Opinion: Are e-readers a dying guilt-free pleasure?

No matter how many leisure appliances appear, there's still nothing like the simple pleasure of getting lost in a good book, be it the adult and apparently still shining Danny Torrance, the adventures of a 16-year-old archer/survivalist from Panem or four dozen-plus shades of gray.

But it's not easy to get so literaturely lost. We are beset by yapping spouses, bosses, employees, clients, co-workers, kids who want to do something we don't want them to do or yapping about things they don't want to do, pets, neighbors, bill collectors and a seemingly unending series of other yapping yappers.

And then there's yapping gadgets — the car, the appliances, the tools, the A/V system, the PC, yapping to get used, repaired or replaced. Our DVR yaps at us to catch up on the latest TV addictions or else be treated like aliens at the water cooler. Our smartphones and our tablets yap at us to check email, serve the Web, play games, watch videos, listen to music, etc.

All of which explains the continued allure of that remote and romantic island of escape, the dedicated e-book e-reader — despite their…

E-book Economic Illogic

Cruise along Amazon's virtual aisles and you find the ASUS MeMO Pad, a 7-inch tablet with Android 4.1, 16GB of internal storage and a 1024 x 600 resolution display discounted to $109.95.

With the ASUS MeMO Pad or new tablets such as the ASUS MeMO Pad HD 7 and the just announced Dell Venue 7, both $150, come hundreds of thousands of apps, including e-reader apps for Kindle, Nook and Kobo.

So, if you can buy a 7-inch tablet filled with hundreds of thousands of things to do for between $100-$150, why, would anyone spend the same amount on a dedicated monochrome E Ink-based e-reader with just one reading app?

Two words: intellectual guilt.

Dedicated e-readers are the lap-belt of the tablet world. Just as these surgically implanted, stomach-constricting rubber bands eliminate diet, exercise and will power to control your girth, dedicated e-readers artificially eliminate the need to resist your tablet's hundreds of thousands of leisure lures and force you to spend your tablet time more intellectually constructively.

This is not meant to be accusatory. I myself carry around an e-reader so I have to spend my subway-riding time fruitfully and not wasted playing my millionth game of Scrabble.

But economics are overwhelming our desire to read the right thing.

E-reader Erosion

In 2011, 21 million e-readers, mostly Kindles, Nooks and Kobos, were sold, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). But as 7-inch tablets appeared and prices dropped, so did e-reader sales. This year, only 8.4 million e-readers are expected to be sold according to CEA, and only 7.1 million next year.

One casualty of this diminished e-reader interest looks to be Barnes and Noble, which is hemorrhaging money on Nook nearly as voluminously as BlackBerry. But you should be able to buy discounted Nook e-readers and tablets at least through the holiday season.

Tablet competition with dedicated e-readers may further heat up in a few weeks with the unveiling of eReatah ("e-reader" pronounced as if you were from Brooklyn), a book club subscription service currently in beta.

eReatah will offer three monthly subscription levels: two books for $14.99, three books for $22.50 and four books for $29.99, which works out to $7.50 a book compared to around $12 bought a la carte from other e-book stores. eReatah has "only" 90,000 titles (Kindle offers more than a million) and is still negotiating agreements with three of the five major publishing houses.

E-reader Improvements

E-reader makers understand the functional and financial disadvantage they suffer compared to same-priced tablets. One major technological e-reader concession to LCD-based tablet competition has been the addition of a front light, which adds much needed brightness to the otherwise dull e-reader screen, necessary for reading in darker ambient conditions such as the bedroom, while the spouse is sleeping or during a darkened red-eye flight.

The new Kindle Paperwhite is faster, more touch sensitive and displays higher contrast text with a brighter, whiter front light than the old. Kobo's new Aura also is brighter and whiter than the old Paperwhite and the Nook GlowLight, is smaller than both the Kindle and the Nook (and therefore more pocketable) and offers greater font options and contrast controls.

Unfortunately, now that both e-reader competition and 7-inch tablet pricing are shrinking, e-reader pricing hasn't shrunk accordingly.

E-reader Answers?

E-readers still have myriad advantages over tablet e-reading. Even with their front-lit screens, e-readers don't cause as much eye strain as a tablet's blindingly bright LCD, and are better for reading in daylight, which washes out tablet screens. And e-reader battery life is still measured by weeks, not hours.

But these e-reader advantages don't improve their value proposition vs. tablets. James McQuivey, principal analyst at market research outfit Forrester, thinks that Amazon will remain more interested in customer retention and content sales than in Kindle hardware profits and eventually offer Kindles for free in some sort of super subscription plan.

Kobo, which also sells e-books, also may decide content profit is more, well, profitable, than hardware profit, and deeply discount its e-reader hardware.

Until then, is a dedicated e-reader lap-belt worth as much as a multi-functional tablet to escape your yapping hordes?

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