The e-volution of digital readers

The biggest revolution since the printing press. The tipping point of text. Call it what you will, history will remember 2009 and 2010 as the years digital books finally captured our imaginations.

As the name suggests, an ebook is an electronic book, a computer file whose pages you turn virtually on an electronic device, anything from a dedicated ebook machine to a mobile phone.

Even since the web took hold we’ve been hearing about the end of paper-based books. Early ebook readers failed to catch on and publishers mostly ignored the phenomenon. What ebooks needed was an iPod for books, a tool to bring them into the mainstream the way Apple’s music player did for music.

2009 saw the first serious contenders. The first was the Kindle,’s hit e-reader that was released around the world in October. Barnes and Noble released their effort, the Nook, soon after. Along with the astounding success of the iPhone around the world, one of the most popular applications is Stanza, special ebook reading software that had enjoyed two million downloads worldwide by July 2009, leaving sales of the Kindle and its competitors in the dust.

In the same way that artists can upload music or movies for mass consumption through YouTube or the iTunes store, the ebook completely removes the barrier to entry and bypasses traditional production and distribution. Although the big media conglomerate-owned publishers are starting to take notice, authors have been taking advantage of the possibilities for a long time.

“It means you can publish yourself online right away,” says James Swanwick, an Australian celebrity journalist based in LA. Swanwick’s ebook, How to Become a Celebrity Journalist, is available on the web. Upon deciding on the venture, there was nobody to tell him the world authors hear most — ‘no’. “You don’t have to pitch an endless line of publishers to convince them to publish you. Once you make the decision to publish yourself online, you can do it straight away.”

Swanwick estimates he spent no more than $500 on the entire project, which included outsourcing the design of the website to sell the book and generating the social media campaign to market it. It took him three days to write and about 10 hours to manage the production, marketing and distribution. “Once I’d sold 33 copies I’d pretty much broken even. If the website becomes particularly popular I can make revenue via click through advertising, so there’s is definite return on the investment.”

Swanwick is on the crest of a wave that’s now building quickly. Aussie author Bryce Courtenay prophetically told publishing trade magazine Bookseller and Publisher in 2004 ebooks were going to reach critical mass and take off in ‘three, four or five years’. He saw the cult underground that had accepted them and the growing numbers that would transfer the movement from early adopters to the general public.

Right now we’re in the grip of demand and supply driving each other. As more people come to enjoy reading on electronic screens, electronics vendors and publishers will invest more effort into making them available. And with more sexy new devices on the market to read ebooks on, the more people want them.

But just as TV didn’t kill cinema, ebooks won’t mean the end of curling up in bed with a good book. New technologies catch on and find their place, living comfortably side by side with older methods. As ebooks take off, it’ll mean more than just a new way of reading a book, it will open your world to ideas and writing you’ve never had access to before.

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