E-Books: Good Idea, Poor Execution

Remember when the concept of a “paperless society” was all the rage?

Offices would eliminate file cabinets, newspapers wouldn’t need newsprint and the stationery business would become obsolete.

Oh, and books? Books would become the greatest dinosaurs of all. Books wouldn’t be necessary.

Enter e-books, touted to be the absolute symbol of technology as an agent of social change. After all, if we didn’t need heavy, cumbersome books any more, wouldn’t life be just so much easier?

Judging by the public reaction to e-books so far, the answer is a resounding and decisive “no.”

One Hand Clapping

For the uninitiated, suffice it to say that the publishing business survives by sales volume alone. When your product sells for not much, you must sell a lot of it to justify its existence.

The problem with e-books, evidently, is simply that no one tested the waters. Sometimes, an industry can actually “make” the public want something or feel that it needs something, but in the case of e-books, the publishing industry never really made its case.

As a result, students are still lugging heavy textbooks across campus, lunchtime corporate types are still transporting their favorite novel to a quiet spot and publishers are scratching their collective head trying to figure out what went wrong.

Cross-Eyed Crusade

Much of the problem so far has to do with the devices needed to read e-books. Handheld or portable computers have been slow to infiltrate the American lifestyle, and even if you have a Palm brand device, reading the small print can get old pretty fast.

Further, the marketing of devices that do nothing except display e-books has been dismal, failing to overcome the most obvious hurdle. We are a multi-task, multi-function society now, and to expect consumers to buy a device that serves only one purpose was probably poor planning.

The last time I checked, the privilege of owning this single-purpose reader was somewhere in the neighborhood of US$400.

Speaking for myself … I don’t think so.

Hopeful Outlook

Still, with all of that said, e-books are not exactly obsolete — yet.

First, hundreds of libraries across the country have added e-books to their collections. It’s a costly venture for them, but libraries, always struggling to stay current and hold the public’s attention, feel compelled to keep up with the technology.

So far, there does not seem to be a standard method for libraries to offer e-books, and often the available titles are extremely limited, but slowly the institutions are adopting the technology.

Promising Numbers

Further, late last year, Forrester Research predicted the market for e-textbooks could be the saving grace of electronic publishing. In fact, Forrester said that digital delivery of specialized books (including e-books) will make up 17.5 percent of publishing industry revenue by 2005.

More recently, Accenture said that by 2005, e-books would make up 10 percent of all book sales.

Is that enough to ensure survival for e-publishing? Some publishers say the only way e-books can last is if the public gives them a much stronger thumbs-up.

Note to Publishers

Speaking strictly as a consumer, here are a couple of ways publishers might count me in as an e-book customer.

First, I’d be more apt to give e-books a fair shake if there were a flat-screen, lightweight device that would fit in my briefcase — and that does much more than digitally present e-books.

Second, I’ll be more willing to give up my paperback books if publishers would price e-titles comparably to traditional books. Right now, digital versions of paperbacks that often sell for under $10 can cost about $15.

Finally, let us consumers know what’s available. The marketing of e-books has been so conservative that many readers don’t even know they are out there. It makes one think publishers aren’t sure they want us to know about e-books yet.

E-book publishers, give us a good reason to want (or need) your product, and we’ll buy.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


  • Mr. Greenberg has it half right–and so should be congratulated, .500 is still major league average. Guilty by association with the dotcoms that went bust, and so suffering from the fallout of same, the ebook industry desperately needs good PR & Marketing, along with a decent-sized and reasonably priced reader. Greenberg is correct here. However, Greenberg misses the mark on 2 technical points. First, an ebook reader will set you back US$200-250, not $400. Second, in order to pay other than the same price as he does for print, Greenberg ought to look at the independent ebook publishers. Some are very, very good–like the little restaurant hidden away in a back street that makes food to die for.

    Greenberg is right in that so far the major publishing houses haven’t broken the code on ebooks. This may well be a great blessing in disguise. But Greenberg misses again when he suggests that the ebook may be “obsolete.” The opposite is true. While an ebook reader may never entirely replace paper, it’s ‘when’ and not ‘if’ the ebook market will grow to respectable proportions. Don’t believe me? Think nothing will ever have paper’s prominence? How ’bout that email?

  • An author of erotic novels who sells her e-books online, I find that conventional publishers offer novels bearing a discouraging similarity while shutting out new authors. E-books self-published by those same new authors sell well not only to a large American cyberaudience that craves innovative fiction, but also to foreigners who relish getting the book within hours, at the same price as that paid in the U.S.

  • I like the idea about e-books, but until they can come up with a bigger reader the size of a note book and not some little note book you can kiss the concept into the trashcan. I’m sorry but a little e-reader isn’t going to cut it. You’ve got to give me something bigger. Also give me more then just two or three buttons. The electronics industries have got it wrong. They want to give us less for more, when they should be giving us more for less. Those that learn this lesson will stay in business. Bill Gates didn’t get rich by having a expensive product. He got rich because basically he gave away free software, the IE to people instead of charging them hundreds of dollars. He’s still doing good, but unless he brings the price of his OS down he eventually will become like IBM, a has been player in the big market. Those that make e-readers will be the same, those that give us more for less will make it out in the real world. Those that give us less for more will be a footnote in history, which you’ll read on the competion e-readers.

  • My eyes are not up to electronic reading unless I have a lot of control over the size, font and format. I also tend to lose and break things easily, so an expensive reader is not something I’m interested in.

    The main thing missing for me in e-books is the fair use right. If I could print them after downloading, or even choose the software I use to view them, I’d be far more interested.

    As long as publishers want to presume I AM a criminal, they can also assume I AM not a customer, sorry.

  • 2nd of 2 posts

    Maybe Mr. Greenberg could set up graphic charting on this issue to indicate comparison of

    1 number of downloads of free e-texts

    2 number of downloads of free ebook readers

    3 number (reported) downloads of purchased e-books

    4 number (reported) downloads of purchased e-books (&/or reading intensive media)

    5 number of public library book borrowings (& timely returns – people scan, convert, & read them quicker)

    6 number (reported) hard copy (any/all version of paper bound books) book sales

    7 the dates of above transactions

    8 resulting trend chart

    Is cause and effect relationship apparent? will R.A.M. freeware cause increased web consumption of e-text? Change in library book use? Change in paper book purchases?

    In US maybe no correlation could be seen except over multiple years, but even China now has over 70 million web users. It seems these stats could be as viable monthly or periodic indicators of consumer habits for books as any other.

    just guessing,


    (excuse or fix typos please)


    also from Brian Livingston NewsPicks list, where I found link to this e-book article:

    “. . .you can find extensive links to online reference material, newspapers, search tools, and online texts. To check it out, visit the site at

  • 1 of 2 posts

    Yes. Your 2 points are exactly correct regarding e-books – they also apply to all computing & communication tool design requirements *and* market pricing.

    Competetivve market pricing – same or better price for value than competition’s-original idea behind Atari founder, Nor*?something’s Paperback Software.

    My solution is occasional freeware searches. The best I’ve found is a freeware Reading tool using text files – makes it time & & effective to buy/borrow/download proprietary books to convert to e-text.

    1. Reading Accleeration machine freeware program. Uses tachistoscopic method – quick flashing of text – instead of scrolling. Try it – it’s **the** value of reading via electronic devices. FREE

    Get clean copy at PCWord downloads or ZDnet or

    2. Use it with text files. – your *instant* reading speed and enjoyment improves.

    Result of the above process’ use & growth in culture will hopefully promote:

    a more reading

    b more education

    c more and better book pricing [lower] and product quality [higher]

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