E-reading after the e-reader

E-readers like the original Kindle and the original Nook did a pretty good job of replicating the experience of reading a printed page — and that was one of their big selling points. When Amazon introduced the first edition of the Kindle late in 2007, the company went out of its way to emphasize the device’s “paper-like” screen.


The black-and-white E Ink display, CEO Jeff Bezos said in a marketing video, “doesn’t look like any computer screen you’ve ever seen. It looks like paper.” The point was underscored in the video by some best-selling writers, who praised the Kindle’s resemblance to a book. “It looks like ink,” said Michael Lewis. “It’s not like reading a computer screen. The genius of the thing is you don’t notice that much difference between reading on the screen and reading in a book.” The Kindle was presented as a specialized gadget, designed specifically for displaying the text of books and other written works. “Amazon Kindle is for reading,” Bezos declared. In designing it, he said, the company “focused on simplicity and making reading as great as it can be.”

The “paper-like” pitch was intended to encourage book buyers to give e-books a try. And it worked. But there was reason to believe, even back in 2007, that the specialized e-reader was doomed. Single-purpose computers, particularly networked ones, have a hard time competing against general-purpose computers once the more versatile machines incorporate the more limited ones’ specialized functionality. A single-purpose device tends, in other words, to morph from a piece of dedicated hardware into a simple application running alongside other applications. Multitasking beats unitasking. Amazon itself, with its ambition to be not just a digital book seller but a digital media conglomerate, had a clear incentive to steadily push its customers away from e-readers and toward multipurpose devices able to display all the forms of media that it sells. Even when Bezos was stressing the original Kindle’s purity as a reading device, one had the suspicion that his ultimate ambition had little to do with replicating the simplicity and calm of ink on paper. The original Kindle was a bit of a Trojan horse.

Now we have evidence from the market that the specialized e-reader is indeed a transitional device. Sales of e-readers have already peaked. Last year, 23 million of them were sold. This year, sales have plummeted an estimated 36 percent, to just 15 million units, according to market researcher IHS. By 2016, IHS foresees e-reader sales dwindling to just 7 million units. Displacing the e-reader is, of course, the multipurpose tablet. As e-reader sales have fallen, tablet sales have exploded. About 140 million tablets will be sold this year, and the number is projected to approach 200 million in 2013. That’s despite the fact that tablets are considerably more expensive than e-readers. “Last year it seemed that the market might be big enough for both dedicated e-readers and tablets,” observes Technology Review‘s Mike Orcutt. “But now it appears the versatility of tablets is winning out.”

That also means that, when it comes to the reading of e-books, the once-vaunted “paper-like” screen is losing out to the computer screen, and the simplicity of a specialized reading device is losing out to the complexities and distractions of a general-purpose, networked computer. If book readers continue to shift from the page to the screen, as a new Pew study suggests is likely, the text of books will end up being displayed in a radically different setting from that of the printed or scribal page that has defined the book for the first 2,000 years of its existence. That doesn’t mean that readers won’t be able to immerse themselves in books anymore. The technology of a book is not rigidly deterministic. The skill of the writer still matters, as does the desire of readers to get lost in stories and arguments. But the importance of the technology in shaping reading habits (and publishing decisions), particularly over the long run, shouldn’t be discounted. If the technology of the page provided a barrier against the distractions of everyday life, encouraging the focus that is the essence of deep reading, the computer screen does the opposite. It inundates us with distractions, encourages the division of attention. It fights deep reading rather than promoting it.

For the last few years, we could tell ourselves that, as Michael Lewis put it, there wouldn’t be “that much difference between reading on the screen and reading in a book.” We’re not going to be able to tell ourselves that much longer. Whatever the future of the e-book may be, it seems pretty certain that it won’t be “paper-like.”

11 thoughts on “E-reading after the e-reader

  1. Derek Lee

    For a number of us e-reader users, a big selling point was less eye-strain that comes with e-ink. Do you think that will be a big factor affecting sales, or are people getting used to reading on LCD screens?

  2. Nick Post author

    I assumed it would be a bigger factor than it seems to be. I’m surprised, frankly, by the sudden fall in basic e-reader sales. I guess people find it hard to justify buying both an e-reader and a tablet, and so are willing to sacrifice the readability advantages of a dedicated e-reader.

  3. Indy

    You can see quite a few people reading on their smartphone on the London Tube. Still, printed matter seems to remain the majority pastime. As such, I wonder if we’re in a strange liminal time where if money is a consideration people stick with paper books, but buy a tablet t0 Facebook from the sofa with – and watch movies and listen to music on the train.

    Tablets are multipurpose, but I’d love more data on how many of them are actually being used for reading books. Equally, a tablet + website is a replacement for a magazine in ways a B&W e-reader is not. Newsweek has left the paper realm – but popular fiction still seems to be selling quite a bit in the paper form.

  4. Bob Corrick

    Derek, eye-strain is a big issue for my wife and me (try DrawSomething on a phone for an hour, versus reading a book). We just got an e-reader, in preference to the Kindle app on the phones, and yet more books in the house, to see how we go. Hoping to keep the readability of the books and avoid the distractions of the phone. Unlikely to get a tablet as we like to type.

  5. Chris Nahr

    I do find e-ink vastly more readable than LCD screens, but that readability and the greater battery life were the only advantages of a technology that otherwise had very serious drawbacks: no colors, preset fonts only, fairly low resolution, extremely slow screen update.

    It’s not just that e-readers are useless for tasks other than reading, they are also useless for any reading material other than linear text with little formatting and no illustrations. They can’t even show normal PDFs properly, since that format doesn’t support paragraph reflowing which is a requirement for small slow e-ink screens. Ironically, tablets are more compatible with traditional books than e-readers since their fast scrolling and zooming can handle fixed-format book pages…

    And then there’s Amazon’s proprietary e-book format, meaning that those e-readers you find at a local store cannot even read the biggest vendor’s books, unless you manually convert them on a PC. But Apple and Android tablets can download the free Amazon Kindle software, allowing them to read both Amazon’s e-books and any other electronic publication in existence — in addition to everything else they can do.

  6. David Berry

    I think another important point is that the device itself, which previously would have been the nicely bounded medium of the printed book, is increasingly dissolved into the user experience (UX) of a three-screen world, see my previous article here. That is, that the reading is no longer even located in a single device but is automatically synced between phone and tablet, such that the “book” that one is reading is increasingly understood as a causal, real-time streaming media, which may be picked up and put down with no attention to context. With the advent of the third screen of the three-screen world, the “board” (and of which the AppleTV is a prototype version), one wonders how reading might be spread over these three devices/screens and both what effects that might have, but also the potential for new writing forms – e.g. simultaneous display of different pages, characters, structures, etc on the three screens whilst reading. One only has to look at experiments with two screen games (e.g. tablet and TV) to see that this is still in its early phases but there is some interesting potential there.

    This will potentially greatly change the private reading experience of books, with the potential of semi-public and public readings in as much as the text can swirl around the three screen systems. The ethics of reading are also embedded in this system whereby the tab (phone) is private, pad (tablet) is public/semi-public, and the board (TV) is public.

  7. Olivia

    Most adults don’t have a lot of time to read and don’t read very many books per month so a tablet might work for them.. For people like me who read a lot and have eye problems, e-ink is the better choice. Hopefully, when my e-reader dies, I’ll be able to buy a replacement. I have a tablet but don’t read text-based books on it. It’s great foe magazines, cookbooks, etc.

  8. Marc-Antoine

    I would like to elaborate on declining E-reader sales. I find it surprising as I really like my Kindle, so I am trying to understand.

    When deciding between buying an E-reader or a Tablet, a lot of people might do the following reasoning: everything an E-reader can do, a Tablet can also do. Despite being more expensive, Tablets have more features so they offer better value thanks to versatility. On a tablet, I can also browse my photos or watch a movie while on a plane. On top of that, there might be a perception that black and white is something from the past. Furthermore, a lot more marketing dollars were spent on Tablets which are now perceived as trendy.

    Nevertheless, from a user experience perspective, the E-reader is far better for the purpose of reading books. E-reader are more confortable for the eye, they avoid distraction, battery lasts forever, they are much lighter and less bulky than a tablet. The weight is important as one cannot hold a tablet with one hand for long like you would do with a book; E-reader are light enough to do so.

    Unfortunately, when it comes to the buying decision, customers may give more importance to the device’s list of features instead of considering their reading experience.

  9. Brigid

    There’s more to readability than just eyestrain. I read very quickly and often e-books can’t keep up with me whereas computers, tablets and mobile devices can, especially if I’m just trying to skim something. It’s easier for me to look things up (even basics like definitions) on tablets and to take notes for my college classes.

    I’m in my early twenties, and often what my generation is looking for is interactive content. We want to be able to add to our reading experience by tweeting our friends about it, updating our Facebook status or taking notes for school, and we expect it to be quick. Most e-readers don’t do that, and it doesn’t make sense to pay the same amount for an e-book that gives us the exact same thing as the printed book.

    Another consideration would be the type of books read. Where you can read simple books on e-readers, anything with pictures or graphs doesn’t look good. Tablets allow a similar (often even enhanced) reading experience to print copies for children’s picture books and magazines. It’s a common selling point for tablets vs. e-readers.

  10. Yousra

    I’m living proof of the transition you just described! After almost 6 years of using e-readers-Sony, Kindle and even a nook for a short while- I now only use my iPad, even though it’s much heavier and needs to be charged daily, it still is more enjoyable because I’m able to switch between my books and all the other apps so easily… Now with all the size options available and once the battery life becomes more adequate, well, as you said, it’s a matter of time

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