It’s been half a year since an ebooks essay. Maybe that’s because I’m not paying attention—or maybe it’s because very little has been happening. I used to track four ebook-related websites. Now only one seems to have updates, those relatively infrequent. (If I’m missing a key site, surely one of you will let me know.) Here’s what I find since last spring…
First, the negatives.
On June 18, Gemstar announced it was “scaling back our eBook operations and…we will ultimately be winding them down.” The message blames “today’s difficult market conditions.” “Scaling back” meant ending the sale of eBook readers immediately, selling content until July 16, then asserting that purchased content would continue to be available at least through July 16, 2006 on purchasers’ Online Bookshelves. Jenny Levine offered a useful comment at Shifted Librarian:
While I hate to see ebooks decline even further, this was entirely predictable. If you’re going to hang your hat on proprietary standards and dedicated devices, you’d better be prepared for the worst. The whole point of ebooks is portability. I knew this genre of ebook technology was dead the minute they locked down their content to the point where I couldn’t put it on a new ebook reader that they themselves have manufactured. I completely gave up years ago when they stopped allowing users to load their own content onto the devices.
Gemstar never manufactured ebook readers; they conned…er, persuaded Thomson/RCA to be the first of a planned bevy of manufacturers. It was also the last, with Thomson selling the rest of the REB readers back to Gemstar less than two years after the whole debacle began. I wonder whether another “whole point” of ebook difficulties is that, at least for longer texts, very few people seem to want them?
“As of September 9, 2003, Barnes&Noble.com will no longer sell eBooks.” Customers had 90 days to download the Microsoft Reader or Adobe eBook items they had purchased. “After December 9, 2003, eBook titles that have not been downloaded to the appropriate Readers will no longer be accessible.”
The news.com story on this shutdown included one of the usual dodges regarding sales: Cliff Guren of Microsoft said the company “does not disclose e-book sales figures for its eReader software” but that the company has distributed about seven million copies of the (free) eReader program. It also included one of those subtle shifts from “market analysts.” While an analyst for Nielsen/NetRatings praised the wonderful new possibilities—“There is some technology in the works to make reading on those screens a lot clearer, and there’s some potential for that”—he came up with different projections than you would have heard two years ago: “It could become the preferred way for people to read business documents. But I doubt whether that will be the preferred way people read everyday things.”
An October 10 Reuters story from the Frankfurt book fair noted the euphoria of the past and the reality of the present:
At the height of the Internet boom, e-books were hailed as the shining new tomorrow for publishers and paper books were heading for the scrap heap.
But the bubble has burst and electronic books are still the poor relation to the printed word with consumers preferring to turn the pages themselves when they curl up by the fire with a good book.
One surprising estimate from Penguin: “If Penguin sold 40,000 copies of a printed book, it would typically shift 4,000 audio books of the same title and 400 e-books.” That would put ebook sales at 1% of print sales, an order of magnitude higher than the industry as a whole. Perhaps Penguin knows how to market ebooks?
According to one of the last news items I saw at KnowBetter.com, on July 30, the Japanese publishing house Impress says that the Japanese ebook market reached one billion in revenue in 2002. Of course, that was one billion yen, but even that is around $8 million, a remarkably strong showing, albeit in the country most notoriously in love with all things portable and digital.
A September 14 Reuters story begins “Don’t slam the cover on digital books just yet” but is an odd mix of failures and odd reasons to expect future success. It notes the B&N shutdown then goes on to quote a “research director” saying that ebooks should do well among “young people who loathe the idea of a library…and aging people who want the convenience of large type on demand.” Ah, KTD: The saving grace of ebooks, since they really want to read everything on a little screen and they all hate books and libraries. Right?
The article cites an estimate of “less than 500,000 electronic books” sold in the U.S. in 2002, “compared with more than 1.5 billion printed books” (that’s one-thirtieth of one percent, if you’re keeping track)—but also offers revisionist history, saying that research firms in 2000 were projecting ebook sales “of about $250 million by 2005.” That’s funny: a Globe and Mail article from July cites estimates of $3.8 billion in annual ebook sales by 2005. (Cites & Insights for June 2001 lists early 2001 estimates for 2005 including $2.3 billion for dedicated readers alone or a more conservative $250 million for dedicated-reader ebooks, but another $3.7 billion in downloaded e-texts.)
eBookWeb, the only ebook website I still check, has a bit of cheerleading from Jon Baxley on October 5, 2003: “Yes, eBooks are alive and well!” Baxley publishes ebooks through iPicturebooks and says “eBooks have been very good to me.” He “thinks B&N will have cause to regret their decision in the coming quarter” and is certain “eBooks have proven themselves to be a viable aspect of publishing.” All it needs is “promotion on a scale unseen in the eBook business up to now, and that will only come when there are enough users buying enough quality titles to create a return on investment that no publisher can resist. That will happen, trust me.” Gemstar was running ads for its readers in every single issue of TV Guide. How many publishers provide a fraction of that promotion level for any book? He is, to be sure, trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by urging readers to select the “eVersion” of titles ordered at Amazon. “Yes, it’s a bit of a hassle to download and read on your desktop. But then, how cool would it be not to have to carry that bulky printed version with you on the train to work? Or tote it to class when you have a half mile walk between buildings?” (eBookWeb uses ALL CAPS for emphasis, which I’ve changed to italics. I think there may be lessons here, if the premier site for ebook news can’t seem to handle anything more than paragraph breaks in its HTML, but never mind…)
I surely wouldn’t cast doubt on a published ebook author as to the current success and certain future of the field, although Baxley does include this note: “Suffice to say, eBooks probably won’t make anyone rich or famous like a hardbound, NYT bestseller will.” But there’s one segment of this enthusiastic story that gives me considerable pause:
“What are good sales numbers for eBooks,” you ask? I’m afraid I can’t answer that due to contract restraints.
Maybe Baxley is saying that iPicturebooks won’t tell him what the sales figures are. But I’ve never heard of a situation where a publisher won’t allow a successful author to announce sales figures at least in broad terms. I, for one, can’t imagine signing a publishing contract that forbids me from saying how well or badly my book has done. Maybe it’s a quirk of ebooks? If so, it’s a quirk that causes my BSMeter to redline.
Finally, two press releases from the Open eBook Forum on industry sales. The first, announcing 2002 full-year sales and first-half sales for 2003, starts out in a manner that breeds skepticism, trumpeting 30% revenue growth for the first half of 2003 over the first half of 2003 and immediately comparing that to 5% growth in traditional print publishing. So ebooks are doing much better than print books, right? Well…that increase is $1.14 million: $4.97 million in worldwide sales for the first half of 2003 compared to $3.83 million for the first half of 2002. Since U.S. print book sales were roughly $24 billion for the whole of 2002, it’s fair to assume a 5% growth rate for half a year amounts to at least $600 million, a little more than $1.14 million even if the percentage growth is lower.
Unit sales: 660,991 ebooks in the first half of 2003 as compared to 471,995 in the first half of 2002. Does this number conflict with the “less than half million” item for all of 2002, earlier? Not necessarily, for two reasons: The OeBF figures are worldwide, not just U.S., and the definition of “ebook” varies widely, with some sources including short stories in the definition. The release also talks about “explosive” growth at Fictionwise, which expects to hit the $1 million mark in 2003, and includes this unfortunate quote from OeBF Executive Director Nick Bogaty:
Libraries are a huge growth category as they look to revitalize themselves in the age of Google; school systems are finding that today’s kids like to read when the media is digital; and consumers are snatching up better devices and more titles as fast as they can.
That’s what we need: An attack on boring old libraries, a KTD claim, and the absurd suggestion that consumers are buying ebook readers and ebooks “as fast as they can.” A later press release touted more big percentage increases and the claim that worldwide “ebook” unit sales passed one million in 2003 by the end of the third quarter.
Let’s extrapolate, based on the unlikely notion that ebook sales continue to grow at that impressive 30% annual rate and that print book sales keep growing at a miserable 5%. Let’s assume $10 million in worldwide ebook sales for 2003 (based on OeBF’s projections) and, as a starting point, assume that the worldwide print book industry is only twice as large as the U.S industry, or about $50 billion. Consider that 2001 projections were that ebooks would represent 10% of the book industry by 2005—and, by the way, that one library pundit seemed to be saying that ebooks would displace half of print book demand by the year 2000. A little straight-line extrapolation, ignoring the near-impossibility of 30% growth rate continuing for very long, shows the following nonsensical dates:
Ø Ebook sales would reach one percent of print book sales in 2022, a year after ebook sales hit the $1 billion mark.
Ø Ebook sales would reach the ten percent mark projected for 2005 a bit later, in 2033—if the percentage growth never slowed down.
Three items here:
Ø In late May 2003, eBooks Corporation announced eBook Library (EBL), “a best of practice software platform which will deliver our rapidly expanding catalogue of ebooks to academic and research libraries.” A pilot release was scheduled for September 2003, with an official launch in January 2004. The pre-announced features include “non-linear lending” to support multiple-concurrent-user lending; one-step acquisition; eReserve and ePacks; and an “extensive and unique catalogue,” “tightly focused in STM,” with special strength in Australian books. That’s all I know. Stay tuned.
Ø Then there’s Questia—which apparently is still around, sort of. A September 12, 2003 Chronicle of Higher Education story notes the Questia ads “that portrayed college libraries as irrelevant” and says, “Now it’s Questia that looks desperate.” Only the Houston office remains, it has “scaled back aspirations” for its collection, and it’s expanding its target audience to high school students. The collection, originally targeted at 750,000 volumes, has about 45,000 volumes (and 300,000 articles), about the size of a modest public library branch. For that, Questia still wants $19.95 a month. In April 2000, Questia’s CEO (Troy Williams) said, “Very soon, it will be unthinkable for a student to research and write a paper without using the Questia service.” Now the company’s down to 32 employees (from a peak of 300), but Williams still claims it’s just a question of marketing. Williams won’t reveal how many subscribers Questia has, but still sees big success…some day.
Ø I have an undated, unsourced printout offering a “case study” of the OverDrive elibrary at Cleveland Public Library. It’s an enthusiastic interview with Tish Lowrey, reflecting very high, very early enthusiasm for what is in fact a tiny collection (1,000 titles). It’s perhaps unfortunate that Lowrey feels the need to put down “many librarians” as unreceptive to new ideas, “fearing” not having physical books, their “love” of “handling physical books,” and so on, while pressing the idea that libraries can’t keep expanding shelving capacity and that “these are libraries, not museums.” “We have to give our patrons what they want, when and where they want it.” Even if the vast majority of patrons want more print books? Lowrey also admits that “some libraries’ past experience with eBooks was not very positive. They found eBooks awkward and difficult to use.” The patrons didn’t have similar difficulties? Cleveland approached this realistically: They purchased technology titles, CliffsNotes, tax guides, legal guides, SAT books—but, other than science fiction, apparently not much in the way of the books people read from cover to cover. (Lowrey seems to think that science fiction readers are “more tech-savvy” and so will go for ebooks.) Again, this is an early report—and it appears that, for all of the rhetoric, Lowrey’s approach does target the areas where ebooks in the “pseudobook” category are most likely to succeed.
Yes, there are still people who believe that the Great Dedicated Ebook Appliance is just around the corner—and that, once it arrives, people will drop those musty old tomes and get on the bandwagon. Four notes along the way:
J. Knight posted a June 12 report from Book Expo L.A. at eBookWeb. I didn’t know that Book Expo L.A. was “our nation’s largest annual gathering of publishers and booksellers” (I would have assumed ABA), but in any case J. Knight was excited to visit the “e-Book Experience,” a special exhibit devoted to electronic publishing. Knight has been through the Rocket eBook years. “I had a vision of falling in love again, this time with a nice, affordable, easy-to-use eBook reader sporting an E Ink display at least as big as a paperback book. (Okay, I’m a hopeless romantic.)” He assumed a crowd would be swarming around the special exhibit, knowing that “competition would be fierce at the e-Book Experience.” Well… The “one secret alcove that was not swarming with people” at the Book Expo was the e-Book Experience, with one or two patrons at each exhibitor’s booth. (Gemstar was apparently one exhibitor—six days before they pulled the plug!). Palm Digital Media wanted to show off a “Palm Pilot” (probably not with the Pilot name—but Knight’s a writer, not a techie) that “for the life of me, looked exactly like every other Palm Pilot I’ve ever seen.” The $299 price seemed like a lot of money, “but they took pictures.” And Knight doesn’t see this: “I’ve never wished that any book I was reading could take pictures.” All Knight wants is a “bare-bones easy to use eBook reader that doesn’t cost as much as a twenty-seven inch television, that delivers a booklike reading experience.” And that’s what he thinks everyone else wants: “Judging by the low population density at the Experience, I just don’t think that readers give two figs about all the bells and whistles.” Or maybe there’s another reason, which he hints at in the next paragraph: “When it comes to reading text, the ancient old hoary book has done the job very well…” Possibly, just possibly, most readers don’t give “two figs” about ebook readers at all for that very reason. But J. Knight’s written a book that’s only available in ebook form.
Edward Bilodeau, who I assume is a student at McGill’s library school, published his idea of “The ideal e-book” in Marginal Librarian 10:2 (www.gslis.mcgill.ca/marginal/mar10-e/ebooks.html). He wrote the piece in December 2000, updating it for the e-journal. Bilodeau wanted something handy to read when he was waiting for a bus, standing in line, whatever. He solved his own problem by using a multiple-page-per-sheet printing option (at the still-readable 4-pages-per-sheet setting), cutting the pages, and fastening them into a “little book.” Then he thought about what it would take to achieve the same experience in a portable reader—noting that he used to own a Palm II and gave it away. His specs are modest (and won’t work for the ebook industry, probably): around 9x12cm (around 3.5x4.7" for us primitive U.S. folk, or perhaps 4.25x5.5", a quarter-page of letter-size paper), less than half a centimeter thick, no heavier than that much paper, “excellent display,” memory for 100 pages or so, one-click syncing with a PC or Mac, rechargeable battery that auto-recharges while it’s syncing, ability to handle text, PDF, and HTML—and cost under $100CDN (call it $75 US). He doesn’t feel the need for text entry, a cell phone, MP3, pager, camera, whatever. “I don’t think such a machine exists. Inexpensive, highly specialized devices like the one I’m describing here are not exactly in vogue these days.”
Another J. Knight posting on August 13 announces a new dedicated ebook appliance, this time from Matsushita (Panasonic and other brands). The Sigma Ebook features two 1024x768 “cholesteric LCD” displays, measures 11x8x0.5 inches (folded), weighs 550 grams (a little over a pound), displays text in blue on white (black on white coming), and should sell for about $250. It’s supposed to have a high contrast ratio, be visible in both room and sunlight, and consume power only when text is changing-so that two AA batteries should last three to six months. It will be introduced in Japan, then China (for schoolbooks), and eventually the U.S. and Europe. Initial plans are to offer 5000 eBooks, “mostly comics and novels,” at initial shipment (which should already have occurred). Matsushita “plans to generate revenue by selling content”—the Gemstar model!
It’s the size of a magazine, weight of a fairly heavy magazine, but nowhere near the resolution of any print device: 100dpi or a little less. For comics, pretty good (and for large-type ideographic writing, maybe fine). For long-term reading of normal-size text, not so hot. But it should be interesting, if and when it arrives in the U.S. market.
Finally, there’s the HP pre-announcement, which has the usual answer to mediocre display technologies. To quote directly, “Radical new display technologies are on the horizon which will give a much more paper like feel.” They have been on the horizon for many years now. The Knight article also says that a Philips E-ink based ebook reader will appear in 2004. Anything’s possible—although successful single-purpose ebook appliances (outside of the K12 and higher education markets) seem increasingly improbable as time goes on.
Ø Kinley Levack reports on the MIT Press Classic series in the July 2003 EContent. MIT Press sends backlist titles in PDF form to Edwards Brothers, a short-run printer in Ann Arbor. R.R. Donnelly does quality checking and metadata work, delivering final text. “Within 48 hours of receiving an order from the MIT Press, Edwards Brothers prints and ships the finished product without ever involving the warehouse.” The collection included 247 publications when the piece was written and is expected to reach 1750 by the end of this year. You can order on MIT Press’ website. This appears to be a sensible use of PoD, extending the lifespan of books that had modest print runs in the first place.
Ø Mick O’Leary used his September/October 2003 Online column to revisit and update ebook scenarios. He manages to revisit his January/February 2001 “E-book scenarios” column in a manner that makes him look pretty good as a prophet—although he does admit a few failed forecasts. I poked pretty hard at the 2001 column in Cites & Insights 1:2 (p. 6)—and I think O’Leary continues to be far too infatuated with ebooks. He’s still looking for that next-generation reader (but he told us in 2001 to go ahead and buy the flawed ones) and he seems to view ebooks as an inevitability. For that matter, his claim of successful prediction is a stretch: “I said that the e-book killer apps would be in texts, manuals, reference books, and professional books, and indeed that’s what’s happening.” To call any segment of ebooks a “killer app” is hyperbole in the extreme.
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