ebooks are the future

When RealmShift was first released I was against the idea of ebooks. I wanted to write and sell real books, dead tree books, solid books with pages that get dog-eared from being read over and over again. I love books. I’m a bibliophile of the highest order. As far as I’m concerned, there’s magic in books. Not just in the imagination of the stories or the knowledge contained in the content, but in the very act of being a book. Books are modern day magical items. The more books you have together, the more magic you can feel. You know the feel of your favourite bookstore? The vibe you get in a library? That’s the magic of the existence of books surrounding you. Terry Pratchett gets it – he calls it L-Space, or Library Space, where every book that has ever been written, or not written, exists.

So yeah, I’m a fan of real books. I love it when I sell hard copies of my books. I love opening the book to the title page and signing it for someone, knowing they’re going to take that book home and curl up in a chair to read it, enjoying the feel of the pages against their fingertips. It’ll sit by their chair or bed, then it’ll sit on their bookshelf. Friends and family will look at it, pick it up, read the blurb, say things like, “You’re still reading this shit?”

But all of that is going to become a niche activity.

There will always be a place for real books because there will always be people out there like me that can crap on for two paragraphs, waxing lyrical about them. But ebooks will become the mainstream, and it’ll happen pretty soon. I can’t say, “That’s right, you read it here first” because loads of people are already talking about this.

My own books sell better in Amazon Kindle editions than any other format. The print editions of my books are produced primarily through Print-On-Demand technology. There has been a print run and I do have a few boxes of books at my house, ready to sell to people at conventions or post out when people want or win a signed copy and stuff like that. But more ebooks sell than print books. Not only Amazon Kindle, but multi-format, non-DRM editions through Smashwords.com. And soon, Smashwords will be acting as a distributor for Barnes & Noble, so that means Smashwords editions become available in places like Fictionwise too. My novels are also available as ebooks on DriveThru.com, where you can get both RealmShift and MageSign for US$5 all up. Ebook popularity and sales are skyrocketing.

I recently upgraded my phone plan. I’m currently waiting on delivery of a shiny new iPhone. The reason for this is partly pure geekery, but also convergence. For my life as a writer, martial arts instructor and media whore, I like to have several things around me. I need a phone; my iPod is essential; I like to carry a camera to snap shots for the blog here or to capture images of my dog doing something nuts at the beach; I’m a social media whore, so having access to all those virtual street corners while I’m out is very appealing; having a quality portable video player for martial arts instruction is very useful. Instead of carrying a phone, iPod, camera, laptop and portable DVD player – which is a lot of shit to schlep about – I can get all of the above in an iPhone. Seriously. All of it. That’s some freaky sci fi technology happening right there. But you know what really sold me on the idea? On top of the convergence of all that other stuff? Stanza.


Stanza is an iPhone app that lets you read a variety of ebook formats. With the 32GB iPhone, you can carry an awful lot of music and video and all that stuff, plus a truckload of ebooks. Along with everything else, I’m going to have a variety of reading matter right there in my pocket, all the time.

It’s never going to compare with holding a real book and enjoying that reading experience. But it is going to make it possible for me to read more. I’m going to be able to get cheap or free ebooks and check out authors that I might not otherwise have had the time or money to look into. And imagine the people that are only now just starting to read. My mate’s two year old already handles his iPhone like a pro and she doesn’t read yet. This kind of tech is going to be completely natural to her.

Ebooks and ereaders have got an awfully long way to go yet – we need non-exclusive formats, we need readers that read all formats (Stanza is a bloody good start), we need publishers to stop being dickheads and charging full price for ebooks, and so on and so forth. But here’s my prediction – 99% of the books of the future will be either electronic or Print-On-Demand. Within twenty years or so traditional off-set print runs will be used exclusively for high-end collectors edition books. (I’ll be one of those collectors, natch). And the iPhone will seem archaic. My friend’s two year old will have her funky new tech and she’ll look back on the iPhone with a laugh and say, “I used to play with those when I was a 2 year old!” You know how we look at Pac-Man and Space Invaders arcade machines now? It’ll be like that. And long before that entire shift has occurred, ebooks will become a mainstream media. It’s happening already – I’m just one example. Just like there are still music stores and people still buy CDs, there will still be bookstores and people will still buy books. But like people also buy or steal MP3s, people will also buy or steal ebooks, in massive numbers.

Have a read of this excellent article by author Joe Konrath. He talks about Stanza and the future of ebooks, and he also explains a lot about formats. He and I think very much alike on this subject.

What do you think? Would you ever read an ebook? Before you answer, think back to things you did ten years ago compared to how you do things now. Then leave me a comment – love to hear your thoughts.


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50 thoughts on “ebooks are the future

  1. I’m not opposed to ebooks. I find it easier to read a print book but then again, I haven’t seen the new e-Readers that are becoming so popular in the US.

    I don’t think publishers are taking eBooks seriously yet and that’s why it hasn’t taken off so much, but soon they will. And e-Readers in Australia with ‘digital ink’ screens with no glare would be a good start for us.

  2. Hey Ben – ereaders are becoming more available over here. We’re always the backwoods though – we don’t even have our own Amazon yet!

  3. Do we have our own e-Readers? I’ve never seen one in a store. Apparently there’s on in a store in Sydney but I want to hold one, read a few pages etc. before I lay down any money.

  4. I love books in printed form, but I also love audiobooks, and I know the day will come when I can say I also love e-books. I just need to buy a reader, and I haven’t made up my mind about which one to get yet, tho I’m leaning toward the Sony. But I’m from the old school, and it’s hard to imagine life without actual physical paper and print books. Still, having all my books in e-book form would sure make it easier to lug around the 100 or so boxes of books that I own every time I move.

  5. Hi Mary. The Sony does seem very popular, but just be careful of the format issue. Educate yourself first. The link I gave Ben above is very useful!

  6. I do really like e-books because it has given me access to many texts I have been unable to find in bookstores visited – but nothing can compare to holding a real book in your hands. I’m with you Alan, I will always be a book collector. I will always love the smell and the feel of a treasured volume.
    I hope that in future times there will still be printing presses for collectors and that people will continue to preserve wondrous books that exist now.

  7. Stop, stop… you are making me cry. I, too, love the special bond one can form with pages. I know there will come a day when I will shrug off resistance to change and read an ebook, just like I shrugged off resistance to my kids getting a Wii.

    I just hope that there will, in fact, always be a place for inky text written on paper.

  8. I’m amazed that Amazon isn’t there for you yet! I love my Kindle, although I don’t think the future will be in the proprietary realm. Dead-tree books are wonderful, but I can store a whole library on Kindle, which makes moving much easier. Plus, being able to adjust the font size is a huge win for me.

  9. I’m a serious gadget freak at heart, but can’t bring myself to even look at ebooks. I like wandering into a bookshop, having a browse (and a coffee) and buying a hard copy print. I can easily spend many hours wandering around a bookshop.

    I can see the advantages for smaller authors and minority interests, but I personally can’t see ebooks taking over for the mainstream for some time to come.

  10. I love the idea of ebooks, though I’m still waiting for the tech to catch up. Sure, the Kindle, bundled up with Amazon’s distribution, was the big break forward. Yet I still feel we’re in this in-between stage.

    I download books to my iPhone all the time. Then don’t read them. Why? The device. Too small. Stand alone ereaders? Too expensive and limited.

    What I need is a tablet size pda that functions as a phone portal and multi-functional app storer. I can see these things become ubiquitous.

    And then there’s ebook 2.0. Imagine the merging of medias, pop-up dictionaries, links to encloypedias, video, in-book trivia… Authors as auteurs of the new convergence in storytelling.

  11. Pamela – Books aren’t going anywhere any time soon. But look at Laura’s comment after yours. The ease of ebooks will win people over. It doesn’t mean we’ll all abandon print books. However, think of the people growing up today and how they’ll perceive print books after growing up with digital tech their whole lives.

    James – I’m a gadget freak too and I already read ebooks. Adding the iPhone to make ebooks more accessible is a boon for me, but I’ll never tire of the joy of bookshops and real books. You can have both! The change is already happening. Depends what you mean by soon.

    Pasquin – The rumours of Apple’s tablet device have been around for ages, but those rumours are gaining momentum. There’s talk that it would be bigger than an iPhone but smaller than a laptop. About the size of a book, maybe…?

    As for your comment about ebook 2.0, already this is something that is beginning to emerge. Ebooks with embedded links and video is just the start once ebooks are prevalent on wireless broadband devices.

  12. We’ve been able to read in electronic format for years, but it’s not comfortable reading a lot of text on a computer. ebooks first appeared when PDAs took off, but ebooks didn’t because of the same eye strain issue. The new breed of readers have addressed that with the screens they use that mimic the printed page making for a more pleasurable reading experience. Sorry Al, that doesn’t apply to the iPhone, so be prepared for a bit of eyestrain if you read anything extensive on it.

    I do agree that the printed word now has a significant rival in the electronic format, but it will be a long drawn out battle before (if ever) print is dead. Readers need to develop considerably to be able to handle comics and graphic novels. Colour for a start. Format for another – an A4 reader would not be as desireable a device as the current paperback size models, but without that you couldn’t replicate the current comic book format. So does the format need to change to be more appropriate for electronic consumption?

    Magazines are in a glossy format that can’t currently be replicated by readers – their competition is still online ‘zines that allow for more interactive content. Though, they’re trying to compete with that by using the e-ink technology…



    The above two links are developments that could significantly change the face of ‘printed’ media, in such a way that it gets a new lease of life. On the other hand it could be that in a few years you simply walk into a newsagents, scan a barcode with your reader and the latest version of your favourite magazine is downloaded to your multimedia eReader. Of course, all paid for wirelessly as you walk out of the shop.

    The tech is there and becoming more commercially viable everyday. The final say will be down to two factions – us, the consumer and whether we are willing to part with our printed format; and, whether publishers can make a marketable model of the format.

    So, I have no solid conclusions, but I thought I’d throw my thoughts in the mix!

  13. And interesting thoughts they are, Graham!

    I’ll be using the iPhone for a lot of magazine and short story reading. A lot of mags are going to online now and abandoning print for purely financial reasons. I’ll read longer works on the iPhone but in short sittings.

    Already in the US a lot of people already get their news and magazine subscriptions online, sent wirelessly directly to their Kindle every day.

    I believe the Kindle 2 is colour – please correct me if I’m wrong on that. I also have some comic viewing software on my laptop to read scanned comics. Reducing that to tablet/ereader size won’t be too hard and using it for digitally created comics can’t be far off.

    Of course, all this will be down to individual taste and there will be a variety of options. And real books will always be around too. I’d be very surprised if we ever saw the end of print media entirely.

  14. Hi there!

    Actually, I do most of my reading on ebooks. I still go to the library, used bookstore, etc. but that is usually only when I cannot get the book I want either as an ebook or it’s cheaper. I will pay for ebooks I really want, but I usually won’t pay more than 10$ (that’s expensive for me) for an ebook because I figure that they don’t have to worry about printing cost, etc. I’m not getting a physical copy of the book to hold in my hands, so why should it cost the same as the paper edition?

    That said, I generally prefer ebooks because I can carry them with me wherever I go, I can download them conveniently, I can read them at night (backlit) without annoying my husband and while still keeping the lights out for our little boy so he goes to sleep. It’s great for reading bedtime stories to him. I have a TBR file of ebooks on my phone and computer, and another TBR file of paper books. In the time it takes me to go through one paper book, I usually read at least 2or 3 ebooks, simply because I always carry my phone with me but books are bulkier.

    Congrats on your iphone! I’ll read up on the Stanza, but I honestly love Android on my g1 tmobile phone. I especially love that everything is open. I’ve downloaded several different ebook format readers (wordplayer, repligo reader, fbreader) for either free or very cheap, and I already downloaded many books onto my phone. Just finished Heinlein YA last night and can’t wait to start something new today!

    I’ll also check out your ebooks you linked too. πŸ˜€

  15. Thanks to you, I went and added Stanza to my iPod.
    I’m inclined to agree with you that ebooks are indeed the future, as this type of publishing allows for easier and cheaper distribution (and blows the door wide open on self-publishing) but I don’t think mainstream publishing will ever fade out completely, simply because books are timeless in our culture. Also, making traditional books a thing of the past would all but doom libraries, since anyone anywhere can download an ebook. This blog gave me something to think about. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Ganymeder – I think there are a lot of people like you out there, more and more all the time. Thanks for buying my books – be sure to let me know what you think of them.

    Avery – With Kindle and Smashwords and places like that, the concept of self-publishing becomes absolute zero cost. Even review copies are free when you send ebooks. Of course, the battle against trad publishing and print publishing will be long and there are many, many issues surrounding both, but the face of the game is changing. Libraries might just be huge rooms full of monitors one day (though I seriously hope not!) But there’ll eventually be a balance between printed book and ebooks, with libraries and bookstores adjusting to the new ways.

  17. Oh, in response to the “feel” of reading a book, I remember the first ebook reader I got many years ago (can’t remember what brand) was very bulky and hard to read. The text was fine,but you couldn’t “turn” a page, it only scrolled which was annoying because I kept losing my place on the page, etc. I used it for a month and gave up on it.

    Now, most formats are pretty user friendly. I can “turn” a page by tapping a corner or even using a “turning” motion when I tap so it feels like I’m turning pages. I can adjust the screen to be light with dark text or (at night) visa versa. I can easily download tons of free ebooks and pay (usually) a reduced price for others. And I still don’t think that ebooks will be the death of paperbacks, because I’m more likely to shell out money for a paperback book that I’ve already read in eformat than one I haven’t. Plus, you can’t get ebooks autographed. πŸ˜‰

    As far as the death of libraries, I seriously doubt that as well. Libraries will certainly change and evolve, but libraries are more than just places to check out paperback books. There’s all sorts of media there, elibraries that link to the regular library’s site, DVDs, VHS, community meeting areas, children’s events, etc. Libraries serve an essential media and social function that I don’t believe will ever go away. They’ll just evolve with the times.

    As far as the Google Android phone (G1), what sold me on it was the fact that I could read pretty much anything in any format. I do have to download several different (mostly free) readers, but because many things are open, anyone can write a program to make things compatable and there’s no restrictions.

    I did have ereader on my Palm Pilot, but until ereader creates something for Android, I’m out of luck as far as my ereader books. They are supposed to come out with one soon, but this illustrates why an inbetween approach doesn’t work.

  18. Let me know if you want signed paperbacks of my books then, once you’ve enjoyed the ebook editions! πŸ™‚

    I think one of the things that sold me on the iPhone was that Stanza can read multiple formats. There’s still not a single device or software that can read all formats and this is the most important thing to change. Take away the proprietary format of devices and software so that everyone can read everything and sales will boost. Like MP3 players – there’s loads of different types and they all play MP3s. Make the content universal and let the consumer decide on the hardware they like.

    Then it’s a case of the publishers recognising that ebooks are different and charging less for them. I think that any more than US$5 for an ebook is too much.

  19. >> Libraries might just be huge rooms full of monitors one day (though I seriously hope not!) But there’ll eventually be a balance between printed book and ebooks, with libraries and bookstores adjusting to the new ways.<<

    Actually, one of the libraries I frequent has the entire top floor filled with nothing but monitors. It's great for people who don't have a computer and just want access, but I rarely use the computer at the library unless mine is on the fritz. But that same library has 2 large community meeting rooms, one for the children's department and one for adults, and they host lots of lit themed events.

    Also, forgot to mention it, but the comic format seems to work well on my cell phone (I can't compare to any others), because I got the Cory Doctorow comic adaptions (again,for free) and they "turn" the pages nicely and are very easy to read and follow.

  20. Hey, new iPhone, welcome to the club. Loving the convergence factor, definitely a central part of my routine these days. (Side note, got the WordPress app?)

    I’m not particularly attached to paper books, especially your standard run-of-the-mill ones, though I do love a beautifully designed and presented book (which is where I think the print niche will have to go). I’ve got Stanza, can’t say I like the feel very much, but it’s OK for a free app. I’m sure the commercial apps will be a bit nicer. Cool nonetheless.

    Like Mary above, I am leaning more towards audiobooks at the moment but given the right reading experience, I can see ebooks being my thing.

  21. Hey Hank. I do have the WordPress app. In fact, the phone hasn’t arrived yet and I already have ten apps sitting in my iTunes ready!

    I agree with you – like I said in the original post I think that only the most special books will be made like books are made these days. Everything else will be ebook or available POD if you want a hard copy. I don’t think the industry will be able to sustain anything else.

  22. e-books, ‘real’ books, it’s all in our minds, I think. I was raised a bibliophile and I’m sure I’ll always be one. But once we get our head around the fact that the words are the same in any format, then it matters much less how they are presented.

    By the way, our adopted child is no less our “real” child than our biological children are.

    Yes, I do know there is a massive difference between children and books. Sometimes, though, the books I write feel like children. If I can sell a few e-books during my lietime, I’ll be very happy with that.

    To that end, my latest book will be kindle ready by approx late October. Watch for it, folks!

  23. Interesting post and discussion. I’ve been thinking about ebooks and audio books for a few weeks…it must be on a lot of people’s minds from what I can see.

    Alan, can that iPhone of yours do audio books too? Maybe I should be looking into getting one of those things for myself instead of an ebook reader.

  24. Karen – absolutely, positively, yes! The iPhone is an iPod as well. I now use my iPhone for:

    Phone – obviously
    Camera – Not brilliant, but always in my pocket
    iPod – loads of music, podcasts and audiobooks
    eReader – Stanza for most ebooks, using Stanza Desktop to convert them
    Video player – in my other life as a Kung Fu instructor, I have loads of forms and details on video. These are now all converted and on the iPhone so I no longer need a portable DVD player or laptop and stuff like that

    I can also use the iPhone for online access when I’m out and about.

    That’s not even getting started on all the amazing apps you can get. For example, I have a couple of English/Chinese dictionaries, amazing games, a guitar tuner and loads more.

    Can you tell I love the iPhone?


  25. Alan, I’ve just posted a comment on Karen’s blog about “geographical restrictions” on ebooks. Have you not had any problem purchasing ebooks? Where do you buy them from?

    I really, really don’t want to give up my ebook habit if I can avoid it.


  26. Hi Vicki

    I read your comment here: http://www.karenleefield.com/blog/kindle-sony-and-the-iphone.html#comments and the subsequent announcement at eReader.com here: http://www.ereader.com/help/GeographicRestrictionsFAQ.htm

    Firstly, let me say that this just pisses me off. If I buy a paperback from Amazon do they check where it’s going? This kind of restriction is like region coding on DVDs and it’s just a pain in the arse and completely unneccessary. I’ve yet to have a problem, but I haven’t bought from any retailers other than Smashwords.com at this stage. All Smashwords titles are DRM free and I hope that includes regional coding. But I’ll be checking for sure. This would be a MAJOR problem for the future of ebooks if they persist with it, especially when they don’t have a local storefront.

  27. I agree with you 100%. A pain in the arse and completely unnecessary. I’ve probably purchased 300 or more ebooks in the last four years, and unless this geographic restriction nonsense is resolved soon, I will be forced to rethink my reading habits. Not happy.

  28. Thanks Vicki – interesting article. I like the simplicity of this I found in the comments:

    “two approaches I have seen reported to work are a) buy with micropay or b) buy with paypal. In both cases you first change your country to USA (say).”

    That would be a nice workaround and a nice fuck you to the ridiculous imposition of geographical restrictions. It’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

  29. Sadly, they’ve closed that loophole. Country of purchase is now based on IP address. πŸ™

    I’ve tried every workaround I can think of. Changing the account country code worked… for a while.

    What a coup, though, for the Australian (or international) publisher/etailer that eventually secures Australian digital rights for all these restricted books.

  30. Really? Oh well, once again the consumer bends over while the corporation sets the rules.

    The sad thing is that moves like this will only push more people to “unnofficial” purchases instead of those buyers actually supporting the authors and publishers.

  31. I said something to that effect in response to Nathan Bransford’s blog today about piracy. His comment:

    “Speaking as an agent, territorial rights are really challenging to keep on top of because publishers may or may not have the rights, and quite honestly, because the UK and Australia are behind the US in terms of e-reader adoption it doesn’t create much incentive to resolve those issues when there are so many pressing technological issues in the US to deal with.

    But hopefully this all will be resolved before you go rogue.”

    I read that as we’re too busy with our own problems to care. Maybe I’m wrong…

  32. Well, yes and no. Fundamentally he is saying that they’re too busy to care. When you have a country of 300 million, it’s easy to focus on yourself and think that’s all that matters. (Look at the baseball “World” Series, for example.)

    However, he also highlights another point in that Australia is a backwater in all kinds of publishing, especially the ebook/ereader revolution. Our problem is the opposite.

    If 0.1% of Americans get into something, that’s 300,000 people.

    If 0.1% of Australians get into something, that’s 22,000 people.

    Pretty big difference in demographic. Add to that the uptake of technology meaning that by the time 0.1% of Australians are doing something, 10% of Americans are and you can see why some issues are ignored over here.

    Of course, I’m pulling these %s out of my arse for the point of argument, but you get the idea.

  33. >>Of course, I’m pulling these %s out of my arse for the point of argument, but you get the idea.<<

    But isn't that painful? J/K!

    I personally can't wait for ebooks to become more standardized, which is what I think puts off so many people. I'm lucky that my Tmobile G1 (Android) phone can download multiple ebook readers for different formats, but not everyone has that choice. Also, imo, the other readers like Kindle just seem too damn expensive and then you're limited to only their format. At least with my phone, I also can call people as well as read differently formatted ebooks.

  34. ganymeder – I agree. With my iPhone I can use Stanza Desktop to convert pretty much any format to epub, which I can then read on the iPhone with the Stanza app. Convergence in devices needs to be matched with convergence in formats. It’ll happen, just slowly while the corporations scrap about who’s in control. Eventually they’ll realise, as they always do, that the consumer has the final say on control and things will start to standardise.

  35. Thanks for the thumbs up on Smashwords, Alan. Not only can I read to my heart’s content without worrying about geographical restrictions, but I can publish with ease in a variety of formats. I’ve already uploaded one novel. Thanks again.

    [Apologies if this has posted three times — having problems.]

  36. Hi Vicki – no, only once. I was at a convention last weekend and someone asked me what I did at Smashwords, because I was singing their praises so highly! They really are just that good, setting a model for the future of the industry as far as I’m concerned. Glad you’ve got something from them too.

  37. Honestly, not sure what sequence of link clicking got me here (I do know it started at Twitter) but I’m encouraged by your embracing of the eBook format. You probably have an iPad by now, given the absolute perfect tool that it is for consuming digital media.

    There’s a new startup in Sydney called The Bookisode that will be (they say) launching soon, selling books in 7500 word chunks (bookisodes) – 12 chunks per book (averages, of course). Any thoughts on that concept?

    Now I’m going to go check out smashwords…

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