Kindle and Waterstones have consciously uncoupled. Yesterday it was announced that Britain’s largest bricks and mortar book retailer is to end its era of stocking and selling e-readers. Cue a book commentariat awash with cries that this proves we are entering the swan song of the dedicated e-reader.
All this got me thinking that isn’t it funny that a slow-down in e-reader sales should be seen as a crisis for the device. Ultimately e-readers do one thing – they allow you to condense a library down into something with the weight and dimensions of a demy paperback. All additional features are essentially window dressing. A backlit screen is a nice add on. A touch screen is, frankly, a gimmick. In fact, I don’t think there has been a single new feature of any e-reader since the original Kindle was released in 2007 that has done anything to enhance that central functionality of the device.
Sales of the Kindle peaked in 2012 when 20.1 million devices were sold, followed by 19.7 million sales the following year. By the end of this year, it is predicted that nearly 90 million Kindles will have been sold this demi-decade. In fact, if all e-reader owners were to form their own country, they’d just be behind Mexico in terms of populace.
So my question is this: are we really so in thrall to the idea of built in obsolescence that it comes as a surprise to us when that number of people continue to use a device bought within the last five years, which hasn’t broken, and for which there isn’t a subsequent version with substantially improved functionality? Or actually, is it perfectly reasonable that we should expect a slow down in sales? I confess that I myself am responsible for two of those sales, although it took an accidental Doc Marten to the screen of my generation 1 Kindle to motivate me to upgrade last year. And I suspect most Kindle owners are like me: unwilling to hand over another £90 unnecessarily.
I should be clear that ultimately, I don’t think the dedicated e-reader is the future of publishing, either digital or otherwise. But I also don’t think any announcement of the kind made by James Daunt this week is evidence either way. If anything, it’s a testament to the simplicity and effectiveness of the dedicated e-reader.