Magazine article Online

EBook Scenarios

Magazine article Online

EBook Scenarios

Article excerpt

If you haven't already, do yourself a favor and read Don Hawkins' excellent "Electronic Books: A Major Publishing Revolution" (a two-part series in the July/August and September/October 2000 issues of ONLINE). With his typical clarity, Don surveys the entire scene, from ebook technologies to the prominent ebook publishers. This is essential knowledge, for we are on the verge of the ebook era, and it will be big--very big.

Many people are uncomfortable contemplating ebooks, among them many librarians, whose professions will be greatly altered by ebooks. Actually, readers of all kinds may be dubious about ebooks, because of the deep and emotional ties we have to a lifetime's experience with printed books. Many of us can remember the profound effect that specific books have had in shaping our lives and can easily recall the "look and feel" of those treasures. We have great fondness for the printed book as an object, from a grand, beautiful art book to a dog-eared paperback stuffed into a pocket.

The codex is indeed a marvel of efficiency and simplicity. Print books are wonderfully efficient for reading, browsing, and studying. In a "John Henry" comparison, how many times have you quickly looked up some fact in a reference book, in less time than it would have taken to connect into the corresponding electronic database, let alone retrieve the information? It's common to hear, "You can't curl up in bed with an ebook," or "You can't take an ebook to the beach," and indeed the advantages of paper over digital do seem self-evident.

THE TIME HAS COME

Nevertheless, the time for ebooks is coming quickly. As Hawkins explains, several technologies, from ebook readers to book formats, are improving rapidly. The content producers are moving with the times rather than resisting them (as has the music industry). Publishers are experimenting with ways to extend their franchise into epublishing. Authors see ebooks and self-publishing as means to liberate themselves from the tight control of the publishers.

It is impossible to predict just what forms of ebook publishing will emerge, except to say that it has started and it will continue. We've already seen the first major ebook publishing event: Stephen King's "Riding the Bullet," 500,000 copies of which have been downloaded. Of course, King's popularity makes this a unique case, but "Riding the Bullet" is still a landmark. A bestseller ebook has been published; everybody's either reading it or talking about it. The next time, it will be a little easier and more acceptable.

"Riding the Bullet" also demonstrates that there is already a large and enthusiastic market for ebooks. Many people, especially those under 30, are not so committed by habit and emotion to printed books. They have embraced technology-based solutions in all sorts of ways, and books will be just another neat thing to do digitally.

So expect ebooks to arrive in a big surge. It won't be like personal computers. Because they are so expensive and hard to use, those have actually spread rather slowly. Instead, make the comparison to cheap, easy technologies that caught on immediately because they streamlined an essential and commonplace task. Think fax machines. Think mobile phones.

EBOOKS AND PRINT BOOKS

The progress of ebooks will vary greatly with the type of print books they replace. Books are used and valued very differently, from a lifelong keepsake that's read over and over to a short-term tool that's useless after a few months or years. Ebooks will be adopted in stages, which will depend on two primary factors: the degree to which the book is a tool and the degree to which the audience is ready to adopt ebooks. Some types of books will largely and quickly be replaced by ebooks, while others will coexist indefinitely with their ebook counterparts. My scenario for the evolution:

Textbooks

My daughter started college this past fall, accompanied by several hundred dollars' worth of heavy print textbooks. …

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