Do Readers Have Digital Fatigue?

Young readers want an offline life, but it doesn't explain the fall of the ebook.

Publishing analysts are in agreement that ebook sales are falling, and that ebooks account for a diminishing share of overall trade book revenue. According to Publishers Weekly, the Association of American Publishers has the decline of ebooks at six percent over the previous year. And a new, broader survey from Codex Group has found that “e-book units purchased as a share of total books purchased fell from 35.9 percent in April 2015 to 32.4 percent in April 2016.” The decline of the ebook is a real if unexplained and possibly temporary phenomenon.

Still, the piece at Publishers Weekly asks an important question. If the book market has seen a measurable decline in its electronic format, why haven’t the music and film industries experienced the same? The Codex Group study is the first to suggest the decline of the ebook might be due to a combination of related problems: poor user experience and digital fatigue.

Of the two explanations, the effect of the reading experience on ebook sales is the more measurable and substantial. According to the survey, the number of ebook units bought in the last month declines as you move away from devices that are designed for the reading experience. Readers of dedicated technologies — like the Kindle — “purchased 59 percent of e-book units bought by respondents in the month.” In contrast, tablets were used for a paltry 28 percent of “e-book reading time.” Smartphones accounted for only 12 percent. The less “dedicated” technologies for reading had lower sales numbers, and no technology is more dedicated for reading than a print book.

But digital fatigue, the other explanation for a decline in ebook sales, is harder to pin down, even as its popularity grows among consultants, analysts, and print editors looking to embellish a supposed “return to print” across platforms. A number of cultural and market events — from the recent success of independent bookstores to the rise in adblocking — have recently been subsumed under the heading of “digital fatigue,” which might be loosely described as a weariness attributable to forced connectivity and excessive usage of screens.

In the case of ebooks, the survey found that 25 percent of book buyers “want to spend less time on their digital devices,” and that, among buyers 18-24 years old, 37 pecent feel a need to distance themselves from smartphones, computers, and tablets. And the survey suggests that a not insignificant percentage of these buyers would prefer print:

Since consumers almost always have the option to read books in physical formats, they are indicating a preference to return to print. In the April survey, 19% of 18-to-24-year-olds said they are reading fewer e-books than when they started reading that format, the highest percentage among all age groups. Overall, 14% of book buyers said they are now reading fewer e-books than when they started reading books in the format, and 59% percent of those who said they are reading fewer e-books cited a preference for print as the main reason for switching back to physical books.

More interesting is the idea that share of those who would prefer to return to print declines as the age of the reader increases. The idea that 18-24-olds — the group that spends the most time online — comprise the greatest share of those who would prefer to spend more time with print suggests that digital fatigue is a real (if minor) factor in the decline of ebook sales.

Still, the impact of digital fatigue is probably overstated, or at least over-suggested. The “return to print,” although not insubstantial, has been minor, and the industry has been bolstered by the sale of adult coloring books, which won’t remain popular forever. And, as we explained before, the broader publishing industry has been kept out of the red by the sale of digital audiobooks.

If 18-to-24-year-olds say they want to spend less time online, I believe them. But the concept of “digital fatigue” is murky by design — its vagueness is what accounts for its marketing value, as when it’s used to sell glasses or WiFi-free hotels. I suspect the idea needs some nuance. In his After the Media, theorist Siegfried Zielinski puts forward an argument for a distinction between online and offline life, one that does away with the naive notion that there is no difference between the two, and one that relies on the qualities of both.

For Zielinski, the difference between online and offline mirrors the longstanding philosophical distinction between existence and essence. Existence concerns “how the individual is connected to the whole,” for example, by social network; the huge numbers of users on social media platforms suggests that many affirm their existences, on a basic level, by using them. But online life isn’t affirmative in essence; it doesn’t provide an abiding sense of self or actuality — of the “unity” of existence:

We organize, learn, debate, and amuse ourselves in technological networks. We enthuse, think, enjoy, believe, and trust in autonomous, separate situations, each on his/her own and sometimes with other individuals. This amounts to a balancing act: in a single lifetime we have to learn to exist online and be offline. If we don’t succeed in this, we shall become mere appendages of the world that we have created, merely its technical functions. We should not allow cybernetics, the science of optimal control and predictability of complex events, this triumph.

My point is not so much to deny that young readers would turn to print because they are tired of the internet, but to point out that printed books offer a tested, reliable, and powerful sense of the actual — of a meaningful, organizing experience. Digital fatigue might just be offline enthusiasm.