Digital publishing in the 21st century

E-books have roots in Internet-based hypertext but have evolved to offer something distinct. Laptops have long made it possible to read digitally while not being seated at a computer desk, and multipurpose devices not specifically designed for reading — such as PDAs and mobile phones — have made portable digital reading mainstream through first, person-to-person text messaging, and then the development of text-reading software and high-resolution screens. But the dedicated e-reader is increasing the popularity of full-length e-books and revolutionising the publishing industry more than any other reading device has before.

Though early models, like the Rocket E-book of the late 1990s, failed to take hold, since the debut of Amazon’s Kindle in 2007 e-books have begun to show notable sales in the book market.

One of the first e-book reading devices to secure success in mainstream sales was Sony’s Reader, which debuted in 2006. The Reader, offers titles for download through a Sony-owned e-store and additional participating websites, including Google Books. The Sony Reader touts popular features like E-Ink technology, a touchscreen interface, and a stylus pen for annotating, but the lower-end models must be connected to a computer by USB cable to download e-books.

Amazon’s Kindle, introduced in 2007, has sold out of stock twice within the first 12 months, the first time being within five hours after its release and the second following Oprah Winfrey’s peddling it on her talk show. The original Kindle used eInk and manual controls like page-turning buttons. It employed a Whispernet wireless connection to allow the downloading of e-books within seconds from many locations across the world.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos explained of the Kindle, ‘Our vision is to have every book that has ever been in print available in less than sixty seconds.’

While Amazon does not release official sales figures, it did announce that December 2012 had been its best month for Kindle sales yet. Barnes & Noble was the first brick-and-mortar bookstore to develop its own eReader: the Nook. Its release in October 2009 created overwhelming demand that led to sold-out inventory and two-month backorders through the holiday season of that year.

Despite its troubled debut, the Nook has been praised for its touchscreen interface, wide selection of e-books, capacity for digitally sharing e-books with friends, and software that enables e-books to be read on mobile devices and computers. The Nook is unique in its e-book sharing feature, but it is restricted: an e-book can be shared with one person at a time for up to 14 days, and publishers can turn off the lending feature for titles.

In January 2010, Apple introduced its first e-reader: the iPad. iPads were not released to customers until April 3 of the same year, however, the announcement alone altered the e-book industry. In the week prior to the iPad’s release, it was rumoured that Apple had already sold out of the quantity produced for the device’s launch through pre-orders. What made the iPad so popular from the start? Though early reviews criticised the iPad’s mimicking of the design and functionality of Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch, positive reviews describe the iPad as ‘infinitely better-looking and more responsive than the Kindle. An attempt to blend all the recent advancements in modern computing into one product,’ and from Apple CEO Steve Jobs, ‘a magical and revolutionary device.’ It offered dynamic applications, from gaming apps to word processing, so its potential uses exceed digital reading. Though the versatile iPad has been positioned as a threat to the Kindle’s dominance, the iPad is not a designated e-reader. It is a computing device that includes e-book reading as a feature.

The expanding market of e-book reading devices signifies that the e-book industry is growing. The Association of American Publishers reports that the first nine months of 2012 saw e-book sales increase over 150% from the prior year. In late 2012, Amazon and Barnes & Noble were advertising their respective eReaders as their top-selling products. Industry experts estimate that by the end of 2014, sixty million people will own e-readers. But what form will those e-readers take?

A Wall Street Journal online poll shows 41.9% of respondents ‘prefer to interact with technology’ through touch — over keyboard, voice, gesture, or “another way.” This puts many of the Kindle models with manual controls at a design disadvantage. Also the emergence of colour screens in newer e-readers makes them suited to media more interactive than digitised text. Thus the iPad’s extensive functions, to be used in conjunction with reading, nears what some project is the ultimate potential of e-readers: “The true promise of the Kindle, and its inevitable descendants, is in creating a product that goes where the book cannot”.

Yet it remains to be seen whether e-book users actually want their e-reading devices to have such broad functionality. The gap between the iPad’s features and other e-reading devices’ offerings means the iPad suits a different purpose. The Kindle, for instance, attempts to emulate the print book-reading experience and thus, “the Kindle (and other devices with e-ink screens) will continue to be the best device for lovers of long-form reading, period”. That the Kindle is a dedicated e-reader may permit more focused reading and thus suit book lovers more than gadget lovers.

There is a solution for readers who consider themselves somewhere in between: smartphones. Mobile phones now enable complex functions like Internet browsing and offer bigger screens with higher resolution, making them suitable for downloading and reading long texts. In 2009 Amazon created a Kindle Store iPhone application and began developing other smartphone and computer software. Publishers are even developing some books specifically for access via smartphones. Though mobile phone screens are small and backlit, potentially causing eyestrain during long periods of reading, users claim this discomfort is outweighed by the convenience of having reading material available anytime and anyplace since cell phones are ubiquitously.

Indeed, many more readers are investing in e-reader software than e-reader devices, reports technology market research company Forrester Research, with downloads of eReading applications for smart phones far exceeding the estimated number of Kindles sold. Furthermore one out of every five new applications introduced for the iPhone in October 2009 was a book. While it is unclear still how smartphone-based digital reading may be affecting the sales of dedicated e-readers, it is apparent that this market sector is growing as cell phone users become comfortable reading full-length text on electronic devices.

Though the e-book reading device market is developing, e-books themselves constitute a growing area for research. It is important to review the issues among readers and publishers that have already been spurred by e-books, in order to better understand and contextualize the effect the growing industry is having on culture.

As e-book reading devices have advanced technologically and become more affordable, reading e-books has become more popular. In 2009, the book publishing industry saw e-book sales increase by nearly 200%. Though less than 2% of books sold in 2009 were e-books, their rapid increase in popularity has influenced book culture. And with 50% of books now being purchased online, readers increasingly associate books with digital technology.

A primary example of the merging of books with electronic content is the introduction of the Vook in 2008. The Vook, a digital application accessible via Internet browser or iPad, integrates written text with professional video content and social networking tools for a new type of book. Book publisher Simon and Schuster has teamed with Vook to distribute its content, but the multi-dimensional “reading experiences” are also available through the Vook website for about the same price as a mass-market paperback. Though this multimedia platform is practical for instructional texts where visuals are useful—such as cookbooks or exercise manuals—what is its effect on readers of fiction?

Sara Nelson, a publishing industry consultant, says the Vook creates a modern dilemma for publishers of novels: “Publishers are going to be confronted with the idea that either the words on the page have to be completely compelling on their own, or they have to figure out a way to create new sorts of subliminal draws in the new medium”. It is possible that the potential for multimedia enhancements may eventually make video and hypertext links an expected feature of e-books or even that evolved reading habits will demand such content to engage the reader’s attention.

One resolution to maximise the integration of text with digital media has been creating digital supplements to the monograph. Book historian Robert Darnton believes the two forms can co-exist and together create something more meaningful than either could alone. “An e-book, unlike a printed codex, can contain many layers arranged in the shape of a pyramid,” explains Darnton of the many facets of information that an e-book offers. For a historian this might mean supplementing a monograph that discusses a historical event — World War II, for instance — with an Internet-based resource that offers primary source documents such as scanned personal letters, audio of FDR’s Fireside Chats, and scanned photographs. These resources create multiple layers of meaning, which the reader can more deeply penetrate for a deeper understanding of the topic. “In the end,” says Darnton, “[the reader] will make the subject theirs because they will find their own paths through it, reading horizontally, vertically or diagonally”.

In contrast, in the fiction genre, enhanced e-books—which are reminiscent of extra features on blu-ray copies of movies—are being produced to utilise digital capabilities of e-book novels. In April 2010, bestselling novelist David Baldacci published the enhanced e-book Deliver Us From Evil, a novel released simultaneously in hardcover, e-book, and enhanced e-book, the last of which his publisher calls a “Writer’s Cut eBook.” The enhanced e-book is priced slightly higher than the regular e-book and includes audio, video, and photos that explain the author’s creative process, as well as an alternative ending for the novel.

Publishers will continue to experiment with how best to add value to e-books using the digital technology enabled by the format. One particular aspect of the Vook’s platform has demonstrated potential: the integration of books with social media. Popular social networking tool Facebook offers a Visual Bookshelf application to review and share books with Facebook friends, and over 2 million Facebook users access this application on a monthly basis. Entire websites exist for this same purpose, the largest one being Goodreads.

Started in 2006 and now claiming nearly four million members, Goodreads states its mission to be, “to improve the process of reading and learning throughout the world”. The site attempts to do so through a platform on which members can build a personal profile, take literature quizzes, join discussion groups like “Obsessed with Harry Potter,” and connect with friends as well as authors who are members. Goodreads offers a space to celebrate reading and books, but another 2006 startup called BookGlutton actually provides a new way to read collaboratively.

BookGlutton enables users to buy e-books, read them on the website, and comment or live chat within the e-book pages. The reading activities of others—like, “Someone opened Pride and Prejudice”—are publicly shared on the homepage, but users can also join private reading groups. BookGlutton encourages collaborative reading similar to the social reading aloud that Raven (1996) found was done in the eighteenth century, but it engages dispersed readers through an online platform rather than readers congregated for recitation.

Importantly, the popularity of these digital social reading platforms — perhaps rooted in the revived popularity of book clubs in recent years — implies a trend towards publicising the more private reading experience. The launch of e-books has also had other notable effects on book culture. For example, it re-introduced serialisation and free sampling as strategies of modern bookselling. Suited to the subscription model enabled by wireless e-book readers, serialised titles have been emerging as experiments with delivery: story portions are accessible through digital downloads, email, even Podcasts and Google Maps.

Another form of digital storytelling is short-form text, which existed in the print world as either pamphlets or sections of a comprehensive text. Scholarly publisher Pearson Education offers digital downloads of 1000-5000 word shorts, which are unified informative texts addressing a single topic, priced at $1.99-$2.99 each. And perhaps because e-books make it impossible to flip through a book before purchasing it, many book vendors now enable consumers to read portions of books for free—under the assumption that consumers will base purchasing decisions on samples. In fact, it has demonstrated effectiveness as a marketing technique: in 2008 American Gods by Neil Gaiman was offered as a free digital download for four weeks, which boosted sales of all his books in independent bookstores by 40% and promoted the seven year-old novel to the bestseller list.

However, experimental pricing of books has become a contentious point in the publishing industry. While free content is an effective publicity tactic, more than half of Amazon’s most downloaded e-books are free ones; this prompted CEO of HarperCollins, Brian Murray, to protest, “Free is not a business model”. The debate flared when Apple’s iPad debuted, with Apple touting an agency model — a contract that allows publishers to set prices for their books. Other e-book vendors, like Amazon, had been selling new books for $9.99, and following Apple’s announcement, publisher Macmillan demanded that Amazon give publishers more control over pricing. In retaliation, Amazon pulled all Macmillan titles from its Kindle store. The two have since settled on an agency model that satisfied Macmillan, but not without Amazon making clear its dissatisfaction. Publishers have maintained their primary concern with standardising ebook prices lower than print books’ prices is that consumers will come to expect new books to be worth $9.99, not the average hardcover price of $40 or even the average paperback price of $20.

To offset the loss of revenue anticipated with cheaper, new release e-books, some publishers employ a digital blackout window for new books wherein e-book versions are not released until hardcover versions have been on the market for some time. Yet, customers are willing to wait: 30% said they would wait three months to buy an e-book rather than immediately buy a print book.

Amazon’s pulling of Macmillan titles and publishers’ use of digital blackout windows are examples of the effect of pricing and copyright disputes on readers. But the iconic instance of these issues coming to bear upon readers is that of Justin Gawronski, a Michigan high school senior whose copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four was deleted from his Kindle, along with his notes on the text, during a copyright dispute over the novel in 2009. Though his purchase was automatically refunded and the content was eventually restored to his Kindle, Gawronski’s family sued Amazon. Within months the lawsuit was settled with Amazon outlining specific extenuating circumstances under which removing Kindle content without notifying the Kindle owner will be allowed, like under a court order. Ironically, a court order to do so could emerge from any copyright dispute settled in court. Heavily covered by news media, the incident had a chilling effect on Kindle consumers.

For all the issues the new technology of e-books has spurred in book culture, the market is poised to grow more still. Market research shows e-readers will generate $3 billion in revenue in 2014, and one book industry consultant predicts 40% of e-book readers will stop buying print books altogether by 2014. Emerging digital technologies in the book industry reduce the need for print books in certain cases, such as publishers’ deep backlists. Rather than storing older titles in a warehouse and hoping to sell them, publishers are taking advantage of print-on-demand resources, in which books are stored digitally and printed in small quantities as needed. In 2011, the number of titles classified as print-on-demand more than doubled from the previous year. In cases like this e-book technology can be more convenient than printing for publishers. But will e-books ever supplant the five hundred year-old medium of print books in the mind of book consumers? That depends on how book consumers perceive and experience e-books.