The e-book revolution and what problems are ahead of us?

In this post I would like to point out some of the future challenges that we might face about further ebook adoption. This is not an extensive list, nor is it possible that we consider every difficult lying ahead of us, it is more of a list with some thoughts I had on the challenges we are going to face in the era of ebook.

Before I go on, I would like to be able to define what the term actually means and respectively, what we understand by e-books.

What is a book and what it is an e-book for that matter?

If you look for the definition of book, mostly you will find that it reflects the understanding of a printed book: “- a set of written sheets of skin or paper or tablets of wood or ivory; – a set of written, printed, or blank sheets bound together into a volume; – a long written or printed literary composition; – a major division of a treatise or literary work; – a record of a business’s financial transactions or financial condition”

If you prefer, you can use the definition from UNESCO: “Non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages excluding covers”. But alternatively it can be as Richard Seibert desribes it: “A book is something you pick up and read.” 

The book for me, resembles a holder for sharing and storing written information. It has beginning, middle and an end and has a logical structure. I use this type of definition because when we talk about books, we mean the content they provide and not the mere distribution format – scroll, codex, printed book, e-book, etc.

Now, I am not trying to bore out every reader out there, but trying to explain what is understood under the term book for over thousands of years because since the the coming to market of the Kindle reader in 2007, we are living in a so-called e-book revolution. Think about it – all around us people are talking about ebooks, ebook outselling print books, ebook reading devices, ebooks reshaping reading and purchasing for that matter, changing publishing paradigms and so on and so forth. People are able not only to buy books easier than ever (even from the beach) and start reading right away, but they are able to publish their work without the need of a traditional publisher – just look at Kindle Direct Publishing.

But lets get back to the ebook. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is “a book-length publication, consisting of text (and sometimes, images) in digital form, formatted to be read on the electronic screens of user devices such as e-readers, computers and mobile phones”1.

Current situation

2011 was the first time for ebooks sales to surpass print books (as reported by Amazon) and since then the ereader device adoption has soared, as well as ebook usage and purchasing. In the shift from print to electronic books and from traditional publishing to various new models (self-publishing, crowdfunding, mixed models) were supplemented by technological advances, economic and cultural shifts in society.

The growth trend from 2011, when ebook publishing brought $2 billion in  across trade publishing, is continuing the rise. This trend offsets the decline in print publishing, but presents many challenges ahead of the publishing industry. Here are some of them.

Distribution and Discoverability of Ebooks

In the age of overabundance and the availability of self-publishing with few clicks and a credit card, discoverability of new books will become more critical than ever. According to 2009 survey2 by Verso Advertising almost 60% of book buyers have said that the most useful factor in purchasing is “Search Engine results”.

As before, crucial for the success of the book will be the Word-of-Mouth model, but we now will depend more on Social Networks, Book Reading Networks and Sites, book recommendations services, etc. Amazon-book-recommendations I am not saying that window shopping in brick and mortar bookstores will die, but with ever increasing number of books published exclusively as ebooks, our discoverability styles would need to adapt to the new reality. 

Of course social networks recommendation from friends and acquaintances will be as important as ever, even more so when you think about it. The recommendation services in the various online stores are getting better and better at showing you books/content you might be interested in, which I would bet will become crucial part of the ebook selling services.

But along those two types of book discoverability, I would bet that many startups3 will deal with exactly this problem – how to discover interesting new books to read in an age when everybody is a writer and we have millions of options, literally.

For those services to work, metadata about books will be of utmost importance – the information about a book can assist in its recommendation process on search engines and ebook selling platforms.

Moreover, discoverability I believe will drive new and interesting marketing approaches to book advertising and marketing. Promotion, online games, book content community organization, online book clubs, and many other things, I can’t even imagine, will help readers to find interesting readings.

One thing that every writer, publisher and marketer should remember is that discoverability in the internet age will drive sales.

Format Wars, Anyone? – Inter-operability Issues

As a Kindle and Sony ebook owner, as well as an Android phone and tablet owner, I am getting angry every time I want to transfer one book from one device to the other. Kindle is not working with ePub, Sony does not support Amazon formats,or mobi. For Android platforms I need to download proprietary Amazon app to read my purchased books, or if they are DRM free I need to use several apps depending on the format. Should I even go into details about the inability to synchronize my readings across devices, and I am not going to even start to write about notes/annotations/bookmarks transferring.

And this problems are without putting into the equation book purchased from other sellers like Barnes&Noble, and various STM ones.

Sooner or later we will need to face this interoperability problems and I can say that there would type of contest mimicking VHS vs Betamax format wars. All of this will be dependent as well on the quality of the DRM each format supports, because I don’t believe publishers will abandon protection for their works.

Lending and sharing Ebooks

I don’t know about you, but I loved to exchange books with my friends – not only we were enriching our lives, but there was a connection – to share ideas, similar thoughts on subjects, etc. But this is somewhat different when it comes to ebooks.

Yes, if you’ve pirated a book, there is a chance you can use Calibre or other software to create an ebook format for your and your friends’ devices, but there is still some effort involved – reformatting, sending it through IM or email, or some P2P exchange.

On the other hand if you’ve bought an ebook (for Kindle, Sony, Nook or whatever device) you might not be able to lend it to a friend at all. She/he would need to buy their own version. And this is one of the major drawbacks I find with ebooks purchases. Even though you legally buy an ebook, you can’t lend it as you would do with your paper book. I know things are slowly beginning to ebb in a direction which will allow people to lend some books, it is still in its initial phases – like Amazon Lending program (started in 2011 for the US market).

Some of the major problems with lending are DRM (as I mentioned already), platform lock-in, but also a plain disdain of publishers and authors to allow the option.

As with discoverability platforms, there are several platforms that allow you to lend your ebooks for certain period of time – like  LendingEbook, EbookFling, LendInk and others – under certain conditions.

Still, the situation with ebook lending is pretty difficult to sort out for various reasons and one can only hope that someday we will be able not only to lend our ebooks but resell them as well4. As Joe Wilkert said “Lending is the natural state for books and publishers.”

Ebooks, Publishers and Libraries

The changing landscape has effected and will continue to do so libraries as well. According to  the Library Journal’s 2011 survey5 over “66% of respondents said they had experienced a ‘dramatic’ increase in request for e-books in the past year” while “28% said they experienced a ‘slight’ increase.” The top ebook genre was fiction, but non-fiction demand has increased as well.

Currently the libraries could choose from several models of ebook purchasing/lending offered from publishers. Most commonly ebooks are available to libraries through an intermediary distributor,

ebooks-tradewhich sells access  to and copies of ebooks from various publishers. Sometimes publishers sell/license ebooks directly to libraries as well, but it is relatively rare.

Unfortunately, licensing can curtail the libraries’ ability to archive books, facilitate inter-library loans, etc.

Currently there are several lending and licensing categories offered by ebook distributers:

  1. Perpetual Access (OverDrive, NetLibrary) – distributors offer licensing options to libraries for individual copies of ebooks that once bought become part of the library’s collection through an ebook collection management software platform (either hosted by the vendor or by the library). Depending on the contract the ebook might be loaned to patrons for specific periods of time.
  2. Subscription Access – distributors offer access to an ebook database for a certain period of time. Libraries can keep the access as long as they renew their subscription. Unfortunately, most of the time libraries have no ability to choose the titles they want in the subscription.
  3. Pay-per-view – libraries pay small fees for the option to display list of ebook titles to patron, but every time a patron requests a book, the library needs to pay rent fee for the ebook.

Those models currently offer many restrictions to libraries – about lending ebooks, ebook ownership, preservation and archival. As of now many publishers, as well as Amazon are reluctant to engage with library associations to find a good solution to this problem mainly because they prefer to sell ebooks in bulk and are afraid that once the ebook is in libraries, people will not want to buy their ebooks.

So in the future, libraries will experience very drastic changes to their budgeting, purchasing and archiving practices.

Who owns the ebook you’ve bought?

I bet that most of you believe that you own the ebook you’ve legally bought for your reading device, right. And mostly you are right, but have you stopped to consider what happens when/if you change devices. Of course this is done to ensure a platform lock-in (Amazon anyone?), but still this inability to transfer peacefully your books to another format and device puts dampers on your thoughts on changing devices.

Additionally, the memory of the “1984” ebook Kindle fiasco is still fresh and should be taken in consideration as a warning signal of what can await us in the future.

Should we consider changing from buying to licensing ebook mentality, or Pandora for books. Something like that Amazon is already trying to establish. Unfortunately with the current copyright law this will land in a court sooner or later.

But without ownership, our access to ebooks will depend on our ability to pay subscription fees.

Technological Divide

And finally, what happens to people who want to read/access ebooks but have no device because of financial reasons. Many libraries will start providing devices for their patrons (as examples started popping out) in the developed countries. The more important question is for the access of ebooks in the underdeveloped countries where economic divide will play crucial role for the access to knowledge when most of the intellectual capital is online and needs to be accessed through e-formats.

These were just some points I’ve been thinking about when discussion about ebooks springs to life. I’m a tech person, who reads almost 80% of the books in e-form, but still I am not a “print is dead” believer. Mainly because print has been great for preservation, but also because some of the considerations I wrote in the post. 

What we need for one, is to stop considering ebooks just as an extension to books. Ebooks are new type of medium – with its own strengths, shortcomings and challenges. With that comes of course the other need: change in copyright law – our current one served for an analog era, but is hardly suited for the digital life.


  1. See “E-Book,” Oxford English Dictionary (3d Ed., December 2011)
  3. Some platforms currently include: Bublish, Inkling, RethinkBooks, and others
  4. Amazon was approved patent on used ebook reseller
  5. Ebooks the New Normal: EBook Penetration and Use in U.S. Public Libraries