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.
That was then; this is now. Ten years have passed and, surprisingly, little has changed. We still have numerous devices and formats, pricing continues to be an issue (as is digital rights management), and consumers are still confused about exactly what an e-book is (is it a device or is it a format?). Content providers have continued to digitize their frontlists and backlists, but many publishers’ e-book programs haven’t expanded much beyond what they were a decade ago.
That’s not to say that the e-book scene, and the market itself, has been standing still this entire time. Formats have consolidated, Web sites have come and gone, and new devices have replaced the old. But despite all of the movement, it feels like we’ve ended up right back where we were before. For example, when I look at the Sony devices, all I can think of is the Rocket eBook (circa 1998). Even the new Kindle DX reminds me of the magazine-sized SoftBook, introduced way back in 1999. All of these new devices look so much like those of previous generations that I bet if you stopped someone on the street, showed them a photo of these devices and asked them to guess which was produced last week and which was manufactured a decade ago, they’d be hard-pressed to make a decision.
And while the devices’ prices have certainly decreased (in direct proportion to the increase of their speed, thanks to Moore’s law), the overall experience hasn’t substantially changed. Even with the newer and hipper devices, such as the Cool-Er and the iRex iLiad, consumers are still merely turning virtual pages instead of holding a physical book. These may be sexier gadgets, but the real problem is that the digital experience—as it exists now—suffers in comparison when compared to the analog. Until e-books finally start to do things that physical books can’t do, I don’t see this changing.
The only thing truly new in the e-books space is the iPhone. And while there are various apps one can use to read books on an iPhone, books have not yet been fully integrated into the overall iTunes experience. So people may indeed be reading on their iPhones, but it is not yet a seamless or intuitive experience.
This is not to say that anyone is necessarily to blame. Everyone’s heart has been mostly in the right place during the last decade: Publishers want to sell books and introduce great authors to readers, and device manufacturers want to find new and better ways for people to use their gadgets. The problem is that we’ve allowed the obstacles we once viewed as hurdles—things we were going to handily leap—turn into fences that have grown so tall, we’re starting to get boxed in. If we don’t make some breakthroughs—and soon—the walls around us will be insurmountable.
This is important because the idea of electronic reading remains, and is valid: People want to read, and they want to consume content electronically. The fact that blogs, social networks and Web sites are so popular proves that people hardly shy away when it comes to staring at a computer screen for long periods of time. In fact, the biggest difference between now and 10 years ago is how pervasively digital our society has become. Web sites like Google are so ingrained in our culture that it’s part of our everyday lives and language. iPods are everywhere, everyone’s sending text messages, and most people wouldn’t think of going a day without updating either their Facebook profile or Twitter feed. The electronic reading of linear text one day will be similarly commonplace.
I don’t know how long it’ll take for us to get to a world where the e-book experience is the one that’s long been promised, and that finally strays from the template introduced a decade ago, but it will indeed arrive. In the meantime, maybe I’ll settle down for a quick nap—just as Rip Van Winkle did—and, by the time I wake up, we’ll all be reading e-books (in whichever year that may be).
Jeff Gomez has been involved in electronic books and the world of digital reading since 1999. He is the author of “Print is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age,” which was published by Macmillan in November 2007, and which came out in paperback in July 2009.