Two years ago Stephen King released his novel “Riding the Bullet” in electronic book format. It sold more than 400,000 copies. Some industry analysts wrote that this single event foretold the future, speculating that e-books would soon do to publishing what digital music was doing to recording and digital pictures was doing to photography.
They were wrong.
Proof of this came this week when two major companies engaged in the sale and distribution of e-books pulled out of the e-book business. First, there was PalmSource, announcing that it would be selling its Palm Digital Media business, which makes the acclaimed e-book reader Palm Reader and also distributes e-books, to PalmGear. Palm Digital Media has relationships with more than 75 publishers, including industry leaders HarperCollins, Penguin Group (USA), Random House, St. Martin’s Press, Simon & Schuster and Time Warner Book Group, to sell more than 10,000 titles. Although PalmSource has not provided details of its e-book operation, it’s safe to say that Palm Digital Media is not a significant source of revenue, or profit. If it were, PalmSource would likely not be abandoning it, especially for next to nothing.
Next, there was Barnes & Noble.com’s announcement that it would stop selling e-books altogether, citing weak sales and limited technology. While several e-book industry groups and publishing houses have surfaced to sing the praises of e-books and defend its future, the numbers speak for themselves. E-book sales are a small fraction of the overall book market.
So is there a future for e-books? Maybe, but not when it comes to novels. To obviate paper-based novels, e-book novels must provide something compelling. That means that they must “do novels” better, easier or cheaper, and preferably all three. E-books do none of these when it comes to novels.
But that’s not the case with digital pictures and music.
For example, take digital photography. Digital photography has several advantages over film-based photography. It does not require film, which reduces costs over time. It does not require developing, which again reduces costs and also enables you to get your pictures faster. And for the average consumer, the picture quality from a digital camera is as good as that from a traditional camera. It’s no wonder that as the cost of digital cameras and digital memory cards has fallen, sales have soared. And we?ll likely see the near elimination of film (except for professional photographers) by 2010.
Or take digital music. Digital music has caught on because it’s cheap and it’s easy to convert your existing music collection to digital format. It’s also more portable than carrying around a bag of your favorite CDs. And finally, it’s skip-less.
But what are the advantages of having a popular novel on e-book format over printed format? Can you take it to the beach? Or relax with it in the tub? No. Is it cheaper or easier to read? No. In fact, e-books actually bring additional concerns to readers, such as whether the battery in your e-book reader needs to be replaced or recharged.
However, that’s not to say that e-books have no place at all. Reference books and manual, including schoolbooks, are perfect candidates for e-books and e-book readers. They increase portability, and are infinitely more searchable than their printed counterparts.
But novels in e-book form? I don’t think so.