Guest Column: E-books: Reading Like It’s 1999
In a classic, 19th-century short story, Washington Irving’s character Rip Van Winkle wakes up after being asleep for 20 years to find that the world has changed all around him. People he loved, including his wife, are no longer alive, and the country itself has—in the intervening two decades—gone through the massive trauma and upheaval of the Civil War. For Rip Van Winkle, it seems like only a few peaceful hours have passed; all he did was close his eyes. But in what seemed to him a short amount of time, everything around him had irrevocably changed.
In a twist on Irving’s story, imagine if you took a nap and woke up after 10 years (still a considerable amount of time) only to find that, strangely, not much had changed at all—that a decade had come and gone, and yet things were pretty much the way they were before. Lately, that’s how I’ve been feeling when it comes to e-books.
Back in the late ’90s, when the dot-coms and the technology sector were flush from the continual inflating of the Internet bubble, there was a veritable e-book gold rush. The marketplace was flooded with formats, devices and business models, and grand predictions were made about e-books and electronic reading. Publishers worked diligently to convert their frontlists and backlists, and some started electronic imprints and Web sites through which they sold their digital products. The sound of cash registers could be heard in the distance; print was soon to be an endangered species.
However, despite all the bullish estimates, consumers were ambivalent, and electronic reading managed to claim only a small portion of the publishing-revenue pie. The reasons for this were many: The devices weren’t amazing, pricing was an issue, there was confusion about formats, and interoperability amongst the various players and gadgets restricted any sense of community.