Know This: E-Books: Where Literature and Technology Meet
June 17, 2009
“AHA” moments seem to be striking folks lately in regard to the potential impact of electronic books (e-books or ebooks) on their lives. In April, The Wall Street Journal ran an article in which author Steven Johnson recounted the first time he finished a business book, decided he wanted to read a novel, and presto “within a minute or two” downloaded a bestselling work of fiction onto his new Kindle and commenced reading. Another author, Sherman Alexie, reported at the Book Expo America trade show in late May an “aha” moment of a slightly different type … he said he wanted to punch a woman on a plane to New York because she was reading on a Kindle. “Elitist” was Alexie’s take on the gadget—until he heard from Kindle fans who use the device to overcome handicaps that make it otherwise impossible for them to read.
In what many techie types believe may prove to be a defining moment not only for e-books but e-publishing (and a worrisome “aha” moment for Amazon), on-line giant Google announced at the end of May—just two weeks after Amazon’s launch of its $489 large-format Kindle DX—its intentions to enter the e-book retail market by the end of 2009. The potential game changer here: the ability of book consumers to search and buy e-books from a huge range of content on nearly any web-enabled hardware, with no need for an extra software download. Whether one prefers to read e-books on a full-screen PC monitor, a much more portable handheld device, or on a book-sized reader, Google aims to deliver.
KNOW THIS Number: Approximately one million e-book “units” were sold worldwide in 2008, which equated to about 1-3 percent of the total number of books sold. That number of e-book “units” sold is expected to reach 30 million (and represent $9 billion in sales) by 2013. Source: Bizreport
While the e-book concept is hardly new, its suddenly insistent presence in the forefront of the book publishing industry is considered an exciting prospect by some avid book readers…and a much less welcome development by others. Regardless which side of the fence you prefer in that discussion (or if you’re happy to balance on the fence with a handful of alternate reading options), there’s plenty to learn about e-books and the blossoming, multi-faceted e-publishing industry.
Let’s start with what represents instant e-book gratification for many: reading e-books on a web-enabled computer or handheld device such as a smartphone. Current e-book retailers in the U.S. include:
Stanza, a highly popular e-book application used by one million book-loving iPhone and iPod Touch users worldwide, was recently purchased by Amazon. Also available in beta (i.e., still-in-the-works form with potential glitches) is Stanza Desktop, which allows downloads from a selection of “100,000 books and periodicals” onto a Mac or PC as well as the sharing of such downloads onto an iPhone, iPod Touch, or Kindle.
KNOW THIS Name: A smartphone is generally considered to be any phone (whether an iPhone, a Blackberry, or any number of newer offerings from various manufacturers) with advanced features such as e-mail, Internet, and e-book reading capabilities. Terms such as Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Palm OS refer to the operating systems that run on different smartphones.
Ebookmall.com boasts more than 210,000 e-books, including “bargain e-books” priced under $5. Ebookmall.com is categorized based on e-book formats, with offerings in basic and simple e-book applications such as plain text and Word as well as HTML, which downloads a book onto a computer browser and reads like a web page. Software-specific e-books offered on Ebookmall.com (which require the download of software for each separate application) include Mobipocket and Adobe Reader/Adobe Digital Editions (see KNOW THIS Prerequesite below).
BooksOnBoard.com calls itself the “largest independent e-bookstore” with more than 280,000 titles. Established in 2005 and based in Austin, Texas, BooksOnBoard sells e-books in Adobe Digital Editions and Mobipocket formats as well as other formats such as Microsoft Reader. Also sells audiobooks.
Ereader.com, a Barnes & Noble company, dubs itself “the world’s largest” e-book store. In addition to offering two dozen free selections from the Barnes & Noble collection of classics, Ereader.com sells e-books for download via hardware-specific eReader software, including eReader for iPhone. Content creators are invited to create e-books for handheld devices through the Ebook Studio, and eReader wireless shopping capabilities are offered via eReader for Windows mobile software.
KNOW THIS Prerequesite: When an e-book will be downloaded directly onto a computer’s hard drive rather than onto an Internet browser, specific software must first be installed. Such free, simple-to-obtain-and-use programs include: Adobe Digital Editions for downloading and reading e-books created in Adobe Digital Editions or Adobe ePUB format on a Sony Reader, Mac, or a Windows computer. Mobipocket Reader for downloading and reading e-books created in Mobipocket format on a wide range of mobile devices. Ereader for downloading and reading e-books on various devices via a different application for each type of reading hardware. Source: BooksOnBoard.com Help
ScribD.com is a two-year-old document-sharing site (called by some the YouTube of e-publishing) that recently entered the e-book retail arena with its ScribD Store. Titles ranging from travel guides, theses, and manuals to poetry, essays, and collections of jokes can be read directly on the ScribD site, downloaded to a PC, or viewed via a web-enabled handheld device. An iPhone app for the site is in the works. Originally designed to give independent authors a place to post and share their writings, ScribD now also allows publishers, authors, and other “content creators” to sell their wares via the ScribD Store…and set the prices and digital rights for their works.
Last week The New York Times ran an article on Simon & Schuster’s move to sell “digital copies of its books on ScribD.com.” In what ScribD is calling “the first public endorsement by a major force in publishing that the social Web will play a major role in the future of book sales,” the agreement will allow Simon & Schuster to sell e-books of 5,000 of its titles, including some bestsellers, on the site for “20 percent off the list price of the most recent print edition.” And that’s just for starters.
EBooks.com offers access to “168,000 popular, professional and academic e-books from the world’s leading publishers” via downloads of its free software.
Feedbooks.com allows content creators to “publish” their works but not sell them: All the thousands of works available for download on the site are free since they’re in the public domain either due to expired copyright (currently pre-1923; for extensive discussions of copyright issues, visit Public Domain Sherpa) or because the author opts to offer works at no cost. Feedbooks.com explains its service as a “universal e-reading platform compatible with all mobile reading devices.”
BookOnBrowser uses its own software to produce interactive books—especially textbooks—that can be downloaded to and read on a computer’s web browser, avoiding the need for any type of software download and enhancing the reading experience through links to audio-visual and other on-line files.
Fictionwise.com, another Barnes & Noble company, was launched in 2000. It reportedly “has over a million members and sells over one million units per year,” making it “one of the top eBook distribution companies in the world.” Fictionwise also provides detailed distinctions between e-books offered in MultiFormat (a dozen different file formats that are not encrypted) and Secure (encrypted) Formats designed to prevent copying. Fictionwise explains that while “the MultiFormat eBooks cover a wider variety of reading devices and platforms, …because they are not encrypted, many large trade publishers will not allow their eBooks to be sold in these formats.” While Fictionwise states it prefers to offer eBooks in MultiFormat, it supports “secure formats that prevent unauthorized copying to give our members the widest possible selection, including national best-selling authors.” In other words, blame paranoid publishers for the hassle of Secure Formats.
KNOW THIS Debate: Among the many debates raging within the book publishing industry these days, one questions publishers’ concerns about piracy of content via e-books. Such discussions include references to digital rights management (DRM), a simple concept with complex implications. Luckily, folks at TeleRead.org explain DRM in depth.
Mobipocket.com is a Paris-based company founded in 2000 and owned by Amazon since 2005. The Mobipocket format for creating e-books is one of the main e-book files used worldwide. (The Kindle e-book format is based on it). Mobipocket.com offers a selection of 40,000 titles that can be downloaded and read on PCs or various handheld devices via free Mobipocket Reader software. On Blackberries, Mobipocket books can be purchased and downloaded via Over The Air (OTA) (i.e., wireless) technology.
When mobility AND the ability to read on a larger screen are preferred (and some disposable income is on hand), dedicated e-readers represent an intriguing option:
Sony’s Readers are sold on the Sony site, at more than 40 Sony Stores, and at chains like Borders, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Sears in the U.S. as well as Best Buy Canada and Waterstone’s in the U.K. Current versions are the standard PRS-505 that retails for $299, and the newer PRS-700 which features a touch-screen keyboard and retails for $350. Special-edition Readers come in a few different colors.
To purchase e-books via the Sony eBookstore, eBookLibrary Software must first be downloaded. Titles may then be browsed, purchased, and downloaded onto the registered user’s personal computer (but not Mac), then read on the computer or transferred to a Reader via a USB cable.
It’s noted on the Sony eBookLibrary Software download page that no Reader is required to access the Sony eBookstore. Any web-enabled computer allows a visitor to download the EBookLibrary Software, search the eBookstore, and purchase and download titles in ePub format. According to TeleRead.org, such a file can also be viewed in Adobe Digital Editions format—if that free software has already been downloaded—when the “external viewer” option within the Sony reading program is selected.
KNOW THIS Standard: EPubBooks.com discusses everything related to the ePub file format, one of the industry-supported standards for e-books, on the EPubBooks blog.
The Marketing Actuary refers to the confusion created by multiple e-book formats in this concise list of significant challenges faced by the e-book industry: “The conventional book world is struggling with the same massive changes that affected the music and movie industries. Piracy. The $9.95 ebook (the equivalent of the $0.99 song). The Amazon Kindle ebook reader (analogous to the iPod, though only available in the US at present). The public’s rebellion against copy protection (called Digital Rights Management or DRM). Inconsistent ebook formats (remember VHS vs Betamax or BluRay vs HD DVD?).” So we’ll see which “standard” e-book formats remain in play down the line; currently there are more than two dozen.
For a history of issues related to e-book standards, visit the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), “a trade and standards organization dedicated to the development and promotion of electronic publishing” and the creator of the three open standards that comprise the ePub format.
Also according to TeleRead.org, more than 400,000 Sony Readers have been sold and a wireless version is in the works, as is a Mac version of the eBookLibrary Software. According to Sony, a single battery charge on its Reader provides “up to 7,500 pages of continuous reading.” The Reader supports multiple formats such as PDF, Word, and text for personal documents; MP3 and AAC for music; and ePub and Adobe Digital Editions for e-books. Sony’s e-book format is BBeB (Broadband eBook).
Average Sony eBook Store prices range from $8 for mass market titles to about $12 for nonfiction titles currently in print in hardcover. Google began offering access to its collection of 500,000 scanned public domain titles in ePub format via the Sony eBook Store earlier this year, bringing the total number of e-books on the site to 600,000.
KNOW THIS Player: Google is a very popular subject of e-book-related blog posts, essays, and articles all over the Internet these days. Ireaderreview.com offers a quick overview of Google’s 2009 e-book-related announcements:
“On February 5, Google made 1.5 million free public domain books available for mobile devices with Google Book Search for Mobile.” Phones using the Google-back Android program as well as all iPhones can be opened to their web browser and access this free collection here.
Also in February, “Google made changes to their terms of service so free public domain books scanned by Google can’t be used by other sites.” In March, “Google made 500,000 public domain e-books available in ePub format” via the Sony eBookstore. And at the end of May, Google announced it will sell e-books by the end of this year.
As Idealog.com notes, other e-book retailers sell downloadable e-book files which you “own” while Google will sell “access to a file which they will stream to you.” The difference? “When you close your web browser, you no longer have the book. Because of that, any concern about piracy goes away. If you can’t grab the file, you can’t ‘share’ it. This is game-changing in a very dramatic way. If you’re reading on a web browser, then there are no format issues. And if you don’t have the whole file, there are no piracy issues.
“Google has also announced its intention to enable retailers to ‘sell’ these books (or, perhaps we should say, sell access to these books) based on retail prices they would allow the publishers to set. Google reserves the right to alter the price (or remove the title completely) if the price is out of line for the category.”
BlackPlasticGlasses.com adds additional perspective in a discussion of why the newest Google initiative may lead to the end of the need for e-book readers. “Google Editions is the coming out party for ‘cloud publishing’ where content is purchased, but never physically owned. Cloud publishing is where downloading will only be done to enable offline access, not ownership.” All that will be needed is a “device with a browser that allows us to log on to our Google Account and install Google Gears,” a current software program that “enables users to use certain Google products, Gmail for example, when a user is offline.”
“Could Google Editions and cloud publishing (where content isn’t tethered to a single device but rather to any available browser) make the ebook land grab irrelevant? (A)ll will depend on whether publishers accept the concept of cached content.”
Amazon’s Kindle offers instant access to 275,000 e-books in the Kindle Store and to thousands of other digital publications such as newspapers, magazines, and blogs. Though Amazon is evasive about disclosing sales numbers, ECommerceTimes.com reports industry estimates of approximately 500,000 Kindles sold.
A Kindle owner can search the Kindle Store, purchase e-books, and search the web without having to connect the device to a computer thanks to Kindle’s Whispernet cellular wireless connection. According to PC World, content is transferred to Kindles “over the air via Sprint Nextel’s 3G (third-generation) mobile network.” Unfortunately for international e-book readers, this wireless technology is “little used outside the U.S., and is incompatible with mobile networks in Europe and most of Asia.” Even folks in Canada and Mexico can’t use the Kindle to download materials from the Kindle Store, and some parts of the U.S. are not on the Whispernet coverage map. According to Wired.com, some rural areas in the U.S. receive slow connection times that result in e-book downloads taking as long as five minutes (versus 10 seconds), or have no coverage at all. For those outside the coverage area who still wish to read on a Kindle, e-books can always be downloaded from the Kindle Store via computer and transferred to the device via a USB cable.
Current Kindles include the Kindle 2 for $359 and the large-format Kindle DX for $489, both available only via the Kindle Store and only in white. Various covers of different styles and colors are sold by Kindle for between $20 and $40 each. While Kindle e-book selections range from free public domain titles to technical texts that costs thousands of dollars, a good portion do fall in the “$9.99-or-less” range so widely promoted by Amazon founder, president, CEO, and chairman Jeff Bezos. An informal study on MaximumPC.com found that fiction and nonfiction hardback New York Times bestsellers that sell for $26 in bookstores do cost “a uniform $9.99” as Kindle e-books. “For both fiction and nonfiction trade paperbacks (that normally cost) about $14.50,” Kindle e-books average “$8.80, for a savings of about $5.70 per book.” Kindle savings for mass market paperbacks, however, averages only $1.29 per title.
In a June 15 presentation at a conference on disruptive business models sponsored by Wired magazine, Jeff Bezos suggested the Kindle will ultimately be used to read e-books with formats other than its own (besides PDF), and that e-books purchased via the Kindle Store will be read on e-readers that currently compete with the Kindle. According to a report in The New York Times, this statement marks the first time Bezos “described the hardware business and the e-book store as separate.” “It would be a rare feat,” the Times notes, “if Amazon could build two profitable businesses out of the Kindle.” Rare, but somehow within the realm of Amazonian possibilities.
While the Kindle 2 has a six-inch display, the newer Kindle DX has a 9.7-inch display and the ability to portray documents in horizontal positions when the device is turned. The Kindle 2 can hold up to 1,500 e-books; the Kindle DX can hold up to 3,500. Both devices have audio capabilities through which text can be read aloud. Kindle DX also offers native PDF support. For those who don’t want to spend so much for a reader and don’t mind reading on a small handheld, a Kindle application for iPhone and iPod Touch are now available at the Apple App Store.
The impact of Amazon and the Kindle on the book industry is a hot topic right now for various reasons. This month alone, Book Business Magazine has analyzed how the Kindle is “igniting the book business”, while TIME suggests and then deconstructs the possibility that Amazon may be “taking over the book business.” Ebookwise.com, owned by Fictionwise.com (a Barnes & Noble company), is another on-line e-book retailer that, like Amazon, requires the purchase of a specific e-reader. The Ebookwise reader retails for $136; Ebookwise titles can also be downloaded onto a Gemstar, Barnes & Noble’s original e-reading device. One of these readers must be connected to a computer for Ebookwise books to be downloaded onto them. (Gemstar-formatted e-books can also be purchased at the Gemstar section of the eBookMall.)
The COOL-ER Classic from British company Interead resembles trendy iPhones with its slight design and selection of bright colors. TechNewsWorld.com reports the new device measures about 7x4.5 inches with a six-inch screen, weighs only six ounces, is compatible with PCs and MACs, and supports PDF and ePub files. It does not offer a wireless feature or touchscreen and costs $249. The CoolerBooks.com site offers 750,000 titles at reportedly discount prices. Most range in price from about $5 up to $20.
“On the horizon” for the COOL-ER, according to GalleyCat at MediaBistro.com: “Branded COOL-ERs with retail partners, a larger format color screen eBook reader which could be ready as soon as Christmas (with a target price under $300), a book publishing division of the company called COOL-ER Writing, and a new out-of-the-box pricing structure which is said to make the COOL-ER reader affordable to virtually anyone.”
The Iliad 2nd edition from Dutch company iRex Technologies features an eight-inch screen, runs for $700, and supports the Mobipocket format. Features include the ability to underline text on screen using a stylus. Since the Iliad uses an open source operating system (Linux), this device is especially popular with tech-savvy users who want a reader that can do much more than display e-books. According to MobileRead.com, iRex Technologies announced earlier this year its first color e-reading device may be available by 2011.
The BeBook by Dutch company Endless Ideas will soon be available in three versions: the BeBook, the BeBook 2, and the BeBook mini. Engadget.com reported on the original BeBook release in May 2008, noting the device’s hefty $510 price tag and six-inch display. The soon-to-be released BeBook 2 features the additions of WiFi, 3G wireless capabilities, and touchscreen navigation, but will still cost about $500. The BeBook mini, possibly also due out this summer, will have a smaller (five-inch) display and no wireless capabilities but will run for a more affordable $270 or so. The big news for e-book buyers in Germany and France: Endless Ideas “is currently working with mobile operators in Germany and France in hopes of providing Kindle-like data access for on-the-go book downloads” in those countries.
The Cybook by French company Bookeen comes in a Gen 3 version that will soon be joined by the new Opus reader due out this summer. Gizmodo.com offers a quick look at the pocket-sized Opus, which will feature a standard six-inch display but no wireless capabilities. No price has been announced. The Cybook Gen3 reader, meanwhile, can store up to 1,000 books, supports the MobiPocket format, and costs $350. The Bookeen blog reported in its last post in February that Bookeen had signed on to use Adobe PDF and ePub formats in its products.
Plastic Logic of California plans to target the sale of its new reader in 2010 to business readers. According to TechNewsWorld.com, the very light Plastic Logic reader has a screen measuring about 6.5 by 8.5 inches and an overall size of a standard piece of paper. It will feature a touchscreen interface, allow users to “directly load and manage Microsoft Word and Excel documents and PDFs,” and will have its own proprietary software. While the device will have cellular wireless capabilities as well as WiFi, no cellular partner has been announced. Projected price of the Plastic Logic reader also remains unknown at this time.
KNOW THIS Player E Ink was founded in 1997 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. E Ink creates products with electronic ink, a new material with brightness and high resolution features but very low power requirements. Such “ink” is “processed into a film for integration into electronic displays” and used in products such as watches, signage, and handheld devices…including the Sony Reader and Amazon’s Kindle. E Ink is now owned by Prime View International of Taiwan, a leading manufacturer of e-paper displays…including those used by Sony and Amazon.
FLEPia, the first color e-book reader, was released by Japanese firm Fujitsu in March 2009, according to Engadget.com. The reader’s eight-inch screen is “capable of displaying 260,000 colors.” Bluetooth and WiFi capabilities also are featured, as well as a touchscreen option…and a $1,000 price tag.
The future of e-book publishing certainly promises to be exciting as the various companies, standards, and devices currently in play are more fully developed, tested in the marketplace, and either abandoned or developed some more. Pricing of e-books and e-book readers, how profits are divided among content creators and retailers, and the extent to which services of traditional “middlemen” such as content publishers, packagers, distributors, and promoters are retained will all be hashed out over the next few years.
Predictions abound, but Forrester Research’s May report “How Big is the eReader Opportunity?” significant overview…for $2,000. According to a much less expensive review of the report at ReadWriteWeb.com, Forrester anticipates that soon “other players” such as Apple and Borders will try to enter the e-book market “either with hardware products or by offering distribution platforms.” A Forrester chart of “growth drivers” among e-books and e-readers features predictions of “more wireless devices,” “color,” and a promising “$199 price point” for e-readers by the end of 2011.
Meanwhile, a recent International Digital Publishing Forum report on First Quarter 2009 data from the Association of American Publishers reveals an increase of trade e-book wholesale sales among a collection of 12-15 reporting publishers in the U.S. of nearly $26 million, up from less than $12 million in the first quarter of 2008. In the month of April 2009 alone, trade e-book wholesale sales among these reporting trade publishers in the U.S. topped $12 million. According to the IDPF, “Retail numbers [for these particular publishers] may be as much as double (these) figures due to industry wholesale discounts.”
What does all this mean for other entities within the traditional book publishing industry? Few predict the spread of e-books will be helpful to traditional booksellers, especially independents. It is widely recognized, however, that the vibrant communities many of these small businesses create can never be replaced or replicated by any on-line community or reading device. For an encouraging take on this potentially saving grace of bookselling, read this article from a 2007 issue of ForeWord Magazine. In it, Amanda Darling of Harvard Book Store encourages booksellers to host low-cost events that nevertheless “bring people together, get them talking, reading, and excited about supporting independent businesses” ...while boosting store profits. Meanwhile, a notably techie potential addition to the e-book picture—embedded author autographs—is presented in this TeleRead.org article not only as a nifty web feature but as a unique way to get e-book buyers into bookstores—and drive additional sales along the way.
Libraries certainly stand to benefit from the pending developments in e-book offerings, though many are currently facing significant budget cuts that force them to hold off on investing in new technology in the immediate future. For those willing and able and eager to offer their patrons access to an e-book lending library, LibWise.com, a company run by Barnes and Noble’s Fictionwise, is designed to help.
Newspaper publishers also are impacted directly by the proliferation of e-readers, and many have already entered the digitized age. MediaShift discusses a number of intriguing related issues (such as the costs of Amazon’s “free” Whispernet) in its glimpse into a symposium featuring “a meeting of the Digital Publishing Alliance, a group of newspapers and tech folks who are looking at how newspaper content might work on various e-readers” at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri.
All commercial print publishing industries (i.e, those that produce books, newspapers, and magazines for sale to the general public) are facing some of the same facts the recording and film industries recently had to accept:
1) The true value of every created work lies in the interaction of consumers with the content of that work, and
2) consumers can best interact with content when it is presented in the most simple, fast, portable, least expensive, and enjoyable manner possible.
Within the book publishing industry, book-buying consumers come in a wider variety of types than ever. While one may experience “aha” moments curled up on a couch with a mass market paperback, another may prefer displaying a collection of signed hardback books, while yet another may enjoy checking off a classic finally read because it was quickly and easily acquired for free on a computer, smartphone, or e-reader. As content owners in the book industry strive to provide for all these options and more, e-books promise to play a growing role in their success.