Remember when the concept of a “paperless society” was all the rage?
Offices would eliminate file cabinets, newspapers wouldn’t need newsprint and the stationery business would become obsolete.
Oh, and books? Books would become the greatest dinosaurs of all. Books wouldn’t be necessary.
Enter e-books, touted to be the absolute symbol of technology as an agent of social change. After all, if we didn’t need heavy, cumbersome books any more, wouldn’t life be just so much easier?
Judging by the public reaction to e-books so far, the answer is a resounding and decisive “no.”
One Hand Clapping
For the uninitiated, suffice it to say that the publishing business survives by sales volume alone. When your product sells for not much, you must sell a lot of it to justify its existence.
The problem with e-books, evidently, is simply that no one tested the waters. Sometimes, an industry can actually “make” the public want something or feel that it needs something, but in the case of e-books, the publishing industry never really made its case.
As a result, students are still lugging heavy textbooks across campus, lunchtime corporate types are still transporting their favorite novel to a quiet spot and publishers are scratching their collective head trying to figure out what went wrong.
Much of the problem so far has to do with the devices needed to read e-books. Handheld or portable computers have been slow to infiltrate the American lifestyle, and even if you have a Palm brand device, reading the small print can get old pretty fast.
Further, the marketing of devices that do nothing except display e-books has been dismal, failing to overcome the most obvious hurdle. We are a multi-task, multi-function society now, and to expect consumers to buy a device that serves only one purpose was probably poor planning.
The last time I checked, the privilege of owning this single-purpose reader was somewhere in the neighborhood of US$400.
Speaking for myself … I don’t think so.
Still, with all of that said, e-books are not exactly obsolete — yet.
First, hundreds of libraries across the country have added e-books to their collections. It’s a costly venture for them, but libraries, always struggling to stay current and hold the public’s attention, feel compelled to keep up with the technology.
So far, there does not seem to be a standard method for libraries to offer e-books, and often the available titles are extremely limited, but slowly the institutions are adopting the technology.
Further, late last year, Forrester Research predicted the market for e-textbooks could be the saving grace of electronic publishing. In fact, Forrester said that digital delivery of specialized books (including e-books) will make up 17.5 percent of publishing industry revenue by 2005.
More recently, Accenture said that by 2005, e-books would make up 10 percent of all book sales.
Is that enough to ensure survival for e-publishing? Some publishers say the only way e-books can last is if the public gives them a much stronger thumbs-up.
Note to Publishers
Speaking strictly as a consumer, here are a couple of ways publishers might count me in as an e-book customer.
First, I’d be more apt to give e-books a fair shake if there were a flat-screen, lightweight device that would fit in my briefcase — and that does much more than digitally present e-books.
Second, I’ll be more willing to give up my paperback books if publishers would price e-titles comparably to traditional books. Right now, digital versions of paperbacks that often sell for under $10 can cost about $15.
Finally, let us consumers know what’s available. The marketing of e-books has been so conservative that many readers don’t even know they are out there. It makes one think publishers aren’t sure they want us to know about e-books yet.
E-book publishers, give us a good reason to want (or need) your product, and we’ll buy.
Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.