Electronic books are poised to become a key medium
April 23, 1999
by David Moschella
(IDG) -- How many times have you been on the road and wished you had one of your books with you?
Whether for work or for fun, you might want to revisit something from an old college text, reread a passage from a favorite author or look up something in a technical reference source. Similarly, in our ever-changing Internet environment, wouldn't it be nice to know that books covering time-sensitive subjects will be regularly updated to reflect recent industry developments?
Without doubt, the least-available type of text on the Web today is that from books. We can get just about any newspaper or magazine online, but the contents of millions of printed books remain scarce.
Online books currently consist mostly of works whose copyrights have expired or those used to launch hardware devices such as NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook and Librius' upcoming Millennium E-Reader. Although those hardware products will eventually be important (especially to children now required to schlepp backpacks of books to school each day), the real revolution is much more one of delivery than devices.
Just as MP3 has grown from an obscure audio-compression format to become one of the hottest topics in the music industry, so are electronic books about to shake up the traditional book publishing business. Indeed, e-books will change book publishing much more than e-retailing. While Amazon.com does a great job using the Web to sell existing books, the emerging e-book business will create whole new markets for book content -- and eventually expand our very idea of what a book is.
Many of the advantages of e-books are similar to those in other Web businesses. Because there's no physical inventory, store capacity is effectively infinite; e-books can be printed or downloaded on demand and thus are never out of stock; and electronic reader-reader and reader-author interaction is enabled.
In addition, e-books will let us access a single chapter or even a single page, while the ability to provide regular updates will enable an ongoing relationship with the reader, especially in many nonfiction subjects. Because of copyright expiration rules, many texts more than 50 years old could eventually be distributed for free.
Perhaps most important, and as with MP3, the benefits of e-books to authors are highly compelling: much greater control over your own content and marketing, complete copyright ownership and a bigger piece of the financial pie. Today, authors usually receive less than 10% of book-sales revenue, with the rest split roughly evenly between the bookseller and the publisher. It's entirely possible that an author might make more money on an e-book selling for $5 than a paper book selling for $30.
Just as the entertainment industry was slow to appreciate how important MP3 would become, today's major paper-book publishers are mostly watching from the sidelines. The e-book business is led by newcomers such as Xlibris.com to Excel.com and Books On-line. These companies are exploring new business models, the benefits of printing books on demand and the various forms of e-book delivery. Today, they all lack name recognition and clout. But it's easy to imagine them being suddenly thrust onto center stage via an acquisition from an Amazon, Yahoo or a similar big name.
Because of their many current advantages -- such as familiarity, resolution, portability, disposability -- paper books will clearly be with us for decades to come.
But eventually e-books will dominate, and they'll be with you wherever you go.
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