Random Musings: The decline of the e-reader?

e readersThe Wall Street Journal recently published this article suggesting that the glory days of the e-reader may already be over. Considering that dedicated reading devices have only recently become an accepted reality among many in the literary world, that seems like a pretty bold statement. But I think the Journal’s take on the issue highlights some major reasons why the “print vs e-book” discussion won’t be going away any time soon.

The reason posited for the demise of the e-reader is that consumers are migrating to tablet computers, which allow for a host of other applications apart from reading. There’s no argument on that from a business perspective, but it reinforces some worries that have been nagging at me over the past year. Take that as a rant warning, and consider yourself duly warned…

E-readers were supposed to be a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to printed books. A one-time expenditure would theoretically provide years of low-cost reading. But what began as an admirable goal quickly got lost in quarterly profits. The whole environmentally friendly argument sort of goes out the window when market success depends on users upgrading their e-reader on a regular basis. There’s no way that you can continue to make an argument against recyclable paper and renewable forestry resources when consumers are now expected to chew through rare earth metals and toxic elements at an unconscionable rate.

And cheaper? Don’t even get me started. In addition to dropping $100+ per year to keep up with the trendiest device upgrades, consumers have no choice but to accept an agency pricing model where publishers set book prices and prohibit retailer discounting. When I bought my e-reader in 2010, books were consistently cheaper when purchased electronically. Now it’s not uncommon to see the print version selling at a lower price because the brick-and-mortar retailers are allowed to offer discounts. What’s particularly galling to me is seeing a $5 paperback selling for almost $20 as an e-book. Can somebody please explain where the “cheaper” part of this sales pitch comes into play?

I’m curious to see where things go from here, especially if the markets are indeed souring on e-reader devices as a viable revenue stream. I appreciate having a device that isn’t backlit like my work computer, and that doesn’t disturb my reading with temptations of social media and other time-wasters. But let’s be clear: I’m in it for the books, and not just to have the latest reading gadget. If the future of e-readers is dependent on device upgrades, the Wall Street Journal might just be right in predicting their demise.

On a personal level, I’m starting to sour on much of the e-reading experience myself. I’ve already increased my library borrowing over the past six months or so, largely because of my flat refusal to buy agency-priced books. Once minor inconveniences—like the inability to loan e-books to friends, or the sheer aggravation of following footnotes—now seem like burrowing ticks. I was initially happy with my decision to migrate to an e-reader.