Will We Ever Want E-Books?

At first, the idea of digital books sounded so futuristic. Even so, we wrote it off as another passing innovation.

Nevertheless, the major publishing houses have worked at plans to enhance their presence in the e-book marketplace.

Do we need e-books? Do we want them? Can we curl up at night with a digital book the way we do with some of our favorite traditional books?

No, no and no.

Courting Disaster

This summer, a federal court in New York struck a severe blow to major publishing houses when it ruled that they do not automatically have digital publishing rights to the book titles in their inventory.

Fittingly, the groundbreaking battle was waged over rebel author Kurt Vonnegut’s groundbreaking novel, “Slaughterhouse Five.” Random House sued publisher Rosetta Books for offering electronic versions of the book and other titles. Rosetta Books had released the title electronically, while Random House claimed ownership of all rights, sparking a New Age court debate.

Because the injunction was denied, Rosetta was able to continue selling the book in its digital form. Random House, unaccustomed to defeat, went back to the drawing board.

The result? Random House decided to more aggressively develop and market its AtRandom imprint of digital books.

Brave New World?

When Random House first introduced e-books as part of its inventory, it called e-publishing a “brave new world” and one that was potentially a profit center for traditional publishers.

That brave new world stopped spinning as aggressively last week when Random House announced it would eliminate AtRandom due to a lack of interest on the part of consumers. While some books will still be offered electronically from the publisher, there will not be a separate imprint devoted to e-books anymore.

Why? Because the audience for e-books was not substantial enough to merit a separate imprint, according to Random House. Some Random House electronic titles will now be sold as traditional paperbacks.

Not So Fast

Oddly enough, one of Random House’s major rivals in the industry, Simon & Schuster, released its own announcement about e-books almost simultaneously with its rival’s decision to throw in the digital towel.

Simon & Schuster will begin selling digital versions of existing titles on the Internet. Citing a consumer demand for the service, Simon & Schuster is forging ahead with its plans, despite an industry-wide realization that we consumers like the feel, smell and weight of the real thing.

This announcement comes on the heels of (Nasdaq: AMZN) and (Nasdaq: BNBN) unveiling their own online versions of selected titles.

There’s more: Yahoo! has entered an e-book sales deal with four major publishing houses, including Simon & Schuster, Penguin Putnam, HarperCollins and — stay with me now — Random House.

The Power of Words

Where are e-books headed next?

On the one hand, this confused hodgepodge indicates the publishing industry is clueless about the potential consumer interest in e-books. Despite the apparent reader ambivalence, traditional publishers are intent on giving e-books yet another chance.

At the same time, it appears major publishing houses believe the e-book market to be a low-risk venture, with low overhead, and one that will succeed based on multi-level marketing from a variety of sources.

Why else, for example, would Simon & Schuster go to all the trouble of opening its own virtual bookstore, and at the same time being one of four publishers to hook up with the Yahoo! deal? And why else would Random House close its own digital book line, yet partner with Yahoo! to sell the very products it is eliminating from its own shelves?

Playing Risk

Jump back a few lines and notice those words “low risk.” That sums up the e-publishing venture.

In the publishing world, the cost of producing and marketing one title is astronomical in traditional modes. But in the digital format, conceivably a company could create one simple file and allow an infinite number of readers to download it.

That translates to almost no cost, and the ability to offer a traditional book that would usually costs US$25 at retail for under $20.

All of this brings us back to the original questions — do we want or need e-books?

So far, it appears we do not, at least not in any large numbers. But publishers sure would like us to.

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.


  • Today (December 4), Time Warner and AOL said they will shut down, their e-book business. Apparently they decided it was putting too much of a drain on their other businesses.

    • Nice PR piece for yourself. There are a number of legitimate questions as to the viability of this format.

      e-Books will not ever smell as good as a library full of REAL books.

      • I think a lot of the people who posted messages on this topic have completely missed the point. Greenberg gets right to it in his article by explaining the big publishing companies’ attitude toward e-books. They’re willing to stick one toe in the water, as long as it doesn’t cost them much. Like he said in the article, they’re into it if it’s “low risk.” Do not underestimate the power of the major publishing houses in the U.S. If they ultimately decide not to truly get behind e-books, then e-books will become obsolete. Anybody who really believes e-books are going to strongly emerge as a genre without the backing of the traditional publishing industry is dreaming.

        • The whole debate here about e-books is so AM azing…what is the complaint? They’re convenient, they’re cheaper, they’re lightweight, they’re easy to get…what more do you want? E-books are just another way for us to obtain information, etc. Come on! I don’t believe it’s going to take big publishers giving their blessing. E-books are already here. Just try might like it.

          • That’s ridiculous to say e-books are an invasion of privacy. On what do you base such an inane statement? Second, how can something that creates one more way for people to read something promote illiteracy? I don’t think you should make such broad, sweeping statements unless you offer some backup.

          • I AM shocked by your comments. I cannot imagine that you have ever really looked at an e-book or spent any time reviewing any of what you are saying. They do not do anything but make it easier to read and encourage people to read more authors than ever before.

          • Clearly you have not paid any attention to the registration material that you have to sign to use your e-books.

            And if you have done any research you will see that studies by the Fouker Institute (1997 and 1999 SRDS) and the Turbocurran Compendium have shown that increased computer use has had a chilling effect upon children’s inclination to read real books, thus potentially leading to more literacy issues.

            And the eyestrain is another serious concern.

          • Did the Turbocurran Compendium and Fouker Institute studies broaden their research strategy to determine if young people’s increased disposable income, more leisure time and an unprecedented emphasis on pop culture might also have contributed to a decrease in children’s inclination to read real books? Solid research always allows for every possible variable that might influence results. What good are results anyway if they’re not accurate?

            Tonight after reading your post I looked for these studies online, and evidently they are not widely available. Did they take into account the elements I listed above?

            E-Books, if properly introduced to children through their own school systems, can become a part of the American lifestyle. I’ll bet 20 years ago if someone told you there would be P.C.’s in every classroom you would have similarly resisted the suggestion.

          • To say that children have more disposable income today is not entirely accurate.

            There are numerous counties where the poverty line has slipped. Remember the digital divide? It does exist and there are many, many children who have no access to ebooks.

            20 years ago I had an Apple and was one of the many happy people playing Space Eggs.

          • Still you did not address my questions about the research procedures used in the studies you cited. Can you truly cite specific research that supports the claims you made in your initial post?

            Also, I AM not suggesting that all children have more disposable income. But many do.

            No one is disputing the existence of a digital divide.

            You seem to be straying from the subject at hand, which is whether or not e-books are a viable product.

          • Yes, I read too that AOL TW has decided to shut down iPublish. I mean it just goes back to what Greenberg said in the editorial. There has not been a mass interest AM ong the buying public in e-books. I mean so what if we’re going to be able to read them on palmtops? Who cares? Most of us don’t have palmtops anyway. I think it was an effort to create a need for a product that the public never needed or asked for. It was kind of progressive, but not really necessary. What’s really interesting is how intense some of these people are here on this message board, I mean the ones who really like e-books. Have e-books become sort of a cult thing??????!!!!

  • I feel like an idiot, but I AM totally hooked. My houses have always been STUFFED with paper books. I mean, scary. I swore I would never even look at an e-book. I’ve been using them on my Palm and my iPaq for the last month and they are the cat’s pajamas. I can’t get enough. I haven’t bought a paper book in two weeks. Maybe the novelty will wear off, but so far, I’m in love.

  • E-books are horrible and I hope that they end up on the scrap heap. I cannot believe that people who love to read would engage in a practice which is so Orwellian in nature.

    First, e-books are a terrible invasion of privacy. Second, they will help lead the charge of the growing number of illiterates. Third, there is no standard for the readers and they are likely to lead to eye problems and finally, they do not smell as good as a new book.

  • Just started looking into eBooks for two reasons; I travel a lot and books are heavy, and I simply do NOT have room in my house for all of the books I buy! You can buy an RCA eReader for about $150.00, which is not prohibitive. I think a good ad-campaign highlighting convenience, portability and some cost savings would really help this product take off.

  • Yes, the public wants e-Books and there is a market for them.

    They just don’t want to pay hardback prices for them.

    The only things holding the market back are too-high prices and availability of content: not enough titles in electronic form.

    If the publishers don’t get their act together, the consumers will create their own free market …. mp3s ring a bell?

  • You can’t curl up with an ebook? Where have you been? You can read ebooks on Palm Pilots, the REB-1100 (released in 2000), the hiebook (released in 2001), the Franklin ebookman (released in 2000), and the Franklin Rocket (released in 1997). ALL of these are handheld readers with backlighting so you’re never in poor light to read and have LARGE print. The heaviest was the old Rocket (no longer available) at 22 oz. The light weight is the eBookman at 7.5 oz.

    What I like best is I can store a bunch of titles in my reader and decide when I sit down what I want to read. Recently, I had a choice between “The Story of My Life” by Helen Keller, “Pig in a Park” by Pauline D. Jones, “The Little Wizard Stories of Oz” by Frank Baum, “The Manhunter” by Ellen Anthony, “Privacy” by Gini Wilson, “Winterhold” by Stephen Almekinder, “The Blue Fairy Book”, several nonfiction articles I’d downloaded but hadn’t had a chance to read, and a couple of the Harry Potter books. Sadly to say, only the Harry Potter books came from one of the publishers you mentioned in your article. The others retailed for $4 to $7 and came from small publishers who know the potential of ebooks.

  • Mr. Greenberg, I find it funny that you write an e-article about people not reading e-literature. Of course, the big publishing houses are having trouble finding customers for their ebooks. They charge the same price as for a hardback book. $20.00 to $25.00 for an electronic version that doesn’t have the cost of printing on paper is silly. Independent e-publishers know this. They DO have a market because they are selling quality literature at reasonable prices–$2.50 to $5.00 is the norm.

    Yes, you can read an ebook in bed. Dedicated ebook readers are wonderful. I won’t go into the virtues of such as other people have already stated the case. The only reason they are not more popular is because of the price. If ebook readers could be manufactured and sold at lower prices, they would sell more. Just like computers were out of the price range of most families as few as 10 years ago, so are ebook readers a bit out of the average family’s budget allowance right now. But just as PCs became more affordable, so will the ereaders.

    Think back to when audio books were first introduced. People said, “Who would want to LISTEN to a book?” Well, obviously, many people do. The sales of audio books are booming.

    It will be the same with ebooks. I love the idea of being able to buy a book, download it to my ebook reader and carry 10 to 12 books around with me. As you said, it is a “Brave New World,” Mr Greenberg. Open your eyes and do your homework.

    S. Joan Popek

  • Anyone who even has to ask the question of whether or not we need and want ebooks has not done much research on the ebook market.

    As one of the first independent electronic publishers, I’ve seen this market grow from just a few sales to thousands and we’re just at the threshold of what will become one of the most economical and used products of the twenty-first century. Most ebooks are not only well priced, they are also easy to store, easy to take along, easy to read, and they are good for our environment and with an ebook reader you can curl up in bed with a good novel as well as read it in the dark.

    From school children being able to substitute heavy backpacks full of books for a reader holding all their school textbooks to members of the blind community who have already praised the arrival of ebooks for opening a whole new world of reading material for them using a screen reader to read ebooks to them as well as the thousands who have already bought our books, they have spoken as if they want and need ebooks.

  • Print publishers aren’t allowing anything. They are scared to death that ebooks will take them

    over. They are dabbling at it themselves because they know it is the direction the future is

    taking us.

    Also, the next generation is growing up on the computer, and they will take ebooks to bed and

    read them without an annoying light hanging over their heads, because readers have lights built in

    them. An advantage. Kids love computers and where they are going. And today’s kids will

    be tomorrow’s adults that read.

    Books take up space, waste our beautiful trees and tear up. They get water stains, food

    stains, and smell after a while. Ebooks don’t do any of that. Anyone not able to see the

    future must be behind times, like the writer of this article.

    Ebooks are the Star Trekkies, the aliens, the robots of the future. Print publishers refuse

    to give ebooks a fair go of it, because they are afraid of it. True, there will always be

    print publishers, but ebooks are the future. As long as there are computers, ebooks will

    survive. And someday outsell the print.

    Consider this, only a few decades ago, they called the paperback “trash”. Well, it survived,

    so will ebooks. Wait and see!

    Rita Hestand

  • I already buy the majority of my leisure books in e-book format, mostly in HTML, so I can read them on one of our Linux computers or download them onto my (original model) Rocket eBook. I also like the books at (which has promised to come up with a Linux reader). The independents (and Baen) who sell in unencrypted formats are putting out the books I want to read, these days.

  • Sir…please don’t join the thousand of readers who are discovering new and innovative reading material available in electronic formats. It might expand your vision, change your mind, change who you are.

    Do I have to curl up in bed with a reading device in order to read these provocative, exciting new books published by a number of excellent independent e-publishers such as DiskUs Publishing ( or Awe-Struck eBooks or HardShell? Absolutely not, even though I own several devices on which to read them. I can print them out economically and usually at a price still far below what traditional publishers are charging. Or if I choose to read one from my Rocket or Softbook or Palm, I can do so without even bothering my husband with a light…though usually, he, too, is reading either from a printed version or on a device at the same time.

    Please, if you must comment on an industry, take a look at the entire industry. Publishing no longer is strictly the domain of Manhattan.

    Leta Nolan Childers, author of the 1999 and 2000 best selling ebook, “The Best Laid Plans.”

  • There’s no difference in curling up with an e-book reader than a paper book. They’re the same size. Actually, the reader who has bad eyesight has an advantage, because they can increase the print to a more comfortable reading size. Also, the reader can make notes and mark pages without ruining the book. They can carry more books with them since an e-book reader can usually hold 10+ books. It may take a while to catch on, just like computers and DVD, but there are too many advantages to e-books for them to disappear.

  • Do we need and want e-books? And can we curl up with them? Yes, yes, and yes! For convenience you can’t beat them. I ordered one on line last night. This morning it was in my e-mailbox! When an inexpensive hand held reader is available, everyone will be reading E-books.

  • Yes! E-books are great and here to stay. Not as a replacement for print books, but as another form of entertainment. Like audio books, e-books fill another need. They are not “the future,” they are “now”

  • I find it curious that an e-reporter is questioning whether people want to read electronically. Why then, do you bother to write here, sir? Better send your stuff to a print magazine like Reader’s Digest. You are, after all, talking to folks who dislike electronic reading. Or do you enjoy being chewed out by those who enjoy it?

    Suffice to say, if you think you understand the e-book industry sir, you are grossly misled. Readers are heading for ebooks, but they shop at indy pubs and ebook stores. Amazon, Barnes&Noble and the big pubs have been in bed so long they forgot how to market succesfully to the public. Hence they latched onto celebrity endorsement ideas like Oprah’s Book Club to get people to buy their product.

    I doubt you even tried reading electronically. So what. There are still folks who think nothing illuminates better than candle flame. And why bother with a microwave when oven-cooking is so good. To each his own. Just don’t insult us by suggesting you know what all readers want. You don’t.

  • I’m sure plenty of other people have explained how you CAN curl up in bed with an e-book as long as you have a special reading device. Unfortunately, at the moment these devices are far too expensive. They need to be priced so that every member of the family can own one. The fact remains, however, that we can’t keep cutting down trees at the present rate. Then there’s what happens as books, after their few months on the shelves, have their covers ripped off and returned to the publishers and their insides dumped, adding yet more pollution to our overburdened planet. (I won’t mention what this does to an author’s self-esteem.) Many more books land up like this than ever reach a reader, BTW.

  • Ebooks are edited, copyedited, marketed, and sold via web downloads to computers or readers, or via html disks that can be loaded into the computer, or as trade paperbacks. From a writer’s standpoint this is ideal because it preserves other rights to be sold by the author at will. From a reader’s standpoint, the new ebook readers or even a desktop or laptop are capable of changing the font to make them large enough to be read by even the most visually challenged. For the traveler, ebooks allow many books to be kept in one small reader thereby making packing and carrying problems disappear.

    One of the problems with ebook readers is that they are way too expensive. Once the price comes down to below $100, look out. We have an entire generation that reads from a screen coming up behind us.

    For me personally, I only purchase books from the small independent epublishers because they have figured out that ebooks should be priced less than traditional hardbacks. We all get stung by bad books out there, but I’d rather waste $3.50 than $24.95.

    Instead of denigrating something before it has had a chance to fly, why not look for the positive and celebrate our abilities to go forward.

  • I have owned an electronic reader for several years and have been completely satisfied

    reading ebooks on it. The convenience of being able to enlarge the print, carry several

    books in one small device, replenishing the contents with low cost, WONDERFUL books, to

    be a very positive experience. I would hate to be deprived of this opportunity. The only

    reason ebooks have not been the phenomenal success they should have been is that

    the manufacturers of the reading devices have fallen far short of their capabilities. What

    we need is more, cheaper ereaders – not fewer ebooks!

  • Of course we need ebooks. They are a part of our future. Will they replace print books? No. They are another way for people to connect with words. And that is what writing is all about. Connecting. Without ebooks and the publishers willing to take a chance on a new voice, so much would be lost. I’ve discovered some wonderful talent, and love reading on my Rocket.

    Barbara M. Hodges

    Author in electronic and print formats.

  • Quoting a teen’s remark to an e-author when asked his preference of disk or print: “Doesn’t matter, a book is a book.”

    My reader has a dozen fresh titles at a time to read in a car, plane, or yes, curled up in bed. I love it!

    Kids who play electronic games expect the same ease in reading books. Fortunately small houses such as Hard Shell Word Factory are on top of it, so for the stodgy characters who are stuck in the last century…watch our smoke!

    Betty Craker Henderson, an ebook & print author

  • I think e-books will stick around, but there are too many roadblocks to them right now to envision immediate, huge success.

    There is not a practical, affordable e-book reader. We need something with a large enough screen to read comfortably, that is not too heavy, that costs far less than two or three hundred dollars.

    We need publishing houses that will EDIT the books they publish. All it takes is one poorly edited book–and I’m talking everything from dropped quotation marks to bad grammar to jumping from Chapter Nine to Chapter Thirteen–to make serious readers eschew the entire industry. And if that book costs the same as a paperback, forget it. We need lower pricing for downloads.

    We need more marketing in traditional places, like magazines, so the voracious readers who would be a large part of the market can find the books that are out there. Then we need marketing for the special interests, all the people who have disabilities or challenges for whom e-books are a Godsend.

    This industry is still a baby. It’ll get there, one tiny step at a time. Don’t write it off yet.


  • While I also love paper books, I can’t read a print book in the dark. I can and do read in the pitch dark on my Rocket eBook. If my eyes are tired, I have to put the paperbook down. Not so with my Rocket, I simply enlarge the font size and continue reading.

    Will we ever want ebooks? Yes, yes, and yes.

  • Two things:

    1) The big 400 publishers have merged into 40.

    2) In the depression we went from hardcover to softcover to survive.

    So therefore if we want any new authors we must allow ebooks to prosper. Microsoft or somebody will invent a reasonable reader which will allow low cost downloads and eventually save the publishing business.

    Best wishes and cheers,

    Steve Knight, M.A.

  • Personally, I love ebooks, especially those from small publishers, especially those that push the envelope, venture beyond the genre guidelines established by established publishers to sell books not enrich literature. I read on my computer. I read on my Rocket eBook Reader. I’m hoping for a eBookman or a Hiebook for Christmas.

    I’ve read over a hundred ebooks and AM happy to say the smaller, independent publishers have priced their books to sell. If that seems an impossibility, check out a few like Hard Shell Word Factory, Atlantic Bridge, or Writers-Exchange.

    Patricia White

    ebook and print author

  • “Do we need e-books? Do we want them? Can we curl up at night with a digital book the way we do with some of our favorite traditional books?”

    I say yes, yes, and yes! I could give you a list of positive reasons for each of your three questions, but here’s just one for each:

    1-Yes we NEED them – so we as a society don’t condone the ridiculous practice of returns, which results in TONS of books every month filling our landfills and being dumped in our oceans, not to mention the cost of the ones we do buy has to cover that waste.

    2-Yes we WANT them – or as an independent epublisher with over 300 titles we would not have sold thousands of copies a month for the past several years.

    3-YES WE CAN CURL UP IN BED WITH ONE–more comfortably too, I might add. With my Rocket eBook or my Hiebook, I don’t get a cramped hand from holding the book open, or have to hear my hubby complain about the light or the crackle of pages keeping him awake!

    Mr. Greenburg, do your homework.

  • The eBook industry is still trying to crawl about the floor. We can’t start running until we learn to walk. We can’t start walking until we learn to stand. Gloom and doom will keep us in the crib forever.

  • Can we curl up at night with a digital book the way we do with some of our favorite traditional books?

    Of course we can. Awaiting the movie I AM reading Lord of The Rings at the moment. In paper. I have visited all the major e-book retailer in quest of an e-book version. In vain. I would have loved to curl up at night with my PocketPC reading – I mean reading- LOTR.

  • No. Who wants to cuddle up with a machine to read? I have read them on my Palm m505 (bought about 30 so far), but feel silly reading 12 lines at a time (Pocket PC was not much better). It is still a metal device with a bright light, and real paper feels a lot better. And returns..can’t do that. I have wasted money on books I would have rather exchanged. Good for informational texts or work, but a pleasure book? Never!

  • I own a Visor (Palm device) and AM also a voracious reader. So the idea of being able to carry around several books downloaded into my Visor is very appealing. My only complaint is price. I AM NOT willing to pay ‘paper’ based prices for a book that is in electronic format. When Steven King’s book was published electronically, the price was $2.50. I price I was more than willing to pay for a book that I would READ and then DELETE.

    Publishers will make money when they get a clue as to the nature of e-books and price them appropriately so.

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