Nearly a Third of Americans Now Own an E-Reader or Tablet

A new Pew study sees a sales surge in digital reading devices. Here's why we should be wary.


Pew has a report out this morning examining the sales performance of tablets and e-readers over the holidays. While the study, based on three surveys conducted between December 2011 and January 2012, breaks down e-reader and tablet sales according to gender, education, race, and income, its headliner findings concern the population at large.

The key conclusion: "The number of Americans owning at least one of these digital reading devices jumped from 18 percent in December to 29 percent in January." Or, as The New York Times sums it up, "Tablet and e-reader sales soar."

The numbers are, indeed, striking: That's an 18 percent-to-29 percent leap in overall device ownership -- over a period not of years, not of months, but of weeks. And it means that, altogether, nearly a third of all Americans now own some kind of e-reading device.

As Pew's Lee Rainie notes,

These findings are striking because they come after a period from mid-2011 into the autumn in which there was not much change in the ownership of tablets and e-book readers. However, as the holiday gift-giving season approached the marketplace for both devices dramatically shifted. In the tablet world, Amazon's Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble's Nook Tablet were introduced at considerably cheaper prices than other tablets. In the e-book reader world, some versions of the Kindle and Nook and other readers fell well below $100.

So: Increased cost efficiency leads to increased audience for your products leads to increased market penetration leads to nearly a third of all Americans owning at least one of your devices. Makes sense!

I wonder, though, whether there isn't some bad news for Apple, Amazon, and other manufacturers baked into the Pew stats. Because, again, the sales surge Pew is documenting comes after a stretch of stagnation -- "a period from mid-2011 into the autumn in which there was not much change in the ownership of tablets and e-book readers." It took the holiday spending frenzy to recharge sales. And while the summer-to-fall flatline could have been simply a matter of classic delayed gratification -- people waiting for the holidays to buy iPads and Kindles for themselves and for others -- it could also be that the holiday boost is more an anomaly than an indicator. Holiday gift-giving has never been a particularly steady determinant of a product's ongoing appeal; if it were, I might have emerged from December 2011 as the proud owner of a Tickle Me Elmo or a Popeilian food dehydrator.

But, no. No, I did not. And part of that is because holiday gifts, while there are some that stay with us, year after year -- bath products, knit sweaters, socks -- are, as cultural phenomena, generally pretty ephemeral. Holiday gifts are just that: gifts. Which means that they're often whimsical, and often impractical, and often, more importantly, based on a kind of reverse-market logic that puts the gift-giver in the role of the anti-market speculator: You buy that thing for your friend precisely because it's a thing she wouldn't buy for herself. In the context of gift-giving, a product's impracticality -- its status as a kind of extra-market commodity -- is part of its appeal.

The Kindle Bump could well be a reflection of that logic in action. Which doesn't mean, of course, that the iPad will go the way of the Elmo. Far from it. Population-penetration-wise, nearly-a-third is nearly-a-third. And the devices in question here aren't just products in themselves, but rather gateways to further sales on Amazon's and/or Apple's and/or others' commercial platforms. As reflections of overall revenues, the hardware sales numbers are amplified, almost -- almost -- implicitly. 

Still, though. It's worth a moment of pause as all those "huge sales numbers for tablets and e-readers!" headlines make their way around the web today. When it comes to market penetration, the how can be just as important as the how much. Devices' staying power, on a cultural level, is hard to measure in the short term -- which means that data about e-reader usage will be much more meaningful than data about e-reader sales

In its surveys, Pew also asked respondents about their "their reading habits and their interactions with their libraries related to e-books and other digital content." The results will be released in an upcoming report, and will likely be fascinating. E-readers are certainly trendy; the more interesting question, though, is whether -- and, more likely, how -- they actually become a trend.

Image: Pew.