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Technology: Rise of the e-book


Carl Zimmer charts the boom in electronic publishing and what that spells for wood pulp and ink.

In the summer of 2010, on a tiny island off the coast of Maine, I saw the future of books. I had been invited to teach a writing course at Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island, a beautiful bulge of rock covered in scrub and herring-gull nests. During a break at the beach with my family, my wife finished reading her book with typical supersonic speed. She craved another, so decided to experiment with her new iPhone.

She tapped the screen. In seconds, an e-book had streamed invisibly through the air into her hand. Swiping her thumb like a windshield wiper, she soon finished it. She tapped the screen for another. Out of the ether, another e-book appeared.


Now I see, I thought. Everything was in place for a revolution in how we read and write. And the pace of that revolution has surpassed my expectations. Since Apple launched its iBooks application in April 2010, some 180 million books have been downloaded. Analysts estimate that Amazon will have sold 314 million e-books for the Kindle in 2011 alone. The radical change extends far beyond sales volume: the e-book ecosystem allows writers to reach readers in ways that did not exist before.

Before that moment on Appledore, I was an e-book sceptic. In the 1990s, I got sick of all the promises that the age of e-books was almost upon us — which tended to come from people who wanted you to pay US$1,000 to come to their ultra-exclusive publishing seminars. When the dot-com bubble popped, the e-book prophets and their pricey seminars disappeared.

It would take another decade for e-books to grow into something more than hype. People became accustomed to reading on screens. The Kindle, iPad and other tablets made the experience comfortable and portable. Yet the technology alone did not change how people read. They needed something to read. The first online books, offered by pioneering websites such as Project Gutenberg, were typically the bare-bones text of old books that were already in the public domain. Publishers are now pouring their new books and backlists into e-book stores.

This e-book ecosystem has profoundly changed how we can read books. Volumes that were once out of reach are now wonderfully close. I recently wanted to read The Hand, Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design, written in 1833 by the Scottish anatomist Charles Bell. A few years ago, the only way for me to get my hands on the book would be to go to a university library and hunt it down in the stacks. I did not have to leave my chair to download a free copy from Google Books to my phone, in fully searchable form.

E-books are also changing the experience of writing books. Not long ago, writers had to funnel their books through publishing companies. Now a writer can simply upload a manuscript to websites such as Smashwords, Lulu and Amazon. It can go on sale as an e-book in a matter of hours.

A new genre

Freed of old constraints, e-books can take on new forms. A writer would never propose a 30-page book to a traditional publisher. Yet many authors are now experimenting with this miniature genre. Some are participating in a programme recently launched by Amazon, called Kindle Singles, to promote these pieces. Writers can also take advantage of the computer power of tablets. One excellent example is Before the Swarm, an e-book published earlier this year by The Atavist, a small publishing house. The book is a profile of entomologist Mark Moffett by writer Nicholas Griffin. You can read Before the Swarm as a straight profile, or you can tap the screen to reveal what The Atavist calls 'inline extras' — digital footnotes that present audio recordings, video and information such as the definition of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.

Other science e-books have metamorphosed so far that they are barely books at all. The Elements is an app for the iPad that presents a collection of images and information for every entry in the periodic table. Journey to the Exoplanets, from Scientific American and Farrar, Straus and Giroux (both owned by the same parent company as Nature), is a combination of text, sumptuous paintings, photographs from space probes, an explorable Solar System and experiments children can run themselves.

E-books not only allow for new experiments, they also make it possible for writers to reach niche audiences. If an acarologist wants to publish a book about the ticks of New England, he or she does not have to persuade a publisher that it will sell well enough to justify the cost of editing, designing, printing and shipping it. The author can just upload the book themselves.

For some writers, the economics of e-books are attractive. A traditional publisher typically pays the author a royalty of 10–20% on the sale of each book. The sale of international rights can bring more income — but only after an author's royalties rise above the advance. Although e-book distributors such as Amazon or Smashwords won't offer an advance, their royalty arrangements are usually much more favourable. Depending on the e-book publisher, royalties can range from 30–70%.

Of course, it is also true that 70% of zero is zero. A common illusion among writers is that as soon as they finish a book, the world at large suddenly becomes aware of it and millions of copies just sell themselves. In fact, it is easy for a book to vanish into oblivion, and it becomes all the more easy as the number of book titles published each year goes up. Traditional publishers may have their flaws, but they also know how to distribute and publicize books. If writers want to self-publish, they have to take on all the things that publishers do. And today, mastering the art of book publicity is tricky. Many newspapers are shutting down their book-review sections. Discussions about new books are migrating instead to blogs and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

The format of the e-book itself should also be a cause for concern for authors. Even the most successful e-book campaign simply pushes data from one computer to another. No physical object ends up sitting on a shelf. The longevity of e-books remains uncertain, depending as it does on the technology for reading them. When I look at some of the most elaborate e-books, I hear a ghostly voice whispering, “CD-ROM”. In the early 1990s, compact discs were all the rage — you could fit an entire encyclopedia on a single disc.

For a fleeting moment, CD-ROMs were the future of books. If I had decided to abandon print books and publish my books only on CD-ROMs, I would have imprisoned them in obscurity. Sneer at printed books if you will, but you can't deny that their operating system will never expire.

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Correspondence to Carl Zimmer.

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Zimmer, C. Technology: Rise of the e-book. Nature 480, 451–452 (2011).

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