Monday, April 18, 2011



It goes back to when I started taking the bus to work and pretty soon got tired of checking Facebook on my phone. I decided to use this time to do some reading and began carrying a book with me to read. However I immediately ran into some practical problems trying to read a 500-page hardback book on a crowded bus, in winter no less. So I began considering some alternatives and discovered that I could download the same 500-page book in an electronic format (eBook) and read it on my iPhone. And to top it all, I was borrowing the eBook from my public library free of charge. At the risk of revealing myself as an ├╝bergeek, I decided to give it a try.

While it was a little disconcerting at first, reading small passages on the little screen was perfect for the bus ride and extremely convenient. It didn't take long for me to become a convert. I put my name on the wait-list for several books at the library and started crossing them off my list. With the addition of an iPad at home, this only made it easier still. Surprisingly, I was reading more than I used to when I only read in a paper book format (pBook). It was more convenient and because I was reading more often, I was more engaged in the book and kept on reading at home rather than watch some television. As I looked around me on the bus, I began noticing more and more people reading books on an electronic reader. This got me thinking: is this some slight change I am noticing now or is this a shift in the general perspective for books? But, before we go there it might be helpful to understand some basics.

So, what is an eBook? It is a published work that is presented to the audience in an electronic format (PDF, ePub, HTML, etc.) and can be accessed/read by the audience via a device such as Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, iPad, PC, etc. The traditional printed paper book now is often referred to as pBook.

Now, let’s consider how significant is the eBook market. Looking at some of the published numbers for 2010 only (not considering the activity prior to that) , the sales of significant eBook devices are as follows:

2010 eBooks

(From various sources on the internet; "good enough for government work")

In the table above, I have included the iPad with dedicated book readers since most iPad owners are using their units to access printed media. Given that, while about 24 million new dedicated units were added to the eBook audience in 2010 alone, this number could be substantially larger if some of the other compatible but non-dedicated units were used for eBook access. If we assume that about 25 million new members were added to the eBook club last year and if each one accessed (not purchased since there are many free books available) only 5 books in 2010, we are looking at 125 million eBooks. And keep in mind that we are not considering existing members of the eBook audience from prior years. It is safe to say that the eBook market is significant and, more importantly, growing... rapidly.

Just how rapidly? Consider this: in Feb-2011, eBook sales in the US increased over 200% over Feb-2010 while most of the print formats showed a decline in sales. (eBook sales were $90M while pBook sales were around $215M.) It is important to note that eBooks are priced below their printed counter-parts (especially hardbacks) which means that in number of units, fewer pBooks need to be sold to arrive at the same sales figure in dollars. Overall, eBooks sales were about 8-10% of total book sales in 2010. So it is still a small segment but at the growth rate that we have seen, this will be a much larger segment in the near future. Amazon has recently announced that it sells 180 eBooks per 100 pBooks. Obviously, since we are only looking at sales here, we have not considered the widespread growth of eBook access in public libraries.

According to a recent announcement from The American Library Association (ALA), virtually all academic libraries in the US as well as two thirds of US public libraries offer eBooks. Most libraries provide free Wifi and a third of school libraries lend eReaders. For a public library, eBooks offer a number of advantages both from a cost as well as efficiency perspective (as listed in the pros and cons below). However, one leading publisher has announced that it will not allow a copy of one eBook to be checked out more than 26 times. Following which, the library will be forced to purchase another copy i.e. license. This obviously goes against the grain of fundamental library principles and also threatens to set a dangerous precedent for financially strapped libraries. It remains to be seen where this will end up.

Pros of eBooks:

  • Ease of use: with small, light, easy to handle devices, it is ergonomically easier to manage eBooks.
  • It is easier to navigate and search eBooks which is a particular benefit to students dealing with text books. (No more lost/dropped bookmarks!)
  • Font sizes can be adjusted as can the brightness of the screen. (particularly beneficial to visually impaired readers)

The following are particularly beneficial to libraries:

  • eBooks do not wear out, face no physical damage and do not need to be replaced like pBooks do.
  • eBooks cannot be misplaced by careless readers.
  • eBooks do not require physical storage space like pBooks.
  • eBooks can serve remote (and handicapped) users more readily with minimal cost.
  • eBooks offer a lower carbon footprint. (no physical transportation, manufacturing, etc.)

Cons of eBooks:

  • Feel: this remains the primary objection raised by most readers. The sensory experience of handling a book, its pages, original colors (in many cases), texture and even smell is stripped from eBooks.
  • There are several mutually incompatible software formats with different DRM (digital rights management) schemes. This could lead to a format war scenario akin to the infamous VHS - Betamax clash.
  • There are multiple reading devices with different, unique hardware that cannot easily share eBooks.
  • Requires the use of power and ultimately, fossil fuels.
  • Initial expense related to buying a reading device viz. Kindle, iPad, etc.
  • Reduction of jobs related to manufacturing, logistics and retail aspect of the publishing industry.

So what does all this mean?  For starters, eBooks are not going away.  Time will tell if eBooks will completely or even significantly take over the pBooks domain.  But it is certain that eBooks will play a major role in the reading world going forward.  I used to think of myself as a purist who could never adapt to reading books in an electronic format but I have found the switch not only easy but also certainly rewarding as I find myself reading a little bit more.  All in all, if eBooks will help a few more people to develop (or re-develop) their reading habits, how can that be a bad thing?


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