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.