Books! Books! Books!

When my daughter was born almost two years ago, I wondered if she’d grow up reading books. After all, I do most of my reading online, and increasingly find myself reading short articles rather than whole books. Needless to say, she’s loved books so far, even if she’s shredded a few.

But the bigger surprise for me is that books–specifically e-books–have become such a hot industry. When I briefly worked for a consulting firm after grad school in 1999, my first assignment was to evaluate the e-book market. The readers then consisted of the Rocket ebook and SoftBook Reader. Needless to say, I correctly predicted at the time that the ebook-market wasn’t ready for prime time.

But fast forward to the present. Amazon has given the e-book market some credibility: Citigroup says they sold 500K Kindles in 2008, and Forrester predicted they will sell 1.8M units this year.

But the last days (and even the last 24 hours!) of news show that the e-book market is only starting to open up:

  • In May, Sony, whose e-reader sales have lagged behind the Kindle, announced a partnership with Google in May in order to make copyright-free books available for free.
  • Google just announced a service called Editions that it plans to launch in 2010 (by when it will have presumably settled the Google Books Settlement Agreement).
  • The Internet Archive just announced the Bookserver project as “a growing open architecture for vending and lending digital books over the Internet”.
  • Spring Design just announced Alex, an e-book reader based on Google’s Android operating system.
  • Barnes & Noble is expected to announce an e-reader that competes directly with the Kindle and has generated lots of buzz through leaked photos.

I grew up on books, and I’m excited to see that, a decade after the initial market failures, e-books (like touchscreens) are a mainstream reality. I still worry about who will buy them, especially considering that the marginal cost of distributing a typical e-book is even less than that of distributing a 5-minute song. A quick scan of a popular file-sharing site reveals that the pdf version of bestseller The Lost Symbol takes up less than 3MB.

Still, I’ll take a moment to celebrate the progress of technology. I’ve always known that reading was cool, but now we have the gadgets to prove it!

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

5 replies on “Books! Books! Books!”

I love e-books, they give me the ability to easily take my research PDFs “offline” and into a form that is actually very usable.

When they add a persistent http interface so you can lookup similar data I can see synergies between e-books and projects like mine but that is still a little far off.

My one big worry about e-books and e-media as a whole is lifetime survivability. Paper books going back to the days of Gutenburg (and before – well papyri) can still be read; will archiving digital media fair as well? I hope so!


Archiving is certainly an interesting challenge, as is curation. Still, I suspect that old ways won’t keep up with the accelerated rate of publication. Indeed, it’s a lot harder today to decide what is worth archiving!

And I share your taste in open architectures–indeed, the lack thereof has been a factor in my not having either an iPhone or a Kindle. But clearly a lot of other people are less finicky. 🙂


The question of historical record is an important one and, I believe, is the root of the reason that, at least for the moment, electronic books will not replace printed books. Western world culture moves in cycles and while facilities like e-book readers will gain in poularity for their convenience, I believe we are now entering a swing from transiency back to a need for permanence. Printed books will remain a cornerstone of our need to record history. So, let’s celebrate the development of our higher technology without fear for our more traditional formats – they will exist side by side for many moons yet.

Chris Warren
Author and Freelance Writer
Randolph’s Challenge Book One – The Pendulum Swings


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