Here’s What the Future of Reading Looks Like

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Giggling at David Sedaris, probably.
Giggling at David Sedaris, probably. Photo: Shutterstock

Software is eating the world. It's also eating the book.

For years, traditional book publishers have hoped that standalone e-readers — Kindles, Nooks, and the like — would be their salvation, replacing paper-and-ink books as the diversion of choice for a new generation of readers. But several new data points suggest that's not happening. In fact, it seems clearer than ever that the future of reading isn't on reading devices at all. It's on your phone.

Last year, for the first time, publishers made more money from digital book sales than sales from brick-and-mortar bookstores, according to a new survey by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group. This tipping point had been expected by publishers for a long time. And it's not too ominous, on its own. After all, even though Amazon isn't easy to work with, it's still selling a lot of books. And under the current sales terms, e-books are still plenty profitable for publishers.

But there's another piece of bad news: The e-book market is changing, too. Increasingly, when people read e-books, they're doing it on their existing tablets and smartphones, not on devices built expressly for reading.

This week, Barnes & Noble announced it was spinning its Nook division off into a separate public company. That company's prospects don't look good, given the Nook's falling revenues (down 35 percent in the last fiscal year), and the decline of e-readers in general. Forrester predicts that by 2017, only 7 million dedicated e-readers will be sold in the U.S. annually, about one-sixth of the number of iPhones Apple sells each quarter. Partly, this decline will be driven by the e-reader companies themselves — as Amazon rolls out its new smartphone, and continues developing its all-purpose Kindle Fire tablets, it's expected to shift attention away from its line of standalone Kindles, by far the most popular e-readers on the market today.

"E-readers are looking like the next iPod," Mashable writes today, noting that smartphones and tablets with e-reader apps are poised to cannibalize sales of dedicated e-readers in the same way that the iPhone – which had all the capabilities of an iPod, plus calling and texting and tons of other apps – killed its single-feature predecessor.

The death of the standalone e-reader might be good news for consumers, who will have one fewer gadget to buy and lug around. But it's bad news for the book industry. If you've ever tried to read a book on your phone, you'll know why. Reading on an original Kindle or a Nook is an immersive experience. There are no push notifications from other apps to distract you from your novel, no calendar reminders or texts popping up to demand your immediate attention. And this immersion is partly why people who use dedicated e-readers tend to buy a lot of books. (One survey indicated that e-book readers read about 24 books a year, compared to 15 books a year for paper-and-ink readers.)

E-book sales aren't necessarily correlated with the popularity of standalone e-book readers, and the publishing industry could still have a successful digital transition if it convinces iPhone and Android users to buy e-books in the same quantities as Kindle and Nook users. But there's no getting around the fact that smartphones aren't designed for focused, sustained reading. They have small screens, for starters, which make long reading sessions tough on the eyes. But the bigger problem is that smartphones breed short attention spans. On a phone or a multi-function tablet, e-books have to compete for attention with Facebook, Instagram, Pandora, Angry Birds, and everything else you do. It's the difference between watching TV intently, and watching TV while folding laundry, talking on the phone, and doing the crossword puzzle.

The silver lining of the app-ification of books is that it has increased the potential audience for e-books. Now, everyone with a smartphone has the ability to download and read any e-book from any publisher with a few taps. The bad news is that, if current trends hold, fewer and fewer people will have a device that is strictly for reading. Books are becoming just another app, and the publishing industry's glorious e-reader future seems to be fading from view.