It started in the 1970s with the very beginning of Project Gutenberg, when a man decided to use his computer timeshare to email copies of the Declaration of Independence to everyone on the then-fledgling BITNET. It continued in various forms until the late 1990s, through Gutenberg and Wiretap, through Hero Games's experiment with the Hero Plus line of postscripted books on disk, and FASA's attempt to sell Earthdawn as a CD-ROM. But it was only in the late '90s that the e-book craze began to catch fire.

An electronic book is, of course, the text (and possibly illustrations) of a book, stored in digital form. It seemed like a revolutionary and subversive idea when it was first posited--and perhaps it still is a little too revolutionary for some. There have been multiple attempts at creating e-books, none of which is terribly compatible with any of the others: Dedicated readers such as the Rocketbook, Postscript files for the PC or laptop, TealDoc or Peanut Press files for the Palm Pilot, Visor, or Windows CE machine...or plain ASCII or HTML. Or the so-called Open E-Book Format--though it doesn't seem to be used by terribly many people yet. Downloadable file, floppy disk, or CD-ROM?

But no matter what format it is, it is questionable whether people will actually read an e-book rather than a dead tree. Surveys have shown that the great majority of the people who downloaded Stephen King's much-touted e-book Riding the Bullet...have not actually read it. Many people have reported eyestrain or difficulty reading from the devices available today.

And even if the eyestrain problem were solved tomorrow, with digital ink or some other new advance, it is uncertain whether people would change their reading habits. Electronic books create new problems consumers have never faced before. Sure you can download it instantly...but should you pay hardcover or paperback price for it? And you can't sell it (the way you can a used book) if you decide you don't like it.

These are some of the problems facing selling e-books today, even without addressing the new electronic vanity presses such as Fatbrain and iUniverse, which have problems of their own.

Fortunately, there are many excellent public domain books available electronically for free, thanks to Project Gutenberg, Wiretap, and sites such as the Palmtop Library. There would be more, but for the recent corporate-sponsored copyright extension.

Here are some reasons why e-books aren't taking off as the industry thought they would:

  • They are a solution in search of a problem. There's little they can do that regular paper books cannot, short of searching and indexing, which aren't useful features to most readers of popular fiction.
  • Regular books don't require batteries.
  • Regular books don't crash.
  • If I misplace a regular (paperback) book on the subway, I'm out five, maybe ten bucks. Less if I bought it used.
  • There's a huge market for used mass market books, which are a great value at typically half the cost of a new book. I buy many of my books used. No such market yet exists for e-books.
  • You can easily shake the sand out of a regular book after a day at the beach. You can probably even still read one after dropping it in the pool.
  • Paper is easy to read in bright sunlight, even with polarized sunglasses on.
  • When I'm finished with a regular book, I can loan it or give it away to someone else. I don't violate any copyrights by doing this, nor does it require the other person to own any special hardware, nor does it cost me much if they never return the book (see subway example above).
  • One of the great joys of reading books is going to a bookstore and browsing titles. Downloading books from a website or loading them up from electronic media is an activity that carries little sensory appeal.
  • Children learn to read from the printed page, and most of us have spent our lives reading that way. Many people find LCD and CRT displays more difficult to read than printed pages.
  • With regular books, I can have several open at a time, and easily refer to all simultaneously. Or I can put one aside and pick it up weeks or months later from the same spot. Or I can have one book in progress on the nightstand, another on the porch, and another somewhere else. All of these methods of reading are more easily accomplished with paper books than with any e-book system requiring dedicated hardware and separate media.

While all of twentyfivefortyone's ponts are valid, I love my e-book. When I bought it, I was looking for a light weight laptop I could carry around all the time, but I wasn't happy with any laptop I saw. Lots of them are hard to read in the sun, so working outside would be annoying. And the battery life tends to suck right now, or it is really heavy.

I bought the e-book to fill the gap while still looking for a laptop. What I found was that 1/2 of my laptop needs are fufilled by the e-book, and another 1/3 could be ignored as long as I have near by network access.

Mostly, I wanted to be able to read electronic documents offline without wasting paper by printing stuff out, especially documentation for free software. Also, I was sick of carrying around normal books.

My e-book does less than a regular PDA, but it makes up for this with a screen about the size of a paperback book.

To address the points above directly:

  • My e-book claims to have a battery life of 20 hours. I recharge mine about once every two days of heavy use. This is a lot better than a laptop could do right now.
  • I don't misplace my e-book, because it is now the only thing I carry, instead of a heavy bag full of oddly shaped slipping books.
  • There's a huge collection of free e-books I haven't read yet. Also, I can get the newspaper in e-book form, so I don't have to carry that or get the newspaper ink on my fingers.
  • Rumor is, you can put your e-book in a ziplock bag and read it at the beach, shower, bath, pool, whatever. (I've not tried this.) Try turning the pages of a regular book in a ziplock bag.
  • I picked my e-book specifically so I could read it in bright sunlight. It is far easier to read it than any laptop screen I've ever seen.
  • I keep my *gasp* booklist in my e-book. I take my e-book to bookstores and libraries just so I can remember what I am looking for, and not accidently pick up a book I'd already read or already own. I use to print this list up on a regular basis, and then not have it when I wanted it. It was awful.
  • Reading LCD and CRT screens is more difficult than reading paper, but I find the e-book about the same as regular paper.
  • With my e-book, I can flip between several books in the e-book with ease. It remembers where I was in each book. I can even bookmark them and name the bookmarks, and the bookmarks don't fall out or warp the pages of the book.
After getting the e-book, I started using it for all kinds of things I hadn't thought of when I bought it. Here's a list of things I have used mine for that you can't do with a normal book:
  • Normal books are annoying to read in the dark. My e-book is backlit. (And will run 20 hours with the backlight on.)
  • Normal books are annoying to hold open when you are doing other things with your hands. Turning pages can be even less fun with a regular book when you're short on free fingers.
  • You can fit the text of multiple normal books in the flash ram in an e-book. Adding another doesn't make it heavier, so you can carry things you might otherwise not have.
  • Things like phone lists that get updated frequently don't have to be reprinted and won't wear out if you carry it with you all the time. It's better than a written book, because you won't have to copy it over when the book fills up and gets out of order. (And you can search and index it in the e-book!)


N.b. I still read regular books. I do enjoy their feel, and not everything I want to read is available in electronic form. I got my e-book more for the reverse problem -- I had too much to read in electronic form that I just didn't want to print, and didn't want to read tied to a computer instead of outside enjoying the sun.

Ideally, in the future electronic paper will show up on the market, and you'll be able to take your e-book out of your pocket and unroll the screen to its full 20" size, along with a full size keyboard....

The e-book has a place in my life, quite different from the place that tangible books have in my life, but just as important. Neither can replace the other (yet).

Just to emphasize the correctness of diotina's excellent writeup (below), my e-book supports a subset of html, so it is fully capable of handling a fully hyperlinked document. Even so, the best linked document I've found is the jargon file. Even though 90% of what I put in it originates as hypertext, very few documents have much more than the table of contents linked to anything. Even online FAQs have this problem. (The perl and samba documentation seem to be well internally hyperlinked, but most of the rest is just linked table of contents with references I still have to search to find.)

The real failure of the e-book is in commercial content. I don't think anyone (consumer or publisher) has been happy with the copyright protection schemes or distribution methods used by e-books. Also, most e-books are not programmable, which severely reduces their usefulness. The success of e-books and continuing shrinking computer have inspired the tablet computer industry.

The printed word caters to two distinct needs: that for information and that of pleasure. The book has fulfilled these needs admirably for the last millennium or so. Now that technology has made the electronic book possible, one is left wondering whether human ambition should be to digitise everything that has ever existed in print. Quite apart from the unfeasible nature of this scheme, the realisation that it is unnecessary will hopefully help set priorities for electronic publishing.

The advantages of electronic publishing mainly cited are its accessibility, more reasonable pricing and that it can present text as hypertext. The first two advantages are not yet evident, as it is still cheaper to buy books than to purchase an e-reader (a special handheld device for reading e-texts) and that the texts that one desires may not be available in electronic format. Contingent to these developments of course, is the booklover’s eternal and justified complaint: the material form of the book that enhances much of the experience of reading, is lost forever. The potential of hypertext however remains unexploited in a market where publishers are resorting, rather randomly, to pre-existing popular texts or texts, though written for the medium, could just as well be published as a printed book and there would be no evident difference. An example of this was the online publishing of Stephen King’s e-book The Plant – an experiment based on the ideal and rather naïve assumption that this would lend a democratic aspect to the book – it could be read anywhere and for a pittance. But the failure of this experiment lay in the shortcomings of the screen as medium.


Hypertext then remains the trump card of the academic e-publishing industry. Educational institutions all over the world are benefiting from its applications: built-in dictionaries, search, bookmarking, highlighting, annotating capabilities and multimedia enhancements. McGraw–Hill’s Encyclopedia of Science & Technology is but one example of how non-fiction publishing can revolutionise the e-publishing market. Along with all the original print matter – over 7,000 articles – the online version incorporates 60,000 article-to-article hot links, 1,500 Internet links, as well as an electronic "suggestion box" for users, be they librarians or individual customers.


There is absolutely no doubt that hypertext has impacted literary studies in profound ways – increasing scholarly communication, accessibility to both canonised and unfamiliar texts, and as a natural progression wreaking havoc with the very concept of the canon itself. The technology spoken of earlier is capable of encapsulating hundreds, or even thousands of books, to be stored in a single volume. But literature itself, in its original avatar which gives pleasure and is appreciated for its own sake, is being bullied into being a digital presence. Sufficient attention is not being paid to the opportunities that the medium offers to today’s author. Instead of digitising existing backlists, publishers should exploit hypertext as a new way of seeing/reading. A radical hypertext equivalent of Joyce’s Ulysses or even Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, with the support of a major publisher is yet to find its way onto screens everywhere. The anxiety regarding the death of the printed word is baseless, as the e-book tends to fall, more or less into the category of an imprint, and is still far from creating a new literacy.


This writeup was triggered by an article in The Economist, dated December 9th, 2000, 'Digital Ink meets Electronic Paper.'


It's an important but often overlooked fact that people have a tendency to group several ideas together, then have trouble separating them again. Various media such as books and records are good examples of this, although there are other, more important examples too, from religions to political parties.

Let's concentrate on media for now, as the invention of the computer and the Internet has revolutionised all media that can be digitised, such as text, images, sound recordings, and video footage. Books, photos, albums and films are all on the verge of drastically changing form as they become digitised and freed from their limiting physical forms. Let's specifically focus on books, as they were the first to make the transition into their new form.

First, let's look at what a book is: a form of communication. It's a good idea to communicate your ideas to other people, and to let others communicate their ideas to you. This is how society becomes more than the sum of its parts, by free communication of ideas and trade of tangible things.

A particularly efficient way to communicate your ideas to many people is to write them down on a piece of paper. Since the invention of the printing press, it has been possible for one person's ideas to reach countless other people. The form this communication takes is called a book, and it's another good idea.

Of course, you already know what a book is, but if you sit down and really think about it, books have a pretty hazy definition. They combine several different ideas.

Some of these ideas are central to what a book is, such as the idea that it's a collection of many words grouped together to make a single point or tell a single story, or a collection of shorter such works. It's something written by one person or a handful of people, and given to anywhere from hundreds to millions of other people. It's a means of saying something once, with careful consideration, and then making copies of what was said so that many people can receive the exact same information, even if they are far away from the original author in both space and time. Books even outlive their original authors.

The "book" group of ideas also incorporates descriptions of the technology that was available at the time the book was introduced. Books are seen by most people as physically consisting only of drops of ink on paper. As a result of the original difficulty in duplicating them, they are also seen as precious, valuable things that must never be defaced. While this happened to be true for a long time, this ideal image of what a book should be is now outdated, whereas the other ideas about its function are still true. The grouping of these ideas together with the others is now holding back what a book can be, thanks to recent technological progress. It is time to separate, in our minds, form from function.

For instance, consider audiobooks. These are books that have been spoken aloud, and the sound has been recorded for posterity. This means that not only does everyone get to hear the exact same words, which have hopefully been carefully considered before committing them to a book, but everyone can also hear them with the exact same inflections and intonations. Assuming the narrator in question was chosen because of her or his skill at speaking enthusiastically and clearly, this can be an improvement over reading the book to yourself in your mind.

Now there is another emerging type of book, which has been slowly creeping into the public consciousness since its invention in the early nineteen seventies when Michael S. Hart typed up the Declaration of Independence: the e-book. These are a lot closer to the ink and paper kind of books, being presented to people visually rather than through speech, but they present several important improvements over their spiritual ancestors.

Computers are great - even better than the printing press - at copying things. They're great at making exact copies, at storing them, and at sharing them. This is taken for granted, but the implications of everyone having the ability to copy and share any information are still causing a lot of battles in the courts.

For a computer, text in particular is trivially easy to deal with, much easier than pictures, sound clips and videos. By today's digital storage standards, e-books are tiny, often weighing in at somewhere between about fifty kilobytes and a megabyte each. A compact disc designed to hold seventy-four minutes' worth of music can hold literally thousands of e-books.

Thanks to the Internet, moving them around from one place to another - technically copying, not moving, as the original stays put - is fast and easy. I've effortlessly copied e-books from the Project Gutenberg server in America to my home computer in the UK, and sent copies to my friend in New Zealand, all in a matter of seconds.

While we may take such luxuries for granted, consider how the ink and paper kind of book fares by comparison. It has to be lugged around to get from one place to another. It takes several days to post one to another country. Although it can be photocopied or copied by hand, it would take hours or days, not seconds. There would be no easy way for you to check if your handwritten copy contained errors. You could compare them side by side, taking another few hours, but would be just as likely to miss the errors as you were to create them in the first place.

In the case of oldfashioned books, the raw information is permanently stuck to the equipment, the ink and paper, required to view, store and manipulate it. This is grossly inefficient as doing anything with the text itself inherently involves using that one specific form it happens to have taken. Electronic books are a more efficient medium precisely because they extract the raw information from its arbitrary physical form, allowing it to take one of many others, from punchcards to tapes to disks. The redundancy is minimised, as one piece of equipment, such as a computer or a purpose-built e-book reader, can be used to view, store and manipulate all of a person's books. This saves an awful lot of shelf space.

E-books, then, are books that are easily copied, transported, and amended. They have all the advantages of ink and paper based books, namely the ability to communicate one person's ideas to many other people, in different places and further on in time. They combine the best ideas that the concept of a book has to offer, with the best ideas that digital copies of things have to offer.

While many argue that paper books still have their place, as they can be read even when wet, and their look and feel can be romanticised, I'm already starting to forget what it was like before I carried around in my bag Leonardo Da Vinci's journal, Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and several dozen other historic books, all bookmarked, all searchable, and all instantly obtained for free.

Back to Digital Revolution | On to The Digital Revolution, Part Three: Copyright

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