Amazon took a big gamble when it released a high dollar, non-waterproof e-reader called the Oasis. This seems counter-intuitive. Aren’t people reading on their tablets, laptops, phones, and even the ever popular phablet?
Maybe. Maybe not. Some studies argue e-book sales and are on the decline, and readers are opting more for physical books. Still others say the relative market share of e-books and sales are still rising. But what about e-readers themselves?
Sony abandoned their device some time ago, and Barnes and Noble seems on the verge of surrendering the Nook after closing the UK e-reader store. Kobo remains a player, and there are a few others out there, but in the field of dedicated e-reader devices, Amazon seems to be standing alone at the head of the pack.
Not so long ago, even that was in question. Although they kept the Kindle devices, Amazon moved toward readers that doubled as tablets with the Kindle Fire series, and even tried to break into the smart phone market with the failed Fire phone.
The company and founder Jeff Bezos seemed to be on what Jay Halford of Boston University calls the Innovation SeeSaw. “If the innovative temperament is on one end of the seesaw, then the prudential spirit is on the other – ideally with the two in balance,” Halford says in an article of the same title for the Huffington Post. “Tipped too much towards one side or the other, either stagnation or anarchy results – and disruption leads to destruction.”
While Amazon quickly recognized there were advantages to the e-ink based devices and they have a loyal following, Barnes and Noble followed in their footsteps with first a failed tablet partnership with Samsung, and a rumored but soon abandoned deal with Microsoft. Despite that, Nook still possesses loyal customers as well. Barnes and Noble struggles with closing the US store, even though it is losing money.
Amazon still sells Fire tablets, and cheaply as a loss leader. Their dedicated e-readers sell well also. Why is Amazon succeeding where others have failed? Will people really buy these high-end e-ink devices?
Content is King
Amazon offers more e-book content available in more ways than any other retailer. Some publishers and Indie authors worry that the retailer almost has a monopoly on the e-book industry, and rightfully so.
With a plethora of self-published authors due to their KDP program, thousands of free books, the Kindle Unlimited subscription program, and competitive e-book prices they have negotiated with the Big 5 publishers, Amazon simply wins the numbers game.
The Kindle Fire Lesson
The Kindle Fire is an okay tablet, and an okay e-reader, but it does not excel in either role. What the devices do is bring customers into the Amazon customer base and keep them there. Since they are sold so cheaply, many even at a loss to the company, customers buy them. Once they are locked into Amazon content, even if they buy another non-Amazon device and use the free Kindle reading app on that device, they will still purchase their content from Amazon.
In the case of the Amazon Fire tablets it is not about the device. It is about the content and attracting customers to Amazon Prime and other devices like the Fire TV, the Echo, and Dash buttons, all designed to make it easier for customers to continue buying products from Amazon.
Screen Time and Eye Strain
The issue with reading on phones, tablets, PC’s and Phablets? Many people already spend hours a day looking at screens, and the strain takes a toll on even the healthiest of eyes let alone those who struggle with diabetes and other causes of blurry vision. People want to move away from screens and toward an alternative once they are done with work.
Thus the reports of the leveling or even declining e-book sales are given some credibility, even though there is evidence that those are false or at least overstated.
But e-ink is not a conventional screen. In fact, it is quite different, and much closer to paper, kind of like a lit up page rather than a backlit screen. The more advanced the device, like the Paperwhite or the new Oasis, the more like paper the screen becomes.
A Personal, Portable Library
Portable libraries started a long time ago, and evolved into book mobiles, first drawn by horses, and then powered by automobiles. Napoleon Bonaparte even commissioned his own traveling library from M. Louis Barbier, who was in charge of the Louvre Library, according to an article published in the Sacramento Daily Union on June 8, 1885.The reporter writes that Napoleon requested each tiny book in the library should “contain from five hundred to six hundred pages, and be bound in covers as flexible as possible and with spring backs.”
Tablets, laptops, and phones have limited memory, often consumed by photos, videos, and apps. However, dedicated e-readers can hold thousands of books and can be slipped into a pocket or bag.
Longevity and Durability
When the Nook store closed in the UK, books were migrated to Sainsbury’s Entertainment on Demand division. But readers lost thousands of Digital Rights Management (DRM) enabled books they had already paid for. That is because you don’t actually own the e-books you have purchased: you just purchased the right to use the content. This is a big deal with libraries and other public entities who are working to preserve digitally created content, yet don’t own it or have a way to migrate it from one format to another.
It is also a big deal to those readers who lost content they had paid for. Of the e-book retailers, Amazon and Apple seem the most likely to stick around. But Apple has no dedicated e-reading device, at least not yet. Amazon is the most stable e-book provider dedicated hardware to back up their inventory.
Not only is the content durable, but the e-readers themselves are. Simple yet sturdy construction makes them more difficult to break than your average tablet or even smart phone. They also offer battery life unequaled by any phone or tablet, at least so far. The Oasis offers a case with a battery purported to last months, and even lesser models last weeks without the need for a charge.
Is the rise of the tablet going to kill the e-book? Are people reading on tablets, phablets, phones and PCs going to kill the e-reader? Not any more than the e-book “killed” the physical book. Yes, the dynamics have changed and will continue to do so.
But just as physical books are not going anywhere, neither are e-books or e-readers. As long as there are stories being told, readers will find ways to consume them. Amazon is making a big bet that high end e-readers will be one of those ways.
I for one bet they’re right.