The short but effective window where ereaders changed the industry

By Nathaniel Mott , written on December 24, 2012

From The News Desk

People just aren't buying as many ereaders as they used to. According to a widely-cited iSuppli report, ereader shipments fell from 23.2 million units in 2011 to 14.9 million units this year, a 36 percent drop iSuppli calls "virtually unheard of" in the consumer market. Shipments are expected to continue their decline through 2016, with a projected shipment of just 7.1 million units.

If these projections are to be believed, the ereader craze is flaming out as quickly as it ignited. And if you're in the business of creating content, that's a good thing.

Ereaders are limited devices. They only set out to do one thing well – display text – and for the most part they're up to the task. Despite a Pew report saying that many readers prefer the text-heavy article of old, media as a whole is embracing video, animations, unique layouts, and the Web to create a new, better experience.

The shining example of this new form is currently "Snow Fall," the multimedia story from the New York Times told as a combination of landscape videos, tutorials, interview videos, and text. Whether or not "Snow Fall" is the future of journalism isn't the point – what matters is that the story wouldn't work on an e-reader. Sure, the text would be the same, but that's only part of the story.

Moonbot Studios' "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" is another example of a story combining different forms of media to create an experience greater than the sum of its parts. By themselves, the story's games, animations, or narrative would be great. Combined, they're fantastic.

PandoDaily editor Adam Penenberg recently thought on the future of "books," imagining what they might look like when freed from the devotion we have to a millennia-old format. Penenberg plans to release a book "Cloud Racers," next year, replete with interviews, music, and other multimedia elements that weren't possible to incorporate into a book just a few years ago.

PressBooks, a software tool that helps users generate ebooks, recently went open-source to facilitate the rush to this future. As my colleague Hamish McKenzie wrote, PressBooks (and "Snow Fall") offer a glimpse at what new, Web-based books built outside of the typical "text text text" format of the traditional book might look like.

Some publishers have already brought magazines and books to the Web. Tomorrow magazine, the project launched after GOOD's pivot, and Frank Chimero's "The Shape of Design," are both available on the Web and accessible from any browser.

None of these things are possible with ereaders. Sure, some ship with "experimental browsers" that might bridge the gap between a downloaded book and a Web-based one, but these browsers are typically sub-par. I can't even imagine what a video or an interactive element might look like on an ereader, though "horrible" and "an epileptic's worst nightmare" come to mind.

Books are changing. Media is changing. The way we read is changing. In order for those things to happen we need to abandon tools that replicate the old and embrace new devices. Ereaders made a fine halfway point between reading on a tablet and reading a paper-based book. In fact, they rejuvenated book sales by allowing impulse payments for the first time. But even if you think the future of the book will be dominated by text, their time has now passed.