What is happening to the eBook?

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That’s the question every publisher seems to ask? Here, Vivek Mehra, managing director & CEO, SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd, shares his views on the same.

When books were first digitised, the world thought printing would die. It was almost akin to the death of ‘hand-writers’ being put out of a job by the invention of the printing press. Without contesting that Michael S Hart of Project Gutenberg was the inventor of the first digitized book or eBook in 1971, it’s worth revisiting what has changed (or not).

There is the technology side where the simple ASCII text files have given way to complex ePub 3.0 and Adobe’s Digital Edition. These platforms represent state of the art Digital Rights Management; a need expressed by publishers to ‘protect’ their commercial interests. There are others like Amazon, Kobo with their own DRM. On the other extreme we have O’Reilly Media, Carina Press who have foregone DRM and publish everything without controls.

On the format alone the eBook has gone through about 25+ versions driven by various needs expressed by publishers and customers.

2015 has been a game-changing year for eBooks. Here is what changed:

  • Since 2013 I have been reading about eBook sales stagnating.
  • Oyster the “Netflix for books” is shutting down.
  • Kindle launches Paperwhite with a dedicated ‘reading friendly font.’
  • Kobo and Barnes & Noble release the world’s first waterproof reader.
  • Flipkart shuts down eBooks business and hands it over to Kobo.
  • Simon & Shuster to expand their books distribution business (traditional) in N e w J e r s e y b y b u i l d i n g m o r e warehousing space.

Confused? You should be!

As one from the industry I wrote as far back as May 2013 that print will never go away. I also provided a counter point when I evaluated India’s education woes and how eBooks could solve some of the problems. Little has changed since then simply because both the technology firms and content producing firms don’t look at the end consumer to address his problems. I promise, almost all would chastise me for making this comment. To be fair there, is one company that is completely customer focused and this is the one that will change the way eBooks are consumed.

In 2013, I had an iPad where I did most of my eBook reading. In 2015, it is gone! I had a MacBook Air in 2013 and I continue to have one even today. I discovered that I really couldn’t read for long on the iPad. The backlight was strong no matter how low I turned it. I was OK reading emails and documents but to finishing a book was a complete disaster. My eyes tired easily and I couldn’t concentrate on the content. Even reading fiction became a chore. I wasn’t the only one facing this problem. I stumbled upon a news article as far back as December 2014 that spoke about health issues associated with eBooks and their readers. It is clear that there is a medical issue with light, be it from readers or from LCD screens. There is another study done in 2012 that there is really no difference between an E-ink enabled reader vs an LCD screen. From a pure users point of view, there is a problem with eBooks consumption no matter what the device.

If I were to introduce another element, the situation would get even more complex. The world has started consuming content on SMARTPHONES, PHABLETS at a scorching pace. eCommerce is perhaps the biggest driver of this sort of consumption. In India sites such as Myntra and Jabong have become virtually App driven only. Flipkart was to follow suit but has decided to rethink strategy. Publishing houses and dissemination vehicles are being set up to get content consumed in chapter sized bytes. (www.juggernaut.in; www.newshunt.com).

More confused? Join the queue.

Where is all of this headed then? In the evolution of a product, eBooks are perhaps still in their nascent stage. Even after 44 years, the jury is still out on whether eBooks will dominate or not. I don’t think we need to answer the question and it isn’t enough to just pontificate about it. The fact is to recognise that humans will consume content in different formats. No single format will dominate and render the other redundant. I still maintain that digital content will continue to attract innovation; we don’t have the option to abandon this path. If nothing else the environment will drive us to lean on e-ink vs real ink. It already has by eliminating such timeless such as telegrams.

Content consumers need to become the focus of the next round of innovation. eBooks need to be targeted in a manner that helps us consume appropriate content. So while it is absolutely imperative that searchable data be digital, textbooks at the K-12 stage will need to hybrid in their approach to consumption. The over reliance on electronic delivery may end up harming the publisher more than it helps.

Perhaps its best to then state that at 44, an eBook is still an infant

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