Thursday, August 9, 2012

eBooks and Inertia

I read my first electronic book in 1998, Stephen King’s outstanding novella, “Riding the Bullet, on my brand new Rocket eBook.  Mind you, although the Rocket was marketed as being “about the size of a paperback book”, it weighed 22 ounces, considerably more than, for example, this paperback which is probably about average and weighs in at 13.1 ounces.  The device got pretty hot after a while, and the screen was, by today’s standards, horribly low resolution and garishly backlit.  To get a book onto the Rocket you first had to download it onto your computer (after installing special software on it) over the not quite yet ubiquitous Internet, then connect the Rocket to the computer’s serial port (remember those?).   Comparing it to today’s $79 Amazon Kindle, which weighs less than 6 ounces, is like comparing a 1919 Model T to a  2013 Audi A8.

But how I loved that Rocket eBook!  After “Riding the Bullet”, I read many more books on it, including Dan Brown’s “Digital Fortress” and “Angels and Demons”, always enduring the curious looks, raised eyebrows and inevitable questions I would get from strangers who had no idea what that strange contraption in my hands was.  I, on the other hand, was sure that the end of paper books was clearly at hand, and that hardcovers and paperbacks would disappear in a matter of months.  Indeed, I kicked myself because I had actually thought of an electronic book reader years before and could not believe that the NuvoMedia people (makers of the Rocket eBook) had beaten me to it!  My vision, though, came before the advent of the Internet, so I imagined that Barnes & Noble and their ilk would sell tiny memory chips, containing books, that one would purchase and insert into “readers” similar to the Rocket.

I was far off on my prediction, though.  Not only did the Rocket eBook fail, but here we are, 14 years later, and just now, for the first time, net sales revenue from eBooks surpassed that from hard cover books in the first quarter of 2012, according to Galleycat.  The same article indicates that revenue from paperback books was, wait for it, still higher than that from eBooks during the same period.

How can it be that we are able to instantly download inexpensive books to all sorts of amazing, reasonably priced devices, have literally hundreds of books at our fingertips in a reader weighing less than 6 ounces, have our choice between gorgeous full color screens of various sizes or E Ink devices offering reading experiences almost exactly like reading a paper book, and yet, still, we read more books on paper than on electronic media, and our children still lug around those instantly obsolete bricks we call textbooks? Obviously it’s easy to think of a few reasons why this is the case: eBooks may disrupt the outdated business models of some major players in the industry, some people prefer the feel of paper books, sadly not everyone can afford even a $79 ebook reader.  In other words, (or, actually, word), Inertia.

But given the lightning fast proliferation of other technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet itself I’m still puzzled by the glacial pace of eBook adoption.  I’ll leave you with this comparison to consider:  I believe that the advantages afforded by eBooks over paper books are at least as important (if not much more) than the advantages that the automobile offered over the horse and buggy.  Moreover, the transition from paper books to eBooks is much less jarring than that from horse-drawn vehicles to self-powered cars. Yet although large-scale production-line manufacturing of affordable cars did not begin in the U.S. until 1902 by 1910 (only 8 years later!) the number of automobiles had surpassed the number of buggies.  My Rocket eBook was released in 1998, and it was by no means the first eBook.  The Amazon Kindle has been around for 5 years.  Yet, hardcover books and paperbacks combined outsold eBooks by 87.5% in the first quarter of 2012!  Almost twice as many paper books as eBooks!

Inertia indeed.