had great customer service over that issue), two people came in to look at ereaders because they couldn’t read their tablet in strong sunshine. I think that, can having something light to read on the train, is often overlooked.

Jon Jermey June 30, 2014 um 5:40 pm

I agree about the battery issue, and I wonder if part of the story behind this is the availability of cheap, high-capacity power bricks. I used to take both a Kobo reader and an Android tablet with me on the train, because I knew there was a fair chance the tablet would run out of power by the end of the day. Now if that starts to happen I can plug it in to the power brick, and it can recharge itself while I’m doing other things.

But my main impression is that — as others have pointed out — current e-ink readers do their job so well that the motivation to replace them takes longer to accumulate over time than it currently does for tablets. This happens for all devices — so presumably tablets will hit their own technological plateau at some point too.

CJ July 1, 2014 um 7:47 am

My consumption of ebooks is still tempered by the whole DRM thing. I still buy a lot of physical books because I don’t have to go through the hassel (minor as it is) of stripping the DRM to "truly" own it. I therefore have little motivation to get excited about new devices. I use it for maybe 1 out of three books. I can see going years without buying a new one, unless I sit on it, which I’ve done. I doubt that’s the buying cycle Eink was hoping for.

MizzBee July 1, 2014 um 11:24 am

Happy 4th, 2014, Mr. Nate. Just to chime in on the Ereader vs Tablet conversation, Eink hurts my eyes. I own the Kindle 3, the Nook simple Touch and the Nook glow and have read one book on the K3 and none on the 2 Nooks. I read and play games on the Kindle HD, Nook color, Nook tablet, HD and HD+. I also read on my Acer 500, but on that I mostly play games. I also read books from 2 libraries. I love reading so I need to be comfortable when I do. I also like color and Eink is too dull for me. Thank God for choices, so we can all be happy as we read.

William D. O’Neil July 1, 2014 um 12:35 pm

I notice the DRM issue coming up, as it does in techie circles. For the past few months I’ve been asking "real people" how they feel about the fact that many publishers include DRM on their Kindle books. (Contrary to legend, Amazon doesn’t require or even encourage it.) By far the most common response is, "What does DRM mean?" or words to that effect. The next-most common response is a shrug or equivalent.

The third-most response is, "I use a Nook." But the Nook users also don’t care about DRM. I’ve never encountered anyone, not even real techies, who actually reads non-Kindle, non-Nook books. I know they’re out there, but it’s a niche and not likely to drive market decisions.

When you think about it, this is totally natural in terms of what 99 percent of e-reading humanity actually likes about e-books (which for most people means Kindle books or Nook books). They are looking for convenience and price. Side-loading is not convenient, as they see it. So DRM is a dead issue. Of course it’s possible to stir a lot of people up against even totally imaginary threats, so it might be possible to make DRM an issue, if someone like the Koch brothers put some money into a campaign. But short of that, it’s going to remain a non-issue.

TheGreatFilter July 1, 2014 um 2:15 pm

I suspect in the future there will be two types of e-reader–1) a cheap single-function "kindle" delivering books from a vendor, and 2) an expensive open Android multi-function e-ink tablet. But e-ink (or its non-LCD successor) is not going to disappear.

Deborah Pesa July 18, 2014 um 8:05 pm

I can’t speak to the market, but from a personal standpoint I prefer reading on an e-reader. I have a Kindle Keyboard, a Kindle Fire and a phone. I read on the Kindle. I will read on the phone if stuck without my e-reader, but only because I usually have it with me. I don’t carry the Fire with me. Too heavy and useless for anything else without a wifi connection. I’ll read a paper book before I’ll read on the Fire. I use the Fire mostly to check e-mail and Facebook from my sofa. It probably wouldn’t bother me much if I didn’t own a tablet but I’ll not give up my Kindle.

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