ereadersLast month, I covered Codex Group President Peter Hildick-Smith’s presentation at BookExpo America on the impact decreasing e-ink reader use is having on e-book purchasing. Now Jim Milliot at Publishers Weekly has picked up the same report Hildick-Smith discussed, with a few different details and some of the charts from that report.

As I noted in the BEA report, Hildick-Smith believes that many readers are getting tired of digital reading—he calls it “digital fatigue”—and are switching back to printed books. He also finds that most e-book reading is done on e-ink readers—households with no e-ink readers read considerably fewer e-books. As more e-ink readers are retired without being replaced, Hildick-Smith believes e-book purchase numbers will continue to fall.

The Codex survey also found that though book buyers stated they spent almost five hours of daily personal time on screens, 25% of book buyers, including 37% of those 18–24 years old, want to spend less time on their digital devices. Since consumers almost always have the option to read books in physical formats, they are indicating a preference to return to print. In the April survey, 19% of 18-to-24-year-olds said they are reading fewer e-books than when they started reading that format, the highest percentage among all age groups. Overall, 14% of book buyers said they are now reading fewer e-books than when they started reading books in the format, and 59% percent of those who said they are reading fewer e-books cited a preference for print as the main reason for switching back to physical books. The share of print books purchased was also the highest among the heaviest screen users, the so-called digital natives, ages 18–24 (83%), and lowest (61%) among 55-to-64-year-olds.

I suspect that the reason for the lowest incidence of print-book buying among 55-64-year-olds is that the large-print e-book advantage becomes more important to people the further along they get in age, which suggests that when some of those “digital natives” get older they might discover their tastes changing again as well.

The article’s getting some amusing discussion on The Passive Voice, with commenters making fun of the first line, which claims that “no one has come up with a clear reason for the drop” in e-book sales from 2014 to 2015. Gene Doucette writes, “They raised their prices. There, I solved it. Took four words.” But that being said, the Codex report claims to cover major publishers, small publishers, and self-publishers. So, the report holds that the drop in e-book sales happened across the entire range of e-books, not just the Big Five’s.

Passive Guy also has his doubts:

PG is skeptical of these data. He wasn’t able to find any information about methodology, but did remember that a 2014 Codex survey found that book buyers were leaving Amazon and moving to Barnes & Noble because of the dispute between Hachette and Amazon.

PG’s understanding is that most of Codex’s customers are traditional publishers, but he could be wrong about that.

When Hildick-Smith spoke at BEA, he said that the statistics were derived from surveying 5,000 consumers per month on their book and e-book purchases. He said that since the focus is on individual buyers, not stores or publishers, the statistics gather information on every book or e-book purchase those consumers make, whether from big, small, or self-publishers. That said, he didn’t mention how those 5,000 were selected, or whether they were the same ones every month.

The question is, how representative a sample are they? Might e-book sales among them be down, while across all consumers as a whole they’re up? I don’t know of any other survey that purports to track total e-book purchases across all ranges. Author Earnings has found traditional publishers’ slice of the pie shrinking, but doesn’t seem to have mentioned whether the entire pie is shrinking, too. I’m not able to find any chart on their site estimating changes in total unit sales from report to report.

In any event, the Publishers Weekly piece concludes:

Unless the e-reader device market is recharged with lower-price, higher-quality options, Hildick-Smith expects that consumers tiring of their digital-device experience will have further digital fatigue, leading to continued e-book sales erosion.

Whether or not the data from the Codex Group report is accurate, having more inexpensive e-readers would be a good thing for e-book reading. At the moment, even the cheapest Kindle model costs $20 more than the Fire tablet—and when faced with getting a cheap tablet that can read e-books and do a lot more stuff, a lot of people are going to have trouble finding a reason to spend $20—let alone $50 more for the Paperwhite, or over $200 more for the Oasis. But when they have that new tablet, apparently they have more trouble finding the time to read with it.

That said, the statistics do seem to disagree with the report I mentioned in March that suggested e-ink readers’ market share will grow by 3.5% by the end of the year. (Though tablet market share is growing faster.) How would you square those two sets of statistics?

And then there was Kobo CEO Michael Tamblyn who said that e-ink readers appeal to people who really love to read, and such people would be willing to spend the extra money for e-ink over cheap tablets. When you couple that with the Codex Group report suggesting people weren’t reading as much because they weren’t replacing their e-ink readers, you have kind of a chicken-or-the-egg dichotomy: are people reading less because they’re buying fewer e-ink readers? Or are they buying fewer e-ink readers because they’re reading less?

Perhaps if Amazon could pop out a rock-bottom low-budget e-ink reader, possibly using one of the new advances in e-ink tech that have recently come along, it could sell more e-readers, and hence more books. But on the other hand, does Amazon even care about that now? Streaming media seems to be where the biggest money is, and that stuff is more expensive to produce, buy, and license than books. From a standpoint of return on investment, it might be in Amazon’s best interests to promote streaming media consumption rather than e-books.


  1. I suspect that the reason for the lowest incidence of print-book buying among 55-64-year-olds is that the large-print e-book advantage becomes more important to people the further along they get in age, which suggests that when some of those “digital natives” get older they might discover their tastes changing again as well.

    Alternatively, having bought print books for many decades before eBooks, I’m simply out of space for more print books!

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