What was the single most important event of 2015 for ebooks and ereading? Surely the release of Amazon’s $50 7-inch Kindle Fire (or just Fire). It’s hard to think of any other single occurrence that has affected – or will affect – the ebook and ereading market so much. And not just the ebook market, but the tablet market as well. Yet we also have year-end headlines stating that “2015 was the worst year ever for e-readers.” So where does the whole ebook/ereading ecosystem stand? And what are the implications for readers and book lovers?
First, though I’ve written much in favor of the $50 Fire, I haven’t done so as a starry-eyed Amazon fanboy … I hope. I still regard Amazon as a cynically calculating, potentially monopolistic juggernaut, whose business ethics only look good when set alongside the Big Five traditional publishers whose cosy cartels it disrupted. But it does what’s needed to make the ebook ecosystem a success. And bear in mind that the e-commerce expertise which Amazon honed selling books and ebooks has enabled it to become America’s most respected retailer, period – and is still shown most forcefully, right there, in bookselling, e- or paper. So, if I make 2015 seem like the story of a single company and a single device, sorry. But now read on.
I already outlined at length what I think the $50 Fire means for the old style epaper Kindle, and for dedicated ereaders in general. If not extinction, then terminal irrelevance, at least in their current form. You already had pundits like Douglas McCabe, CEO of Enders Analysis, crowing that: “the e-reader may turn out to be one of the shortest-lived consumer technology categories.” Yet Amazon’s boastful Christmas announcement demonstrates just how little Bezos and his Behemoth care about that. This, Amazon declares, was the “biggest holiday ever for Amazon devices – up 2x over last year’s record-setting holiday.” Furthermore, “Amazon devices were top-selling products across all of the items available on Amazon.com this holiday season – #1 was Fire.” Oh, and “the all-new Fire tablet and Amazon Echo topped this year’s most wished-for and gifted items for Amazon.com customers.” Does that sound like customers were pining for ereaders?
Let’s go back to basics for a moment here. A dedicated ereader is a screen that you read on. So is a Fire. So is a tablet, or a phablet, or a smartphone. But all of the latter devices can do more besides. And all of these device categories have exactly the same ultimate goal in display technology: A daylight-readable high-resolution low-power full-color technology that updates instantly. Fine, ereaders don’t need to do all that, but whatever other direction can you innovate in? Because, as headlines elsewhere say, “Ebook Reader Innovation was Stagnant in 2015.”
And right now, why would you want to? Amazon has snatched away the price advantage that dedicated ereaders used to have with the $50 Fire. Its Christmas boasts imply that that price point is more than sustainable – looks more like a runaway hit than a stampeding white elephant to me. And users who are willing to pay anything more than $50 are likely to shell out for a phablet or smartphone, rather than even a standalone tablet. That’s enough of a quandary to create real problems for tablet and computer manufacturers, never mind ereader makers. And readers who don’t like reading on Fires aren’t potential epaper fans just waiting to be recaptured: they generally just don’t like reading on screens. Period.
Look at this from a business analyst’s point of view. A company has pioneered a product category. It dominates that category completely, with a supporting fulfillment platform and customer lock-in second to none. It’s successfully extended that fulfillment platform to support all other compatible – or even competing – device types and architectures. Yet it has concluded that that category is in terminal decline. It’s actually engineered an exit route from that category. It’s in such a hurry to get away that it’s trying to break all associations between the name of the old product and its new exit vehicle. Now, when the category’s dominant player is on its way out, why on earth would you want to go in?
Actually, there is entry point I can think of, only it requires another back-to-basics approach and a complete shift of focus. That’s to revisit the principle that epaper is a material, not a device technology. As foldable, bendable smart papers and screens with their own paper-thin power sources become more feasible, and more like old style paper, the ereader device category looks set to get hit from another direction. Because you can now, if you’re dishonest enough, snatch shop signs off shelves that are almost as capable ereading devices as the Kindles &tc. that they advertise. Extend this trend a little further, and the logical result is the epaper newspaper and animated Tetrapacks seen in Minority Report – circa 2002. Perhaps there won’t even be a single dominant manufacturer or device type – do you know who your paper maker is? But there will be ereading everywhere. Epaper everywhere; ereaders, nowhere.
Should an ebook lover, or a plain book lover, care? As one of those, I don’t. I have my Fire in the house; I also have a smaller, lighter Kindle – which I never use. And I don’t think for one moment that Amazon’s strong Christmas results signal any kind of pullback in ebook readership.
Don’t let all the spin put on the supposed decline in ebook sales mislead you. One of the other more interesting spectacles of 2015 has been watching that whole exercise unravel. Big Publishing may have got its price points wrong in renewing its Amazon contracts, but Amazon hasn’t, which just creates more opportunities for indies, self-published authors, and Amazon itself. Smart move, big boys.
Once again, apologies if I’ve gone on too long on one thread. And Amazon’s unhealthy market predominance is certainly a story for another day, in the New Year. Meanwhile, though, happy 2016 and happy ereading – on whatever format or device you prefer.