Sunday, January 03, 2010

Will 2010 Be the Year?

Will 2010 be the year it happens? Are e-books and e-book readers fast approaching the tipping point from which they will eventually come to dominate the publishing industry? Will Amazon rethink its approach to e-book formatting before it loses its dominant share of the e-publishing market? I am starting to believe that this could be a pivotal year for publishers and booksellers, alike, one in which independent bookstores continue to close shop at a horrifying pace, the national bookstore chains continue to bleed money, and publishers finally begin to rethink their own business plans.

I do not for a minute believe that e-publishing will ever kill off the publishing of bound books. Newspapers and magazines, on the other hand, could very well be doomed when e-book readers are finally able to cope with color, photos, graphics, and all the other flash that make magazines (and some newspapers) so appealing to the eye. At the moment, reading a newspaper or magazine on a Kindle can be a frustrating experience and it remains to be seen if the new Sony Reader Daily Edition will do a much better job. Newspaper and magazine circulation has already been clobbered by the internet and the availability of more graphically sophisticated e-readers could finish that job.

Sony is probably Amazon’s biggest challenger in 2010 but several smaller companies also have e-readers on the market. What Sony and the smaller challengers have going for them is their decision to use the standard EPUB format on their readers. This means that the owner of a Sony Reader is able to purchase books directly from Sony and other sellers, find hundreds of thousands of free books on the web, and download bestsellers from his local library without ever leaving home. Kindle users do not have those luxuries because Amazon uses its own proprietary format - limiting the usage of Kindle books to Kindle readers, PCs and certain smart phones. As Kindle owners begin to wonder what good all those Kindle books are if they decide one day to move on to a better reader, Amazon might find itself losing market share to companies using the open format.

What makes me think that 2010 might turn out to be a big year for e-books? Simply put: buzz. For the first time, I am hearing people talk about e-book readers and I am seeing them shop for readers at Barnes & Noble, Borders and the big box electronic stores. E-book readers are prominently displayed now, often alongside mp3 players, and shoppers are starting to notice them. Barnes & Noble displays the Nook right at the front door in its own huge display space, making the Nook impossible to miss. Shoppers are getting used to seeing e-readers and they probably know someone that uses one. There is a new awareness of their existence and, if sales progress at the pace that mp3 player sales did, in only a few years e-book readers might be a commodity product with too many manufacturers to count.

I know that something has changed already, though, because a friend of mine purchased a Kindle for his wife this Christmas and she is not a particularly avid reader. Amazingly, she came into the office last week saying how much she loved the gadget and how great it was to be able to buy bestsellers for $9.99 a pop. Time will tell, of course, but for now she is more excited about reading than she has been for years and that cannot be a bad thing for publishers.

As for me, I was one of the Sony Reader early adopters and I have recently upgraded my original reader with the purchase of a new Sony Touch. I am happy with the touch features, the built-in dictionary, the note taking capabilities, and those hundreds of thousands of free books I can read. But what I like most about the reader is that I can download books directly from my local library system - and the “hold” lines are, at this point, shorter than those for the same physical books. Don’t get me wrong. I love books, real books, and I will continue to add them to my shelves, just at a somewhat slower pace than in previous years.

E-books have reached a tipping point in my world - and those are words I never dreamed I would be saying.


  1. There is so much talk nowadays about these E-book readers. Do we really think that books will no longer exist? I'm dumbfounded at this. I was at Barnes & Noble AND Borders this past weekend. I did see the huge display at B&N and I just shook my head and moved on. Maybe I have my head in the sand, but I am resisting this to no end. Give me a real book please!!
    PS-I bought 2 books this weekend, and I'm stopping by the library this evening. Yeah!!

  2. Kayo, I'm with you on your love for "real" books. I love them as much as ever and that will never change. What I find happening to me personally, is that e-book technology will allow me to read some books I otherwise never would have read - especially the older ones that are almost considered to be lost nowadays. I've found some great old memoirs written by Civil War soldiers that have been out of print for decades now - and I downloaded them for free.

    Also, the ease of downloading from the library is something I never expected to enjoy so much. Of course, the selection is pretty poor at the moment and the line can be a long one at times.

    My biggest problem is that I am out of shelf space and I've been looking for a way to continue reading new books without having to get rid of the books I already have. With e-books, I can own a copy of the ones I want to have around - at no cost of shelf space - and, if I really love a book or author, I can selectively buy the ones I know I want to have in my study.

    E-books and real books, in combination, offer me the best of both worlds - but I will never feel a strong attachment to an e-book...there's nothing to touch, feel, smell, or hold.

  3. Your observations are sharp, but notwithstanding the tipping point, I can't envision my buying an e-book. I like having book-in-hand, both the reading itself and collecting the ones I like for shelves. I also don't like being "sold" to and giving up complete control, which to some extent this tech revolution feels like to me.

  4. I hear you, Mike. The hard-sell is definitely on the way but that's what it will take to finally gain majority acceptance, I think.

    The tipping point for me was "convenience." Easy access to a whole new bunch of books, including library downloads, and no shelf space problems for books I don't necessarily want to keep anyway and would never read again. And, honestly, I'm not buying a lot of ebooks; mostly using the reader for classics, library books, out-of-print books and about 10% purchased books.

  5. Sam,
    Other than the cost of an e-reader, are companies making any money off of this? If a download is somewhat cheap(i dont think even a small paperback is THAT cheap, is it?), is it truly worth it to a company to have a wide selection of books to download? Granted, books are really priced sky high to me..but I keep on buying, so what do I know!!

  6. Kayo, I think they are making more money off their backlist than they can from limited bookstore shelf space for one thing. From what I understand, the cost of producing the "screens" of these readers is still pretty high, so I don't think there's a great deal of profit in the readers (could be wrong, of course). The price of the readers has, for now, been "standardized" by what Amazon charged for the Kindle. Everyone wanting to compete with Amazon has to come in at the same price or a little lower in order to carve out some marketshare for themselves.

    I'm like you...I keep on buying hardcovers, but always wondering how high publishers are going to push those prices. I wonder when $30 for a new hardcover will become the norm? That price might be a tipping point in reverse for publishers.

  7. I'm lucky to have an !Awesome! large used bookstore in my area (McKays-Chattanooga, also Knoxville & Nashville) which sates my appetite almost completely. Even obscure works show up, huge volume and serves a huge geographic area of loyal patrons... trade-in biz is the key. And, I'm not drawn to hardbacks or even new releases to any extent, so the B&N's etal, and the inherent expense, isn't an issue for me. I imagine a huge % of likeminded McKays' fans have eschewed the e-reader pathway. (Just thought I'd give you my specific circustance)

  8. Thanks, Mike, that does put your situation into perspective...more power to you. I really do hope that e-books never become the majority of books sales and I'll only buy them (or download them) under the right circumstances. I think I'll be reading more of the classics since they are so readily available as e-books free of charge - that can't be a bad thing.

  9. Hi there, I've just discovered your blog and subscribed to it, initially because I saw your wonderful review of Piazza's City of Refuge. I'm a librarian and am leading a discussion of that book next month.

    I really wanted to comment on the Sony e-book reader though. People worry too much about e-book readers taking away from the traditional book. Library circulation is at an all-time high.
    That said, I just got a Sony for my birthday and I love, love, love it. Just think how much you have to pay when your luggage goes over weight when traveling.

    Now think about going on vacation (as I just did) with four or five books loaded into a few ounces of e-book. For that alone it's worth the money.
    Of course, I downloaded the latest Anita Shreve and Lorrie Moore and even the Krakauer book free from the library's download catalog because, as Sam said, people haven't caught on to this yet and the waits are non-existent.

    Thanks for the conversation!

  10. I'm still waiting for the dust to settle and for me to understand exactly what I'd be getting for my money if I bought an e-reader. That's why I WON"T be buying a Kindle because as I understand it, my choices in books would be limited to buying books at Amazon. If I bought Sony or something else, could I download those books at Project Gutenberg and other places, classics and old books that I can't find a copy of anywhere else? I don't read much from PG because I don't like reading books in front of my computer, but if I had a device that I could hold and curl up on the couch or in bed . . .

  11. Sally, thanks for taking time to comment. I agree with your assessment of e-books and the readers. They supplement my reading of physical books; they do not supplant it. I read more than ever and that's largely because e-books give me so much more opportunity to slip in a few reading minutes at a time - in places and under circumstances during which I would normally be bored and just wasting time.

  12. Sherry, what you said about the Kindle vs. the other readers is largely correct. I think that Amazon does have some kind of workaround software that requires the user to adapt PDF documents for use on the Kindle - but what an unnecessary hassle that must be.

    Electronic readers are exactly like curling up with a good book, though...I think that's going to prove to be impossible. :-)