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Tablets gain at e-readers' expense

Alan Wallace
| Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
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Is the writing already on the wall for dedicated e-reading devices?

Exploring that question recently in a story headlined “The E-Reader Revolution: Over Just as It Has Begun?”, The Wall Street Journal's Greg Bensinger writes that “the shrinking sizes and falling prices of full-featured tablet computers are raising questions about the fate of reading-only gadgets” such as Amazon's original Kindle, Barnes & Noble's original Nook and their reading-focused successors.

Bensinger cites market-research firm IDC's 19.9-million-unit estimate of 2012 global e-reader shipments — 28 percent less than 2011's 27.7-million-unit figure — and 122.3-million-unit estimate of 2012 tablet shipments.

What's changing is how people read, not whether they read.

The same day that Bensinger's story appeared, Publishers Weekly reported that Nielsen BookScan found unit sales of print books fell a little more than 9 percent in 2012, “roughly the same percentage decline posted between 2010 and 2011.”

Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project findings released in late December, which Bensinger notes, are in keeping with the Nielsen BookScan data: Among Americans age 16 or older, 23 percent had read e-books in the prior year, up from 16 percent in December 2011, and 33 percent had either an e-reader device or a tablet, up from 18 percent a year earlier.

Nielsen BookScan gathers data from about 12,000 point-of-sale locations nationwide, covering only about 75 percent of U.S. book sales. The most obvious locations omitted are Wal-Marts and their corporate Sam's Club and BJ's siblings. Still, with Nielsen BookScan showing print sales down almost 16 percent from 2010 to 2012, it's clear that however e-books are read, they're continuing to grab market share from ink on paper.

Bensinger observes that many people who have e-readers see little need or reason to upgrade. If they do, they're increasingly likely to go for a tablet with full-fledged web browsing, a full-color screen and app-running capability. And the more that the price gap between the two kinds of devices narrows, the more attractive tablets are.

Time will tell whether tablets push e-readers to the brink of extinction, but e-readers' particular strengths shouldn't be underestimated. Compared to tablets, they're generally lighter and more compact, offer far longer battery life and are simpler to operate. That makes e-readers generally more comfortable to hold and easier to use.

Add screens optimized for displaying text that's easy to change in terms of size and font to enhance readability, and e-readers have many advantages — particularly for an aging America coping with arthritic hands and diminishing eyesight.

Even as tablets take the upper hand, the best-case scenario for e-book lovers is a market in which both tablets and e-readers remain viable options, providing choices to suit individual needs.

Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or

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