2006 : The year of the e-book?

Are the planets aligning for e-books to finally break out of the doldrums? Could be.

Nokia 770 with bookIf a real market exists for a non-PDA handheld — see “A computer you can use standing up” and “The non-PDA handheld future” — it may be time to assess the reality of e-books coming into our lives.

The e-book market still has three uncertainties. The first is suitable devices. The second is publishers releasing books, and the third is library lending. Before e-books can take off, these issues need resolution.

Devices: Carry-around devices are beginning to appear that meet several key criteria. Their screens are large enough to display video and large-enough chunks of text (say, 10 words a line and 300 words a screen), they run a full, mainstream, desktop OS (which would mean Linux or Windows or MacOS, but not WInCE), and they are “affordable.” I don’t know what that last really means, by the way. It could mean $300-$400, it could mean half that. So maybe we’re only approaching this criterion. (OTOH, Bill Gates thinks it means $800, so maybe we’ve passed it.)

I think the hardware manufacturers believe Web browsing, video and some version of streaming music — Internet radio? — are desirable in a second or third unit in a household (or office — that would be Bill Gates’ vision). And that this device would of necessity be a touchscreen tablet with WiFi. Nokia believes a hard-drive is superfluous, Motion Computing that the screen needs to be at least 8 inches. So there’s some uncertainty as to just where the sweetspot is.

The Nokia 770 Internet Tablet is due sometime in the next two months. Gates promises the Ultra Mobile 2007 in, well, 2007. Probably they won’t use that name and deliver it in 2006. Still I say 2006 is when we will see devices satisfactory and satisfying for reading e-books arrive, led by Nokia but followed by other manufacturers using Linux.

Books: Five years we in e-books have spent in the wilderness and much of that time has been spent searching for a DRM solution that works for readers, publishers and authors (well, for the last we might say “authors’ agents” — DRM, of course, stands for Hey, that’s my money you’ve got ahold of!).

The book business is much like the music business, being just as fragmented and rapacious, with perhaps the significant difference that in general music buyers are younger and more attuned to the electronic era, which impacts marketing somewhat, as well as adaptability to change. Is there an Apple on the horizon that will introduce an overwhelmingly popular distribution model and sweep aside the objections holding us up now? I don’t see one, do you? But then who anticipated Apple would play the role it did even a month before iTunes Music Store appeared?

Still, there’s a glimmer of hope. The VCR catastrophe of the 1970s—in which actors, directors and other creators were denied all benefits of a film’s being released on video — steeled agents’ and publishers’ positions lest e-book-rights negotiations lopsidedly benefit one side or the other. The result was a stalemate as to e-book pricing and royalties, and rigidity regarding copyright protection.

But music downloads, from the eagerness with which listeners embraced digital distribution to iTunes’ success (now over 500 million songs sold), also serve to illuminate what might happen in publishing. I expect it won’t take much success to start a landslide in e-books. Some publishers will say, Gee, a dollar a book ain’t bad if I sell 5,000 copies a month on a book that’s selling 2,000 copies a year in paperback. And think of the readers we’re building for the author’s new book!. And thus some good backlists will appear, and then the demand for the frontlist titles will bring everybody but J.K. Rowling to the table.

I grant that there’s less evidence to support this scenario than with what’s happening in hardware. Still, I feel hopeful.

Lending: As for library distribution, eBooks.com has a library model that allows multiple concurrent access, what it calls “non-linear lending.” That means if a library has a book, more than one person can read it at the same time. The library licenses the number of total days’ reading per year for that title in this model. This is the closest encounter with common sense I have had in my entire e-book experience. Perhaps even more sensible models will flower once devices and demand show up in force. It doesn’t mean everyone will get to read the e-books they want on any devices they own (see “Cross-platform e-reading”), but we’ll be closer.

Maybe I don’t have the best record around in prognostication, but I’d say all the planets are aligning to make next year the breakout year for e-books. Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

6 Comments on 2006 : The year of the e-book?

  1. Note that my Nokia “blog” now has a new home:

    http://www.internettablettalk.com/forums/showthread.php?t=42

    Come over and reg if you are interested in the 770!

  2. Half of what I know about the Nokia 770 came from links in your blog, Mike. I’ll definitely follow it in its new location and similarly advise everyone interested in the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet as likely the first device to break through the ice that’s been blocking e-books for lo these five years.

    Thanks for all the work you do in covering 770 developments, Mike!

  3. I am one of those folks who like to read in bed. For me, a successful ebook reading device also needs to be lightweight (500 gr or less), not burn my lap, and be able to take a knock or two for if (when) I doze off while reading.

  4. I’m with you. I remember Hemingway’s comment about “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was that he didn’t like that it was too big to read in bed. The Nokia 770 is just about 8 ounces; Bill Gates says they want to get the Ultra Mobile 2007 “down below two pounds, as close to one pound as we can, ” so you’re not alone in gauging the limit.

  5. I noticed that a lot of book readers are kinda hostile to ebook readers. Every time I talk about ebooks at trekbbs.com lots of people just post mean comments. Generally talking to book readers who are friends or family they didn’t know you could read books on portable devices and they said they probably wouldn’t. This includes my girlfriend.

    I get some weird responses. They like the smell, they like the feel of the books. They like having something tangible in their hands. Yet they are posting this on a message board from a computer. They probably spent a bunch of time reading posts on their computer.

    This is a major hurdle, until we get an ipod type ebook reader I don’t see this changing anytime soon.

  6. A neighbor’s daughter loves to ride horses. A hundred years ago, the idea of machines replacing horses was laughable. But note that horses were only replaced for transportation, not for sport or as an object of girls’ adoration. Print books won’t disappear because of e-books. For a long time e-books will simply be another medium in which a publisher’s material can appear. But after a while the economics will force fewer and fewer books to appear in print until eventually, like my neighbor the banker has learned about horses, they will be expensive and way out of the mainstream.

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