Saturday, 10 December 2011

What's Revolutionary About e-books?

There are great changes afoot in the publishing industry. Sales of e-books are hitting those of traditional hardbacks hard and now Amazon has launched a Kindle store in that bastion of the printed book - Germany.

But what is it about e-books that has given them this power? In many ways e-books are reactionary and conservative. Michael S Hart created the first e-book in 1971 when he typed the United States Declaration of Independence into a computer. Soon after he started Project Gutenberg to create more electronic books.

It has taken developers 40 years to come up with a way of reading electronically that people enjoy. In the end they had to make the experience as close to that of reading a printed book as possible. People have an emotional relationship to the way they read. Those summers by the pool, the years at school/university all helped to cement an idea of what reading is that has proved hard to dislodge. People love reading. Mess with the things people love and they get upset.

Amazon's Kindle is by far the most popular e-reading device but if you look at the Nook, the Kobe or any of the other competitors you see pretty much the same thing. The device is the rough size and shape of a printed paperback. It is not back-lit and therefore less straining on the eyes. The batteries last for ages. One by one the differences between print and electronic have been eased away. When they make a waterproof e-reader you can drop in the bath the last of the "I'll never read on one of those thingy" people will be won over. It's rather like the PDF for printed documents. Whether you look at a PDF on screen or print it out it looks and operates just the same. It is sheets of A4 paper represented electronically. Office workers and students loved the PDF. In fact Microsoft and the entire "desktop" format proved how well people accept changes that are made to feel familiar.

Modern e-readers do the job of making e-books mimic printed books to a degree that most people now accept as sufficient for them to use and enjoy.

So e-books themselves, books in electronic form, are far from revolutionary. Similarly there is nothing about e-readers and the way most e-books are now encountered that is new.

What is revolutionary and drives change in publishing is the distribution of e-books.

First came Amazon. They changed the game by shifting the locus of power away from the retailer and towards the consumer. (This seismic shift is beginning to involve publishers too, whose traditional role as arbiters of taste is under threat from an empowered public.) At a stroke it didn't matter if a book was in stock. Amazon could order it for you and get it to you next day. They did this through putting the emphasis on distribution. Now their web spreads so widely that through opening their shop front to others they are able to offer a vast array of goods to the Internet shopper. The consumer just sees the interface - the familiar Amazon site. Behind it lies a vast distribution network that because of its collaborative nature is more effective than anything seen previously. The High St quakes.

Why is the Kindle the #1 Best-selling, Most Wished-For, Most-Gifted Product Amazon sell? It's the next logical step. Electronic distribution is the fastest, cheapest and crucially most convenient method of distribution ever. No lorries. No waiting. No "come back to collect tomorrow" or "pick up from your nearest store" or even worries about missing the postman. Having cracked the reading device and found something that even the most conservative of readers accept as a good electronic reading experience the party can get started.

But although Amazon and the wirelessly delivered e-book has arrived and seems revolutionary it is still based heavily on old ideas about reading. In my next post I will discuss the possibilities for reading in the future that involve changing the way we read altogether. It might not appeal to the millions who have grown up reading from paper. It involves interaction and distraction. It will appeal to a new generation of readers who are already consuming content in different ways. It promises to be a true revolution in reading...

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