Two and a half years ago we asked, ‘Is 2009 the year of the Ebook?’ The benefit of hindsight tells us that the answer was ‘no’. However, things are improving and the outlook seems a bit brighter for 2012. Our current view of the ebook market will be coming in an article soon, but here’s what it looked like in 2009:
In 2001, when Soft Editions was formed, it looked like ebooks were going places. Microsoft and Adobe had entered the arena, PDA devices were becoming popular and a few dedicated reading devices, like the Rocket ebook reader, had built up a small but loyal following. Major retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble had opened their ebookstores, and scores of other dedicated online retailers were appearing.
Fast forward a couple of years and the outlook didn’t look so bright. So where did it all go wrong? Opinions vary, but the three major areas that were holding back the ebook market were reading devices, the proliferation of ebook formats and DRM.
Let’s take a look at these in a bit more depth. Probably the most popular options for reading ebooks on hand held devices were applications running on various flavours of Windows- and Palm-based PDA – Microsoft Reader, Palm Reader and the Mobipocket Reader being the best examples. The down-side of reading on PDAs was the small screen size (and consequent almost constant page turning) and limited battery life. Dedicated ebook readers had found a niche market but never really made much impact, as they were generally expensive – for a single function device – and didn’t offer a particularly compelling reading experience. Many ebook reader software packages designed to run on desktop and laptop computers had been released, but for most people the computer is never likely to be the reading environment of choice.
While there were attempts being made to standardise ebook formats, it seemed that every time a new reading device appeared on the market, it brought a new ebook format with it. While this might have made perfect sense to the device manufactures, from a consumer point of view it didn’t inspire confidence. (who wants to build up a library of ebooks in a format that may quickly become obsolete?) From a publisher’s perspective it was very difficult to decide which formats to support, or very slow to release titles in all the available formats. At various times Soft Editions published titles in Microsoft Reader, Adobe Reader, Mobipocket, Palm Reader, Rocket Ebook and Hiebook Reader formats – a relatively limited number of platforms, but still a lot of work to convert each title.
And then there was DRM (Digital Rights Management). Adopted by publishers and retailers as a method of preventing content from being shared without royalties being paid, most of the early schemes were restrictive and generally unpopular from a consumer point of view.
So in 2009, what has changed? Significantly the long-awaited ePaper screen technology has arrived, bringing with it a new generation of reading devices. These are characterised by being thinner and lighter than the ebook readers of old, but with bigger screens, better battery life and very good paper-like displays. These readers are beginning to sell in fairly large numbers – industry estimates suggest that Amazon may have sold about half a million of their Kindle reader devices, while figures published by the UK’s largest book retailer, Waterstone’s, indicate that they sold 30,000 Sony readers in the run up to Christmas 2008.
While there is still a proliferation of ebook formats in the marketplace, there does appear to be some rationalisation going on. Amazon, perceived as the market leader, are sticking with their closed, proprietary format at present. However, in their wake the competition are moving towards support of the burgeoning industry standard ePub format. This is good news for the consumer, as ePub books can be read on a growing range of dedicated hardware, including the Sony reader, Iliad reader, BeBook reader and the forthcoming Plastic Logic reader, as well as on the iPhone using the Stanza reader, and by several desktop/laptop applications including Adobe Digital Editions.
And what of DRM? Well it hasn’t gone away and still remains a topic for heated debate, although it could be argued that the current market leaders are a vast improvement on the earlier schemes. For those who still need to be convinced, many online retailers are offering a growing range of ebooks without the shackles of DRM.
So maybe 2009 will be the year it finally all kicks off for ebooks. Here at Soft Editions we think so; we have just converted most of our catalogue into ePub format, and our titles will soon be appearing on at least one major retailer’s ebook site. We’re also offering free ePub samplers of two of our short story collections to download. So if you want to try out the ePub reading experience, click the links below. You’ll need either a device capable of reading ePub books, or a desktop ePub reader (try Adobe Digital Editions, available to download from Adobe’s website: www.adobe.com/products/digitaleditions. It’s not a perfect implementation of the ePub standard, but is a very good starting point).