Elgan: Here comes the e-book revolution

Six trends are conspiring to drive electronic books into the mainstream

At what temperature do electronic books catch fire? We're going to find out sometime this year. E-book sales are about to ignite.

On Monday, Amazon.com is expected to unveil a new version of its Kindle reader. It will probably be a lot better and a little cheaper than the first version. But the real news already broke this week: A company spokesman announced that Amazon plans to offer Kindle books on cell phones.

This news countered Google's announcement that the 1.5 million public domain books available on its Google Book Search offering will soon be available (free, of course) via a new cell phone application.

I believe that cell phones will quickly outpace the dedicated e-book readers, including the Kindle, as the platform of choice for e-book readers. Leading the pack? The iPhone, ironically.

When asked by The New York Times a year ago about the quality of the Amazon Kindle, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said, famously, that "it doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore." (It was an ironic statement, because one heard it by reading -- all the more so for me, as I first read it on a Kindle.)

It's worth noting that Amazon.com sold more Kindles (at least 500,000) in its first year of sales than Apple sold iPods in its first year (378,000).

Apple may not understand the value of e-books, but iPhone users will embrace them anyway. The reason is simple: The iPhone has a huge, high-quality screen. And its user base includes millions of people who love to do everything on their iPhones, including reading, which they're already doing with online content.

I (and others) have been predicting for some time that Apple will ship a killer tablet at some point. This device, I believe, will have the iPhone user interface and a super high-quality screen. It will be ideal for reading e-books as well.

Why people will read e-books

Just because e-books are available on better (the new Kindle) and more (all cell phones) devices doesn't mean people will read them. But mark my words, read them they will. Six trends will conspire over the next year to drive e-book reading to levels that will surprise just about everybody.

1. The economy. The economy is in the tank, and people are looking to cut costs any way they can. An Amazon Kindle pays for itself after the purchase of 20 or 30 books, then starts paying dividends. You save big on books, magazines and newspapers. These savings will grow even more attractive as the recession deepens.

2. The environment. Interest in protecting the environment just keeps growing and growing. The idea of getting a daily newspaper or a weekly or monthly magazine on paper seems incredibly wasteful to the point of decadence. Environmental consciousness will drive e-book acceptance.

3. A publishing revolution. The book publishing industry is one of the most backward, musty, obsolete businesses in our economy. While every other kind of information moves at the speed of light, the process of publishing a book is like something from the Middle Ages.

For authors, it can take months to even find a literary agent willing to represent their work. Then the agent takes months to find a publisher. Then it takes ages for the publishing company to get the book out there.

People are already circumventing all this by self-publishing. The self-publishing industry is the only area of paper-book publishing that's thriving right now. Soon enough, a huge number of authors are finally going to get fed up with the publishing industry and just self-publish electronically. They'll hire their own freelance editors, and do the marketing themselves. The publication of a finished manuscript will take minutes, rather than months.

Old-school thinkers in the publishing industry will lament the slap-dash nature of self-published e-books, and sniff that books are no longer published with the quality and care that they used to. (Never mind that book publishers abandoned high standards years ago in previous cost-cutting initiatives.) The world will pass them by as the book industry undergoes the same transition that happened with the media and blogs.

First, the media didn't understand blogs. Then they invalidated them. Then they accepted them. And now blogs are where the credibility is. Every columnist and reporter has a blog, and now major TV news programs are built around the opinions of bloggers. A similar transformation will take place about the credibility of self-published and electronic books.

4. The rise in aggressive e-book marketing. Like the move from silent pictures to "talkies," the transition to electronic publishing will prove fatal to laggards. Those aggressively pursuing and developing e-books will rise to take control of the publishing industry. Part of this revolution will happen in e-book marketing.

The new generation of e-book publishers will leverage social media, contextual advertising and other innovations. For anyone who spends time online, specific e-book titles will increasingly be advertised and marketed and integrated into other content. E-books, now mostly invisible, will soon be everywhere.

5. A rise in books written for electronic reading. The shift from print to electronic will change the nature of the book itself. Many books will be shorter. They'll be more timely and culturally relevant. They'll be more colorfully and engagingly written. And they'll go after young readers like nothing before.

As in Japan, this will spark a new cultural phenomenon of young people not just reading, but also writing novels and other book types on their mobile devices.

The idea that "people don't read anymore," especially young people, will be revealed as false. Young people today read more, and write a lot more, than any generation in history. To date, they've been unexcited about books, magazines and newspapers because they grew up with social networking and social media. Once books are electronic, relevant and social, too, they'll start reading and writing books like crazy.

6. The decline of the newspaper industry. And, finally, the newspaper industry is dying. The old method of physically delivering blog entries on dead tree pulp is obsolete. It's very simple. Newspapers that embrace e-books will survive. Those that don't, won't.

If you'd like to get a stark view of the relative economics of electronic vs. paper newspapers, check out a blog post on the Silicon Valley Insider. The blog did the math and determined that the New York Times could buy every single subscriber an Amazon Kindle e-book reader, and it would still cost them half as much as it will cost them to send paper newspapers for just one year.

After decades of false starts, the e-book revolution is finally upon us. By this time next year, e-books will be totally mainstream.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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