Last month, I attended the London Book Fair and came home with new thoughts on the future of e-books. In particular, an in-booth presentation by DNL eBooks’ Peter Kent—author of many books including “SEO for Dummies” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Internet”—combined interesting statistics and Kent’s opinion on e-books’ future. Of course, Kent’s affiliation with DNL eBooks should be kept in mind, as the vendor provides a 3-D e-book technology (that incorporates Adobe Flash) through a software download for personal computers. (The technology was used in the Avon [a HarperCollins imprint] e-book release of “Lady Amelia’s Secret Lover,” which featured embedded video of the book’s author, Victoria Alexander.) Still, his presentation, “Digital Books: The Road Ahead,” was compelling.
First, Kent noted that a revolution is occurring:
• Today, more people are reading on screen than on paper (not just books, but all types of reading);
• 10 years ago, $0 was spent on MP3s;
• 2007 e-book sales were greater than 2004 MP3 sales.
Kent noted, “I don’t think things will move as fast in digital books … but we’re really only three years behind in retail [sales].”
He suggested that e-readers such as the iLiad, Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle “will disappear” in a few years because of “the ‘one-device’ problem. They have limited features (no color, animation, sound or interaction).” With laptops dropping in price, the value of single-function devices, with price tags close to multifunction computer devices, also drops. Plus, he said, “Many e-books cannot work on [dedicated] readers. … I believe that more than 99 percent of all e-books are being read on PCs.” He noted as additional competition the ultra-mobile PCs, which he says are retailing for around $400 in Asia. (Most prices I have seen in the United States are upwards of $700-$900.) Not to mention the iPhone and other mobile devices. Even the iPod, which initially only played music, has evolved into an audio-video entertainment device.
Kent also cited other challenges to the e-book industry, primarily piracy from peer-to-peer file-sharing sites (torrents). “I think the real concern is that we don’t want to go down the same road the music industry went,” he said.
The solution, he said, is digital rights management (DRM) that works. The primary e-book format today is PDF, which is very easy to create; however, it’s also an “open system,” designed to be shared, and now it’s trying to protect books with a “wrapping.” Solutions need to provide more than that, he stressed, “where the book inside is also scrambled.”
Kent also mentioned the current complexity of e-book purchase and activation. He described the typical process: finding the book, selecting it/putting it in a shopping cart, checkout, then receiving an activation code via e-mail, etc. The potential problems include: the e-mails often go into junk filters or are not received, the activation fails, the book download fails, and/or browser compatibility issues arise.
Prior to his presentation, Kent conducted an experiment. “Out of three e-books [I tried to purchase], I had problems with two of them,” said Kent. “That’s a 33-percent success rate. What kind of a way is that to sell e-books?”
These problems contribute to what Kent calls “unfulfilled e-book potential.” “Currently, we have consumer-unfriendly e-book formats, DRM problems, a clunky sales process, a 500-year-old model for digital goods,” he said. The book industry, he suggested, must learn from the software industry’s “try before you buy” model; for example, “unlocking” the first three chapters, but requiring purchase to read the rest. Purchasing should be able to be done right there from within the book, he added.
Kent showed several examples of e-books with embedded videos, including a children’s book where an illustrated animal moved on the page and made noise. He asked the audience to recall from a “Harry Potter” movie, the scene when the paper moves, as if alive. “That isn’t actually that special,” he said. “That’s the future of e-books. You can run videos so these books start to become alive.”
In their current iteration, I would agree that e-readers will not survive. I am more of a book enthusiast than a music enthusiast, but I have an iPod, not an e-reader. When e-readers, like iPods, evolve beyond single-function devices, we may have a winner. Maybe there will be an ePod (an entertainment/media-pod that uses e-paper) in our future.