Electric Book Works Web, mobile and print publications

An overview of the digital publishing industry worldwide

The ebook industry is growing at around 200% every year (according to APA/IDFP stats). It’s a very important part of the publishing landscape right now, especially as publishers try to recover a share of people’s attention from digital devices currently used mostly for music, video and games.

There there is another, much more important point to make about all this: ebooks are a by-product of a much greater, more important enterprise: the digitisation of paper literature. Despite the incredible size and depth of the Internet as we know it, it’s still far, far smaller than the world’s paper literature. Ebooks are the most apparent, easily monetised evidence of all our efforts to add that paper literature to the great database of knowledge that is the Internet. Everything you learn today should be seen in that context.

Why is that important? Well, the Internet we all want is one that easily grows into a more and more powerful, increasingly automated way to create and move large amounts of information, and one that helps us make a living in the process. To do that, we have to fill it with information that will be useful for a long time, and that can be easily found and manipulated by machines. (As with any database: rubbish in, rubbish out.) Every ebook is a piece of that database. It’s not only a freestanding product.

So, if you’re working with ebooks, you need to know how they fit into the Internet, both as consumer products and as an Internet technology.

Today, the ebook industry is most vibrant in the US, followed by the UK and Western Europe. This has been catalysed by more and more people buying dedicated ebook-reading devices, or e-ink ereaders, such as the Amazon Kindle, the Sony Reader, the iRex Iliad, and many others (the COOL-ER, the BeBook, the Nook, etc.). The e-ink (made mostly by E-Ink, not surprisingly) is important because it is profoundly different to read on than on a backlit computer screen. E-ink is not made of light, but of millions of microcapsules that rearrange with every page turn into the shapes of letters and pictures. There are usually about 150 to 200 capsules (think pixels or dots) per inch. And since the screen isn’t emitting light, there’s no eye-strain. Reading on an e-ink screen really is almost like reading on paper.

The most popular ereaders also make it easy to buy ebooks on the device, by connecting automatically to their parent company. Amazon’s best at this right now: you can browse the Amazon store, buy an ebook, and be reading it within about a minute, anytime, anywhere.

E-ink readers aren’t the whole story, though. In 2009, there were far more people reading ebooks on iPhones. The iPhone screen may be backlit, but it’s easy to read on, especially using the best ereading apps available, like Stanza and Enhanced Editions. And this year, the arrival of the iPad put a huge spike in ebook sales thanks to Apple’s built-in iBooks store and ereading app. And we’re about to see a wide range of smartphones and tablets running Google’s Android operating system, which will have much the same functionality as the iPhone and iPad.

But take note of something important here: ebooks sit right alongside various other forms of entertainment. While publishers have long been competing with magazines, TV, movies and music for people’s attention, now that competition is all the more obvious.

Note: There isn’t space or time here to address many of the common questions and arguments about ereading here. (‘Will ebooks replace print?’, ‘I can’t read a book on a small screen!’, ‘What about bookstores?’, etc.) I highly recommend an article by John Siracusa called ‘The Once and Future Ebook’, which EBW turned into a free ebook. Siracusa talks about the history of ebooks, and where and why they’re important.

Arthur Attwell 16 February 2010
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