A Tipping Point: E-readers Gain Momentum

Amazon recently announced that sales of e-books surpassed hardcover books for the first time.  This major milestone  lends credence to the idea that consumers are willing to accept content in a variety of forms.  No one is seriously arguing that physical books will completely disappear anytime soon.  But whatever the shortcomings of e-books, they are apparently not significant enough to deter consumers from embracing  multiple formats.  As Clay Shirky has argued in another context, the appropriate question is not whether readers will accept new technologies  and formats, but why they are reading in the first place.  Depending on their purposes, e-readers may fulfill those desires as much as physical books (possibly in a cheaper and more efficient way to boot).  Here’s The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle:

I think it not only means that e-books are entering the mass adoption phase, but also that the price-discrimination model that publishers have used for decades may be on its way out.  There’s no significant benefit to buying most disposable mass-market books in hardcover; people do it because they don’t want to wait for the paperback.  In theory, they should be willing to pay extra to get a “new release” rather than wait a year, but in practice, people are surprisingly resistant (and have become more so, I think, as the furor over the iPhone price cuts revealed).  They’re willing to pay up if you can give them some superficial reason that they are getting a superior product (like, um, a hard, unwieldy version).  But they scream bloody murder when they find out that they paid too much for the same model.

There’s been much current debate over the feature sets of the various e-readers available in the market, whether the functionality of the Nook overshadows the benefits of the Kindle, for example, or whether the iPad offers superior usability compared to other e-readers.  Implicit in the various debates is the idea that the question of whether readers will ever accept e-readers as an acceptable substitute to physical books has already been settled.   Amazon’s announcement underscores that answer.  As McArdle rightly points out, it’s doubtful whether Amazon much cares about the profitability of the Kindle – or other e-readers, for that matter (though Barnes and Noble and Amazon report an uptick in sales of the e-readers after slashing prices last month).  E-readers are primarily content-delivery devices, a way to get more content in the hands of readers.  And that appears to be exactly what is happening.

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