What Is the Future of Reading?

When digital readers came on the scene about a decade ago, many said that the writing was on the wall for bookselling and traditional publishing. With digital books costing less than hardback or paperback versions—and not requiring a visit to a bookstore to buy a new title—few could see how the industry could survive in the face of this new digital competition.
It turns out, ten years later, those doomsayer predictions were not entirely correct. While major chains may be struggling, indie bookstores seem to be having a comeback, as consumers like their specialized selections and curation. It appears that the one thing that the naysayers didn’t anticipate is that consumers like human curation and the joy of simply browsing and finding something unexpected. That’s something that even an algorithm like Amazon can’t compete with—as mighty as it is—and it simply can’t be replicated in an online format.
As one TechCrunch blogger put it, writing about the American mega bookstore chain Barnes and Noble, “Barnes & Noble is, for want of a better word, dead. Their strategy of opening massive stores with large footprints and stocking everything from board games to stuffed animals (and some books) has failed, and there is no reason to visit a B&N unless you want to get a coffee and read magazines for free. That said, the e-book backlash has given independent bookstores new legs, and it has gutted big-box retailers, but I could definitely see a chain of small bookstore cafes that could stock new and used titles, plenty of kids books for parents to peruse for their little ones and some coffee. I just don’t see B&N leading that charge.”
So what does this mean for the e-reader? What once seemed a sure bet to take over for market dominance now seems less likely to be the future of reading. The fact is that the assumption that all readers would enjoy a digital format over a paper one never came to pass. Readers have myriad different preferences—with some even preferring digital for some titles, like business manuals, and print for others, such as novels or self help literature.
What seems clear is that e-books aren’t really what’s falling in popularity—it’s e-readers. The available data illustrates this decline pretty clearly: “the number of e-book reader shipments worldwide from 2008 to 2012 and also offers a forecast until 2016. In 2009, around 3.8 million e-readers were sold worldwide. In the United States, the revenue from e-books was 158 million U.S. dollars in 2008. In 2010, Amazon’s Kindle accounted for 62.8 percent of all e-reader shipments worldwide.”
So if it’s not e-readers, what are we reading our e-books on? The answer, of course, is mobile. Smartphone ownership is extremely widespread—“92% of American adults own a cellphone, which is similar to the 90% of the public who reported owning these mobile devices in 2014”—and the failure of e-readers to update since their initial entry to the market means that people see little need to own them in addition to a tablet or phone, which can host e-books anyway. The combination of the robust nature of the indie bookselling market and the redundancy of owning an e-reader and a phone has meant that the market has continued to dwindle, with no sign of uptick.
Unless the e-reader market comes out with a proposition or offering that manages to rival both the ease of reading on one’s phone, or the appeal of browsing a bookstore and picking up an unexpected title, it’s hard to see a way that the once-seemingly game changing devices will pick up steam again.