A Long Time Coming

November 1st, 2003 Books & Publishing, Good Reading

Know your technology

If you slept throughout the late 1990s, you might not know that the Internet boom promised to change everything … the way we communicate, pay our bills, do our banking, even read the news.

Of course, online banking and email were two of the Internet’s success stories, but there was plenty of hype about things we now laugh about. Some radical pundits predicted the end of books, saying we’d download special files to a small handheld computer that displayed the pages of a book and read it like we do on paper.

At the time, the technology was in its infancy, but now it’s widespread among the upwardly mobile professional demographic as the PDA (personal digital assistants, the small handheld computer that holds your schedule, address book, wireless email and even rudimentary computer functions like word processing).

Such machines can turn virtual pages, let us search through the text and access extra features you just can’t put in print like updates, new author introductions and even embedded video clips — e-books run in similar ways to a web page.

Quite literally then, an e-book is an electronic book. It’s not the machine you need to read e-books; there isn’t even an agreement on the most suitable machine for the job. It’s also not a disc, an email or a web page. It’s quite simply a computer file that you download (usually over the Internet) to display on your ‘book displaying machine’.

Books are almost without exception digitised nowadays anyway — they go through the entire publishing process as word processor or page layout files. Making an e-book is simply a matter of producing an image (i.e. the page of a book) designed to be read on a screen rather than printed on paper.

Still in the Race

Like a lot of the failed Internet technologies, a lot of people have written e-books off as a flash in the pan (including plenty of large publishers). It’s true that after five centuries of developing a love of the book, claims that another technology will do away with it overnight are plainly ridiculous.

But we also can’t dismiss e-books completely. Many believe they’ll have a place in the near future. For starters, technologies like the Internet have made people realise there’s more than one kind of reading. Of course you wouldn’t curl up in bed or lay on the beach with your computer — but nor do university students like poring over a dozen heavy books trying to find a single piece of information.

Put most succinctly by Stephen Cole, director of the (authoritatively named) ebooks.com, the world’s largest independent Internet e-bookstore; “There’s immersive reading which is the reading of fiction, and there’s interactive reading which is used for reference and so on.”

Others don’t just thing e-books have a market, they think they’ll still explode one day soon, like it was promised they would years ago. As Australia’s best known publishing phenomenon Bryce Courtenay puts it; ‘Within ten years 25-30% of books sold are going to be e-books,’ he says, ‘and it may be much higher than that. What I expect to see in the very near future — and by that I mean three, four or five years — is that we’re going to see an e-book culture take off in a big way.’

A Long Time Coming?

So if e-books are set to revolutionise the world, why haven’t they? Why aren’t we buying e-books straight from publishers (avoiding the expensive book retailer, warehousing and distribution markups) and reading them on our e-book reading handheld devices?

Firstly, the problem is that computers (including handheld technology) aren’t like books where one paper is the same as another. Computer file formats need to be standardised so that you can buy any e-book and know it’ll work on any reading device. Since the e-book market is based on the expansion of the Internet, standards have to be universal, and some very rich and powerful interests are still slugging it out for theirs to be the accepted technological basis.

There’s also been slow uptake — particularly in Australia — of the reader tools that will most likely be used for e-books. There was a few early models of dedicated e-book readers that did nothing else, but most people have found them ungainly and sales are still struggling.

It’s been almost universally agreed that the personal computer isn’t the right home for an e-book. The best known authors in the world proved that about three years ago, when both Stephen King and Bryce Courtenay entered into two separate ventures to sell their novels over the Internet exclusively in e-book form for reading on a computer screen. Both attempts were disastrous.

The best bet so far is the PDA. Originally a yuppie toy like the mobile phone in its early days, it’s now making its way into the mainstream. The development behind PDAs from by several global electronics firms mean it’s developing into the firm favourite for e-book delivery.

ebooks.com director Stephen Cole keeps a careful eye on the technology his business will depend on. ‘PDAs are the future,’ he says. ‘It’s the preferred device for immersive reading. There’s a vast and growing user base for those devices. The screen resolution gets better every year, the battery life gets longer and functionality improves.’

The downside of PDAs is that they’re not mobile phones — so far, their appeal doesn’t extend beyond the tech-savvy professional. To the rest of us, they’re an expensive, unnecessary luxury.

The future could get even more bizarre. Variants of an obscure electron science are driving research into the first generation of ‘electronic paper’ — a material that looks, feels and behaves like paper but, like a computer monitor, can receive electronic instructions to display a different image.

The other major glitch seems to be that after the letdowns of the dotcom boom, nobody’s taking e-books seriously, least of all publishers. After their huge American counterparts spent (and lost) millions of dollars setting up e-book departments that went bankrupt, the entire industry is wary, preferring to let someone else take the first step.

And several companies already are. In last year’s landmark lawsuit, Random House sued Internet upstart Rosetta Books for intending to publish e-book versions of book by authors signed with Random. According to Rosetta, the authors had only signed with Random for printed book — not e-book — rights. A judge agreed with them, and at last count, Rosetta offered 150 e-books through their website.

An outspoken supporter of e-books and Print on Demand is American publishing veteran Jason Epstein, and he thinks publishers are in a precarious position when asked if they should be more aware of e-books’ potential. ‘Of course they should be,” he says, “but publishers prefer to concentrate on problems of the day — they seldom think beyond next season’s list. Innovation typically depends upon upstart outsiders.”

Bryce Courtenay is even more damning. He thinks the publishing industry took the disappointment after the initial hype as meaning e-books are a non-event. “The publishing industry — having seen the initial failure — hasn’t worked out that it’s only a question of time,” he says. “The industry is very badly behind in terms of realising that most new technology fails initially but eventually catches up — and this is catching up at an alarming speed.’

The Future

But don’t expect bookshops to become retail dinosaurs; nobody thinks e-books will do away with the printed book market. “There certainly seems to be a market for e-books,” says Shona Martyn, Publishing Director at HarperCollins. “Sex and erotica seem to be popular — things people used to carry in brown paper bags.”

Allen and Unwin academic publisher Elizabeth Weiss points out another benefit by posing a hypothetical question; “If I’m travelling overseas, where do I get my print fix from if I can’t get hold of any decent English language books? I’d much prefer to download books in electronic format from the web and read them on a PDA.”

But ebooks.com’s Stephen Cole has found e-book sales to be largely parallel with that of the printed book market. According to a recent report, fiction accounts for just over 50% of e-book sales.

‘We were initially astounded to find that the biggest selling category was fiction,’ Cole says. ‘In fact in one of our earliest business plans, the first sentence read; ‘this business is not predicated on the assumption that people are going to read fiction on screen.”

Just like the survival of newspapers in the Internet age (and cinema after the invention of TV), the old argument about whether books will survive in their current form is dead. What matters now is where their appeal will be found.

When it is, e-books will be like all good technologies; they’ll find a place in the lives of people whose unique needs they’ll service, but they won’t mean the end of the much-loved experience of curling up in bed with a good book.


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