Amazon introduced the Kindle e-reader less than five years ago. It’s one of those devices that seemed like an enormous gamble, took off like wild fire, and now feels like it has always existed. And of course, not everyone is happy to allow Amazon to profit so much firm its revolutionary device.
Amazon didn’t invent the ebook or the e-reader. Some large publishing houses, including Wiley, HarperCollins, and Random House already offered ebooks for sale. The public had pretty much ignored earlier devices for reading them, however. Ebooks seemed like an idea consumers didn’t much want.
Successful ebook readers
The Kindle made it possible to download an entire book from Amazon in 30 seconds or so. It could store hundreds of titles. It used some kind of electronic ink, so its display looked like a printed page, and readers could use buttons on the gadget to turn the pages. On the other hand, it was black and white with no pictures. Who would pay $399 for that?
By now, we know the answer is that lots of people eventually bought one. The price plummeted. Today, a basic Kindle costs only $79. In 2008, the first full year after Kindle’s debut, ebook sales made up only 1% of the revenue of the largest publishing houses. And less than that for small and medium-sized publishers. After three years, ebook sales reached 20% of revenue for some of the major publishers.
Needless to say, Amazon’s rivals were not content to let the Kindle take over the entire market reading ebooks. Barnes & Noble responded with the Nook. Apple launched the iPad. By that time, people could not only read ebooks in color, but approach them interactively. More recently people are reading ebooks on their cell phones.
Publishers began a flurry of activity to get their lists available electronically, but until very recently, ebooks remained an afterthought, an extension of traditional print publishing. Now, they are eager to get in on the digital revolution in reading.
Roadblocks to revolution
It won’t be easy. Change comes to the digital landscape rapidly. Each new device, each new file format requires a different approach to publishing ebooks. Once the publishers straighten out the basic issues, they have to customize them for Kindle, Nook, iPad, and whatever other devices their readers are buying.
For any company to produce anything, it has to focus on discerning customers’ needs and providing a quality product to meet them. In an atmosphere of constant technological change, focus becomes difficult.
Look for ebooks to become increasingly important to the publishing industry. Look for technical errors in digitizing and matching the digitization with the platform to continue to annoy readers with occasional garbled texts. Look for print books to occupy a diminishing portion of publishers’ output and income. But don’t look for print books to fade into oblivion any time soon. Print is still a stable and dependable technology. Electronic books and readers aren’t yet.
See A Publisher’s Perspective on Ebooks / by Andrea Fleck-Nisbet (American Libraries)