eBooks: When, Not If

eBooks have been a bust so far: anemic consumer adoption and a miniscule total market. But recent signs that a second wave may be coming have reached the mainstream press. News that an Arizona school is eliminating textbooks in favor of iBooks hit ink this week (naturally, the story made enGadget over a month ago). Personally I think that that the overall trend away from traditional reading and towards electronic reading is already clear (how many people read blogs on paper?) and eBooks emergence as a significant market is a “when” not an “if”. When it is likely to happen, and what should Adobe do to help?
First, let me be frank: eBooks are a bit of a sore subject at Adobe right now. We and other SW vendors promoted and made substantial investments in eBook infrastructure during the initial hype wave. Although we succeed in establishing PDF as a leading eBook format, when a forecast $3B market for downloadable books by 2004 turned out to be less than 1% of that number, discouragement is perhaps not surprising. Meanwhile general adoption of PDF and Acrobat is going great guns, and we are seeing significant traction in the enterprise space. So why the heck would I be bullish on consumer eBooks?
Besides congenital optimism, one explanation is naivite: I didn’t participate in the first wave of eBooks, so I don’t have the associated scar tissue. But I’d like to think there’s a some substantive reasons to believe that eReading is growing, and that eBooks as a significant business will soon follow.
Most importantly, I believe that the initial failure of eBooks had much similarity to the initial failure of PDAs (Go, Newton, et. al.): devices simply haven’t provided a “good enough” user experience. One breakthrough device – the Palm Pilot – singlehandedly rehabilitated what had become considered a no-go segment. I believe that a breakthrough device is needed to catalyze electronic reading. Despite the name, iBooks are not by a long shot to reading as iPods have become to listening. I much prefer to print long documents vs. read them on my notebook computer. The breakthrough device could be a new class of PC – something like the much-rumored Apple Tablet , that busts out starting with college dorms and frequent-flying executives. It could come via reading on mobile phones – where some innovative solutions are starting to pop up. But my access to a Sony Librie has tipped me to the opinion that the breakthrough in adoption may well be sparked by a dedicated reading device. Librie, while clearly a first-generation effort, delivers a reading experience like no other electronic screen I’ve ever encountered. My spouse is a hardened techno-skeptic a few clicks away from being Waldorfian. She not only read whole books on it, but wanted to bring it to her “women’s book group” gathering (particularly notable since this group seems to do far more wine drinking than book reading).
The other reason is sheer economics. Paper-based book distribution is is costly and a drag on the environment (rumor has it the Chinese are pursuing eBooks because they’ve calculated that there aren’t enough trees in the world to supply adequate textbooks for every Chinese student). More importantly, the economic costs and constraints prevent businesses from adequately capturing the long tail . Does anyone really think that consumers, who are poisted to get online access to effectively every movie and music track ever made, will remain content with the limited book selection at their local mall’s chain bookstore? Some of this long-tail can be satified via print-on-demand – which may grease the wheels for truly electronic distribution, just as suppliers of film processing to digital pictures arguably catalyzed the transition underway to completely digital photography.
So how soon will all this happen, and what should Adobe do to promote eReading and eBooks? Hard questions. It’s obvious that there are things that we need to continue to work on: striving to make Reader a great end-user experience for immersive reading; increased support for electronic workflows and technologies like XML in our publishing tools. But I’m pretty sure we need to do more, and I welcome your suggestions.

8 Responses to eBooks: When, Not If

  1. Interesting… I just bought my first e-book. From Baen, for a whopping $15,-. They gave some pretty compelling reasons for buying:
    * it was an advance copy. Unproofed even, but it closed the gap between the previous installment of the serial and the next book by about six months. So, I had the story I wanted to read as fast as possible. Worth at least $5,- to me. The fact that I’ll get the finished, proofed book in eBook format, too, was of no consideration to me.
    * No drm at all. So I can put the book on a cd-r or on the harddrive of my new computer, give it a friend to read (“Look, you need to read these books, they’re the goods. Read this one, I know you’ll like the rest, too”), read the first part on my laptop and the last part on my other laptop, no trouble.
    * Easy to use format: plain html. No pdf, so I’m not forced by the margins and line-length the publisher thought I’d like, but the text reflows if I increase the font size because it’s 3:00 AM and I want to finish the book but my eyes are bleary.
    * Easy, plain format, so I can have it read to me aloud, if I would like that, without jumping through hoops.
    * No drm, so I can print chunks of it when I feel like it, or even all of it, if I don’t mind the expense.
    * A format that’s going to be readable in fifty years, just like the books on my shelves (some of which are hundreds of years old, and are still readable). Nothing complicated, just plain text with some markup. html.
    So: timeliness, no drm and a plain and file format that can withstand the ages; that’s what makes an e-book worth $15,-.
    PDF with drm and printing disabled will never ever make a compelling e-book proposition, unless it’s being forced down peoples throats by, for example, schools making the ebooks mandatory.

  2. aaron wall says:

    I sell a good number of Adobe PDF ebooks.
    I think part of the lowered addoption rate is that outside of me making this post nobody at Adobe would ever really know that I sell a bunch of ebooks.
    The other problem is that if you can get free channels (blogs or equivalent) it is probably a bit hard for many people to justify the cost of what could be a dated document.
    I think it also helps a lot to have a blog or some channel about the topic which helps make it easier to sell the ebook or book from as people get to know and trust you more as time passes.

  3. Jeremy says:

    I will never, ever, ever care about ebooks as long as they are distributed in restricted or proprietary formats. Give them to me in unrestricted PDF or HTML, and I’ll be very interested indeed. That is the big thing that, in my opinion, has guaranteed the failure of ebooks. When the “publisher” wants to force me to read it in a certain way, which is ALWAYS lame and annoying to the point of not being worth it, I’m not interested.

  4. web designer says:

    very interesting.

  5. Hello
    Bill writes that “eBooks have been a bust so far”. There is a great exception to this.
    Here in Japan, reading eBooks on cell phones is rapidly gaining popularity, not the least among young women. The business model is subscription along the lines of “pick up to five books a month”. Rates are very low.
    Phone screens are still tiny, but resolution is getting better. And the young generation is used to reading vast amounts of mail on their phones every day, particularly women.
    You can hear young ladies who never read a book before saying things equivalent to “Hey, I just read a book by someone called Hemingway. He’s not bad at all.”
    I think one thing that contributes to this is the wide use of public transportation. In Japan, you spend a lot of time, up to several hours a day, commuting on crowded trains, often standing. This makes it very handy to be able to pull out a tiny reading device (if you can, sometimes it’s so crowded you can’t move your arms) and dissappear into a good read…

  6. Samir Shah says:

    Sometimes it is better for US companies to have an international perspective. As Hans says that in Japan it is popular to read eBooks on cell phones.
    eBooks are not catching in the US is because of US’s very effecient paper book system. You have effecient and established publishers, bookstores and online stores.
    Cocentrate on India and China and other asian tigers where the convenience of downloading far outweighs going to a far away bookstore. It also beats paying a good amount of money for courier delivery.

  7. It is really great to use e-books but still have some disadvantages.
    The worst disadvantage of using an e-book I think if from the author’s / publisher’s point of view. E-books are easily copied and published by other for everybody that will lessen the said people’s revenue. For the reader’s, e-book stored in cd’s or hard disk can be corrupted if scratch or infected by viruses while paper books are not.
    Philippine Gifts

  8. BasilC says:

    A rather belated response!
    I find my Palm Tungsten ideal for reading ebooks, in many respects better than printed books and certainly better than a pc or laptop. But there is one format that I find infuriatingly difficult to cope with – you’re not going to like this – PDF.
    If it’s just text, I can use Palm PDF, RepliGo or Documents to Go 8, and the experience is not too bad. I avoid Adobe Reader for Palm OS except for DRM books, because it’s soooo slow turning pages.
    My real bugbear is books with diagrams, tables or pictures – Adobe Reader for Palm is just absolutely hopeless for these. Palm PDF is probably best. But, of course, so many of the non-fiction ebooks that interest me are DRMed and have tables etc, so I’m forced to try to use Adobe Reader. It drives me nuts! Surely something can be done to improve it? How about teaming up with the people that make Palm PDF and producing a version for DRM?