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Rapid move to e-books surprises experts, roils market

The Washington Post

America’s obsession with digital tablets is driving a boom in e-book reading, a new survey shows, a trend that is dampening the appeal of printed books and shaking the centuries-old publishing business.

The share of Americans who read e-books grew to 23 percent from 16 percent in 2012, while the number of adults who read printed books fell to 67 percent from 72 percent, according to a study released Thursday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The swift and dramatic shift in reading habits was brought on by the rising popularity of tablets and e-reader devices, which are now owned by one-third of the U.S. population, the survey showed.

Tablets — a category jump-started by Apple just two years ago with the iPad — have surpassed e-readers such as Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Amazon’s Kindle as the preferred device for reading digital books, Pew found. One out of four e-books is being read on a tablet, up from one out of 10 last year.

“We haven’t reached this point yet, but there are reasonable thoughts that the book experience of the future will be dramatically different than today,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “It will be a multimedia, highly social, and maybe even incorporate a wiki experience.”

Tablets have sold at a record pace for a new hardware device, and consumer appetite for such gadgets shows few signs of abating. Companies trying to eat into Apple’s market share have introduced lower-priced offerings such as the Google Nexus tablets and Amazon’s Kindle Fire.

Those sales have made e-reading a breakaway business trend for the year, analysts say. IDC, a technology research firm, increased its forecast of tablet sales to 122.3 million for this year, saying the demand for mobile computing devices was much greater than anticipated.

The shift toward e-books is disrupting the economics of book publishing. Bookstore giant Borders went bankrupt last year, unable to maintain the cost of its bricks-and-mortar stores. Barnes & Noble, meanwhile, is struggling to keep up with the transition to digital with its Nook.

So far, publishers have benefited from e-book sales. They get better margins for digital books because e-books don’t have to be printed and distributed. Once downloaded, many titles can be shared and kept permanently.

But the e-book phenomenon also has concentrated pricing power in the hands of far fewer retailers. E-book sales are dominated by Amazon. Earlier this year, major book publishers and Apple were accused of conspiring to lift prices of digital titles. Most of these companies have settled with the Justice Department, though Apple and Macmillan have vowed to fight the charges.

Experts don’t expect digital books to overtake printed pages. Physical books work better as gifts, and photos and pictures look better on paper than in digital ink, said Jeremy Greenfield, editorial director at Digital Book World.

But eventually e-books may become the dominant way that people read books, particularly as schools embrace tablets, experts say.