domain Report from Ebook World 2000

by Tom Hartman

Published in Issue No. 44 ~ January, 2001

On November 6-7 at the Marriott Marquis in New York City, the burgeoning ebook industry gathered for the first ever Ebook World conference and exhibition (

The Conference included panel discussions and featured addresses on topics ranging from “How the Traditional Book Business Meets the New e-Book Business” and “Becoming Electronic” to “How We Read.” Assembled movers and shakers of the industry, including host Michael Wolf (author of Burn Rate), NYT Book Review editor Chip McGrath, Random House New Media President Richard Sarnoff, Xlibris CEO John Feldkamp, and Spinal Tap-er turned publisher Tony Hendra discussed the current state of the ebook industry and attempted to answer some of the nagging questions that surround its future, such as: How big is the potential market for ebooks? Which reader will emerge as the industry standard? What barriers are preventing the public from embracing this technology?

Bold predictions were made: bookstores outfitted with kiosks where, by typing in a title, we’ll be able to order up a copy of a book which will then be printed and delivered at the checkout counter, the glue of its binding still warm; software that will allow us to flip the onscreen pages of an electronic text as we would a printed book; pocket-sized ebook reader devices on which we’ll be able to store all of our work-related reading for the week along with a hundred or so of our favorite novels; even combination ebook readers/MP3 players/personal data assistants/cellular phones that will become as standard a part of our everyday equipment as the ballpoint pen.

All in all, the panelists and moderators of Ebook World painted a pretty tantalizing picture of the ebook’s not-so-distant future. In fact, some of the downright Bond-ian gadgetry described above is either on its way or has already made it to market. The EbookMan by Franklin, due this winter, might be seen as a first step toward a personal reader/player/everything device, and Borders is test-marketing a print-on-demand kiosk in select West Coast locations.

Nonetheless, when the smoke cleared, and the last bit of promo literature had been distributed – when the last of the free pens and logo-emblazoned trinkets had been given away and the multitude of monitors, laptops and display tables folded up in preparation for the next big event, only one Great Truth had been revealed by all who’d persevered through two full days of ebook cheerleading, naysaying, uncomfy chairs and mediocre coffee. Ebooks are hardly poised to deliver a deathblow to their print-based counterparts, even if the digitization of text-based “intellectual content” (books to you and me) is already standing publishing on its traditionally techno-fearing ear.

The main question the various publishing types, journalists, would-be developers and consultants who attended Ebook World were dying to have answered was why Americans aren’t scrambling to shelve their printed (or “p”) books and embrace the books of the future? Despite modest increases, sales over the last year and projections for even better numbers by the end of 2001, ebooks have hardly found favor with consumers. They remain, essentially, a technology without a market – a great idea whose time has yet to come.

The reasons for the less-than-enthusiastic reception of the ebook are as complex as they are numerous. To begin with, the term “ebook” itself is the source of no small confusion among consumers. Industry types use the term interchangeably to describe everything from Web-based texts of the classics like those found at and Project Gutenberg, to downloadable adobe .pdf files, to titles that have been formatted in special software, like Readerworks (, for viewing in Microsoft Reader or one of the other ebook-viewing programs. The major players in the ebook industry, such as Random House, Time Warner Trade Publishing, Versaware, MiLibrary and Microsoft, recently formed the Open Ebook Forum with the goal of establishing, “common guidelines for the presentation of electronic content over various electronic book platforms.” Yet, despite the impact of this partnership and its work in recent months (readers can download the “Open eBook Publication Structure specification” standards document from the OEB website), little has changed in the marketplace. Titles designed for one reader remain incompatible with others; a handful of different reader devices currently compete for consumer dollars. Fearful they’ll end up with the ebook equivalent of the Betamax, even likely adopters wait for the emergence of an industry standard rather than take the ebook plunge.

Constituting a still larger barrier to the widespread adoption of ebooks, there simply aren’t that many ebooks for readers to purchase. While sorting out thorny issues like electronic rights and how ebook royalties should be divvied up, publishers have taken the path of least resistance in bringing product to market, repackaging under their own imprint “classics” that have long since entered the public domain. Such titles now make up the majority of the ebooks available at Barnes and Noble, and similar outlets. Thus, if your tastes run more to hot-off-the-presses mysteries, bodice-rippers, or contemporary literary fiction rather than, say, Heart of Darkness or Jane Eyre, the pickings are pretty slim. In general, a parallel might be drawn between ebooks and compact discs circa 1985, when only serious audiophiles rushed out to purchase first-generation CD players as soon as they hit the shelves – no matter that only a handful of CD titles were available. As was the case with CDs, the relative paucity of ebook titles may keep average consumers away for a good while. As more than one Ebook World panelist acknowledged, the acceptance of ebooks depends desperately on the availability of content consumers want.

Another significant barrier is price. Those “non-classic” ebook titles that are available cost roughly the same as their pbook counterparts. Moreover, although PC-based reader programs like MS Reader can be downloaded for free, the specialized devices on which many ebooks must be read remain expensive. The Rocket ebook, recently renamed the RCA ebook 1100, comes in at $299.00; the Franklin EbookMan EBM=911 prices out at $229.00 – hardly attractive price points for consumers uncertain about which ebook technologies will “stick.” Moreover, currently, ebooks don’t carry with them the perceived “value add” that readers seem to want in exchange for forking over for bytes (or expensive circuitry) rather than regular old books. While software like Microsoft’s Reader, as well as most reader devices, allow readers to read “actively” by highlighting, circling or annotating text, these features appeal most to students and academics, commonly among the earliest adopters of ebooks. The average reader, the consumer the assembled publishers at Ebook World most desperately want to reach, simply wants to kick back with a good mystery, not study it. Furthermore, as Maggie Canon of MightyWords acknowledged in the discussion “How we Read,” the overall flop of CDROMs suggests that readers don’t want – or “aren’t ready” – to read texts that come packaged with music, video or other media, no matter how enticing or visually spectacular the bonus content may be.

The biggest barrier to the success of the ebook and perhaps the one most troubling to its biggest investors (like Random House, who in bankrolling vanity e-press Xlibris on top of their primary ebooks initiative is about as “full in” as any U.S. publisher) is the fact that the public really likes books. And why not? Books are inexpensive, portable, reasonably durable, and they deliver an experience that enables readers to have a tactile interaction with the words on the page. As Joy Luck Club author Amy Tan put it at a recent panel discussion hosted by The New Yorker just prior to Ebook World, “There’s something sensual about a book that I love.” Books are simply more human-scaled and user-friendly than their e-counterparts. Ebooks are fairly cumbersome (most weigh in at 2 lbs. and above), and thanks to the current standard for screen resolution they deliver a reading experience inferior to that of ink on paper: 72 dpi vs. 300 dpi. Even new screen technologies like MS’s ClearType and Adobe’s CoolType, although a vast improvement over the original Rocket Ebook’s LCD display, only go so far toward minimizing the inevitable eye strain and general lack of comfort that results from reading for an extended period on a computer display or monitor.

The public’s general fondness for the time-tested pbook is related to yet another objection, one heard echoing from the most tweedy, academic corners of the book world, from chaps like Yale professor and critic Harold Bloom, who see technology as a bust, not a boom, for reading. Sitting on the same New Yorker panel as Tan, Bloom described the experience of reading an ebook as “a deeply retrograde” return to something more akin to the medieval scroll. Bloom further suggested that reading an electronic text rather than a printed one “ruins the intimacy of reading.” While Bloom, of course, can be counted among academe’s great curmudgeons, he’s not alone in his anti-ebook stance. By and large, the literary community has gone kicking and screaming into the digital age, and the privileging – the fetishization, even – of the book as the delivery vehicle for literary content is deeply ingrained. For proof, one needs only look as far as the upturned noses with which, in some quarters even today, the very notion of an electronic literary journal is regarded. In the world in which Bloom and other Great Men of Letters travel, there is an equation whereby author = book and where nothing less than the printed version counts.

Any fears about the death of the pbook are premature. Despite predictions by folks like Microsoft Veep Dick Brass that within 20 years e-books will dominate publishing, it seems more likely that the two formats will peacefully co-exist in the same way that many related and seemingly competing technologies have for years. Ebooks do or will make quite a bit of sense for some consumers. Next year, for example, students at NYU’s dental school will be able to purchase all of the books they’ll need for four years worth of study in one convenient electronic format.. For other consumers, such as readers of genre fiction, or literati of the Harold Bloom ilk, ebooks may never make sense. Even the most outspoken evangelists of ebooks foresee the two formats as complimenting one another. As ERead agent and panelist Richard Curtis declared during “The New Deal,” one of Ebook World’s concluding sessions, “Pbook sales will drive ebook sales and vice versa.”

As with most things ebook-related, we’ll simply have to wait and see. Safe to say, though, that it will be some time before the common reader settles down on a beachtowel with a digitized version of the latest Grisham or totes around his or her personal library on lightweight paperback-sized readers that also surf the Web, tabulate expenses and call Mom. If the Ebook World Conference 2000 is any indication, it will be even longer before ebooks, for all their promise, send their pen and ink counterparts the way of the biplane or the steam engine – if, that is, that day comes at all. After all, though it’s approaching its 600th birthday, the good old pbook remains a pretty decent piece of technology.

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Tom Hartman has been a regular contributor to Pif since 1999. He lives in Philadelphia.