Is the e-reader on its way out?

Predictions that the e-reader is done seem to be everywhere. What do those forecasts really mean for the publishing industry?

Brian Snyder/Reuters
A commuter reads on his e-reader in Cambridge, Mass.

The e-reader is dead.

At least, that’s according to the blogosphere, where analysts are predicting the death of the device that was supposed to save the publishing industry.

“The e-reader death watch begins,” proclaimed Slate.

“Why e-readers are the next iPods,” taunted Mashable.

“Here’s what the future of reading looks like,” offered New York Magazine, featuring a picture of a man reading a book not on an e-reader, but on a cell phone. 

What’s behind the dire proclamations? 

Analysts are citing recent moves by industry giants Amazon and Barnes & Noble as evidence of e-readers’ demise. 

Amazon just launched its first smartphone, a sign that the company recognizes that more people are reading books on their phone now, not e-readers like the Kindle. 

Barnes & Noble just announced that it’s spinning off its Nook division after revenues for the e-reader business fell 22 percent in the most recent quarter and 35 percent in the fiscal year.

And then there’s the industry watchers' predictions.

Forrester predicts e-reader sales will fall to only 7 million units in the US by 2017, compared to 25 million units sold in 2012. Ditto IHS iSuppli, which predicts US e-reader sales to plummet to 7.8 million by 2015. Meanwhile, IDC predicts the global tablet market will grow only about 12 percent this year compared to almost 52 percent last year. 

Since e-books account for so much reading and sales – the typical e-reader owner purchases and reads an average of 24 books a year compared to 15 books for a non-e-reader, according to a 2012 Pew report – could this spell disaster for the industry? 

Not so fast. Spinning "sky-is-falling" predictions are practically a sport in the publishing world. (See: death of the novel; death of the publishing industry.)

And while it is true e-reader sales are dropping off sharply, it’s not necessarily reason for alarm.

For starters, consumers may not be buying more e-readers because they bought them back in 2007 or 2008 when e-readers were hot and “e-reader models don’t really evolve, so there’s no need to upgrade,” as Mashable mused.

As the website pointed out, e-readers still have a niche market. “Like iPods, they're great gifts for kids too young to be trolling the Internet. Battery life also makes them attractive…making them attractive for long plane trips.”

Perhaps more importantly, however, is this point: cell phones and tablets are overtaking e-readers as the preferred e-book-reading platform of choice. 

“Increasingly, when people read e-books, they're doing it on their existing tablets and smartphones, not on devices built expressly for reading,” writes New York Magazine.

Adds Vox News, “Today 90% of Americans own a cellphone, 32% own an e-reader, and 42% own a tablet. This is important because most e-book consumption happens on those two devices. More than 50% of readers said that they read e-books on tablets or e-readers.”

That’s not fantastic news for readers, as New York Magazine points out: “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.”

But it’s not necessarily bad for the industry. Folks are still reading e-books, they’re just reading them on different devices.

Considering the fact that many more Americans own cell phones and tablets than e-readers, this trend may even increase the potential audience for e-books.

As Slate put it, “Devices come. Devices go.” To which we’d add: But reading will always endure.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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