Geek News

Thanks to Amazon e-books are finally big news.

As most people realize by now, Amazon launched its new Kindle e-book reader and launched a storm of reviews and comment in blogs, Web sites, newspapers and magazines.

“Books Aren’t Dead” shouted the headline in Newsweek (“They’re just going digital”).

“Why Kindle Will Change the World,” Motley Fool said.

“Amazon may Kindle literacy, if not conversation,” suggested the Chicago Tribune.

Macworld, PC Magazine, The Guardian, Information Week, Christian Science Monitor, CBS, Forbes … just about everyone has been talking about the Kindle.

I’ve been writing about e-books in this column for a number of years. I’ve been a short-term skeptic but a long-term proponent of electronic books. I don’t think Amazon’s Kindle will revolutionize the book world. In fact I believe the Kindle ultimately will fail. But it has brought a lot of attention to a business that is booming. A quarter of a billion dollars worth of electronic books will have been sold during this year, and next year is going to be much bigger.

I’m not going to explain why I think the Kindle will fail – I’ll leave that to another column. Instead I want to address a few myths about e-books. I’ll start with the idea that paper books won’t disappear because people don’t want to read on a computer screen.

This I find laughable.

The fact is that already, in advanced computerized nations, more words are read on screen than on paper. The days of paper dominance already are over. Sure, “books” are still being read on paper, but what about newspapers (paper editions are in decline as more people each day read them online), magazines, product catalogs, blogs and Web sites?

However you calculate it more words are read on screens than paper; more hours are spent reading online than on paper. Studies of “media consumption” show quite clearly that people now spend more time online than reading, which means more time mostly reading online than reading on paper.

That’s on today’s substandard screens. As screens improve – the Kindle has a very readable, paperlike display – and as devices are modified to be more convenient for book reading, people will be reading newspapers, magazines, blogs and Web sites on screens. They’ll be reading books, too.

Another myth is that digital books are a recent phenomena. Digital books have been around a long time. Visit an automotive-parts store, go to the clerk and ask for some obscure component. He’ll type on his keyboard and look at his screen, right? How long has this been going on? I’m not exactly sure, but I think it’s probably 25 or 30 years. What’s he looking at? He’s looking in an electronic directory, the equivalent of a huge reference book.

Many industries and the military have been using electronic manuals for 20 to 30 years, too. Online fiction certainly goes back to the days of CompuServe and BBS (bulletin board systems), certainly more than 20 years. It’s been a slow build and a long one.

Another myth: Digital books are still a very rare thing, a tiny business. Now, it’s hard to get good numbers, but it seems probable that electronic books in the U.S. are a $750 million a year business. A tiny fraction of the paper-book business, true -maybe 1 percent – but hey, a quarter of a billion dollars is a quarter of a billion dollars.

Who’s reading these books?

Well, a lot of these are academic books. That’s the sweet spot in e-book publishing – students carrying laptops who would rather carry books “on” the laptop than “in addition to” the laptop. It’s still small but growing rapidly, but all major academic publishers actively are involved in e-book development.

Another major market is the self-publishing market. Visit ClickBank, www.clickbank.com/buy_products.htm, and you’ll find thousands of books on almost every conceivable subject from online marketing to language training, from marriage counseling to bodybuilding. Self-publishers are creating e-books, setting up Web sites to promote them, pushing them online and, collectively, selling tens of millions of dollars worth.

Trade publishers are moving quickly toward e-books, too. Harlequin is publishing all its romance novels in both paper and digital editions. Romance novels are one of the top e-book categories. I’ve talked with many publishers over the last few months, and it’s quite clear the publishing business is preparing for a digital future. Digital books are coming. It’s just a matter of time. And not much time, either.

Peter Kent is an e-commerce consultant in Denver. He’s currently working with e-book software company DNAML, www.DNAML.com, to introduce its products to U.S. publishers.