In just a few short years, MP3 downloads and the iPod changed the face of the music industry. CDs are going the way of the dodo, and high-street music stores fear for their future. Now there's a new revolution on the horizon; this time in the realm of books.
For nearly 600 years – since the invention of the printing press – the printed book has reigned supreme as the "technology" of choice for reading. But this looks set to change as more publishers, and even authors, put out their titles in digital format as "ebooks".
These come in a number of formats, the most ubiquitous being PDF, which is readable on computers and mobile devices (including Palm handhelds and the iTouch), as well as on dedicated ebook hardware such as Iliad Reader.
A number of pointers suggest that the ebook revolution is about to break big. The book publisher HarperCollins, for example, has launched a new ebook service tailored to work with Apple's iPhone. The new "Browse Inside" service will allow users to view the first 10 pages of the first two chapters of upcoming publications. After reading the pages, users will be given the option of pre-ordering the book.
And, just last week, the Booker Prize Foundation announced that – in conjunction with the British Council – it would release this year's shortlisted books as ebooks, including the winning title The Gathering by the Irish novelist Anne Enright. The hope is to pick up new audiences, particularly in Africa and Asia, which currently aren't able to access the titles.
Early reports suggested that the ebooks, expected to be available next year, would come as free downloads. But a spokesperson for the British Council said this would not be the case, although "it is true that the British Council is in negotiations with leading publishers to create an online collection of contemporary literature, including the Man Booker Prize winners, in the form of ebooks, which can be purchased".
The issue of pricing is an important one. Production costs for ebooks are far less than for printed books. You don't have to take paper, ink, thread and glue into account. Nor do you have to worry about delivery costs or warehouse storage. The process is electronic from start to finish – unless, of course, the customer wants to print some or all of the ebook (but that's their choice).
So, in theory, ebooks should be cheaper than their print counterparts, right? Well, often they are. But a quick search on ebook.com reveals that the ebook edition of James Patterson's 2007 title You've Been Warned is selling for $17.99, while a hardback copy can be got from Amazon.com for $15.39 (though you would have to add the cost of postage).
Discrepancy in pricing has been an issue in the music world, with MP3 downloads not always much cheaper than CDs. This was one reason why Radiohead this month released their new album In Rainbows on an online " honesty box" basis. The band wanted to find out what people would pay. There was a risk it would be treated as a freebie, but an internet survey of 3,000 people who downloaded the album found that most paid about £4.
Quibbles over price aside, there are some who believe the printed book is in its last days. "While print is not yet dead, it is undoubtedly sickening," says Jeff Gomez (http://printisdeadblog.com), an advocate of digital publishing and the director of marketing at Holtzbrinck Publishers (owners of Farrar and St Martins Press, among others). " Newspaper readership has been in decline for years. Magazines are also in trouble. And trade publishing – the selling of novel and non-fiction books to adults primarily for entertainment – has not seen any substantial growth for years."
Gomez is putting his money where his mouth is. His latest book Print Is Dead: Books In Our Digital Age, published by Macmillan Palgrave on 13 November, is released simultaneously in print and digital editions. He's also posted one-third of the book online for free.
Clearly, a book boldly declaring the demise of the printed book is obliged to have a digital edition. But Gomez believes it will help him reach more readers. "More and more people are turning away from traditional methods of reading," he says. "They're turning instead to their computers and the internet for information and entertainment – their lives are becoming increasingly digital."
Add handheld wireless devices to that, and it's clear that people are becoming more connected than ever. But, according to Gomez, the needs of an entire generation – people he calls "digital natives" (kids who have grown up with the internet and are accustomed to the whole world being only a mouse-click away) – are going unanswered by the traditional print media.
"For this generation, which Googles rather than going to the library, print seems expensive, a bore and a waste of time," he says. "What can a book give them that a blog or website can't?" Gomez insists these are the questions that the publishing industry must face.
However, the London literary agent Andrew Lownie (www.andrewlownie.co.uk) warns that it is too early to be sounding the death knell of the printed book. "The publishing industry has for some time been preparing itself for the ebook revolution, and agents have been giving thought to the contractual issues surrounding them, but the revolution hasn't taken place," he says.
"Only this morning, I was looking at the royalty statements for an author, one of the few on my list whose work is published as an ebook. His paperback sales to the end of September for a book published in February were 36,345 copies. The audio CD sales for the same period were 721 and those for digital download were 32."
Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997), is equally sceptical about the idea of an ebook revolution. She believes there is no substitute for the printed book. "For reading, you have to read a book in its entirety," she says, "and I think there's no substitute for the look and feel and smell of a real book, the magic of the paper and thread and glue."
And what about the incredible success of Harry Potter? Surely that proves the traditional book market is robust? Not according to Gomez: "The significance of the Harry Potter phenomenon is that it has largely been restricted to Harry Potter," he says. "Studies have shown that, despite the mega-success of JK Rowling's novels, kids are not reading more books. Instead they read the Harry Potter books, period, and then go back to playing video games or surfing the web."
As an author myself, I have ventured into ebooks and can certainly vouch for the fact that there is a demand for them. My first book came out in 2000 under the pen name Doktor Snake. It was published by St Martins Press in the US and fast became a cult classic. After that, I wrote as Jimmy Lee Shreeve. But reader reviews on Amazon.com were saying: "Write more Doktor Snake." So I did – but as 20,000-word ebooks, which I sold from my website at $7.77 each. To date, I've sold about 5,000, more or less by word of mouth. Not only are readers happy, but I get all the proceeds from sales rather than the 10 per cent I normally receive from my publishers.
Whether this will set a trend or not, I don't know. But a number of authors of my acquaintance have been following suit. So with that – and the fact that more and more of us do much of our reading online – I'd say the smart money is on Gomez being right that an ebook revolution is just around the corner.
Jeff Gomez's Print Is Dead blog is at http://printisdeadblog.com. Andrew Lownie:www.andrewlownie.co.uk. Jimmy Lee Shreeve; www.jimmyleeshreeve.com
Read all about it: sites and software
* Ebooks.com, The Digital Bookstore
Here, you'll find more than 100,000 popular, professional and academic ebooks from the catalogues of the world's leading publishers. There is also a good selection of science fiction books, including some of the more obscure Philip K Dick titles. Offers free excerpts from new and noteworthy titles. Prices: $5-$95
* Project Gutenberg
20,000 free ebooks available for download. Run by volunteers from around the world. Popular titles include The Manual of Surgery and Custom and Dress During the Middle Ages and During the Renaissance Period. Prices: free
* WH Smith Ebooks
Large selection includes A Book for the Seriously Stressed by Geoff Thompson and No More Mr Nice Guy! by Robert A Glover, PhD. Offers graphic novels and ebook vouchers. Prices: £2-£12
* Reinventing Yourself
This is the site to go for if you're tracking down hard-to-get titles from the likes of Colin Wilson (including the excellent biography GI Gurdjieff : The War Against Sleep) and the psychologist Abraham H Maslow. Plus a big range of self-improvement books from Steve Chandler. All its ebooks are very well produced. Prices: $9.95-$25
Free ebooks, classics and new titles too, including Health Secrets of the Stone Age by Philip J Goscienski MD and Catalyst by Paul Byers. Your front cover is customised to include your name. Wowio is currently US-only, but titles will soon be available in the UK. Worth bookmarking for the future. Prices: free.
Penguin titles in ebook format, including A Death in Vienna by Daniel Silva and Losing Gemma by Katy Gardner. Requires Microsoft Reader (free download), and you can't print out ePenguin titles. Prices: £5-£12
* Palm eBook Store
Big range of titles for users of Palm handhelds, including Alan Greenspan's The Age of Turbulence and William Irwin's The Matrix and Philosophy. Lots of categories and genres from mystery and detective to new age and contemporary fiction. Prices: $2.99-$25
* Google Book Search
Powerful search tool for all books, and well worth using to track down ebooks. Results include paid-for and free titles. Paid-for books usually offer some degree of free content for you to view, and thus decide whether or not to buy. Prices: free and paid-for
Dedicated Ebook Hardware
* Sony Reader
Six-inch screen, paper-like display. Easy to read in full daylight and indoors. Zooms text without loss of resolution. Lightweight and long battery life. Holds 80 average-sized books. Also displays MS Word documents, blogs, newsfeeds and image files. Price: $279.99 from SonyStyle.com, USA
* StarEbook Reader (STK-101)
Six-inch display. SD card memory allows you to store as many ebooks as you like. Built-in MP3 player. Only 0.8mm thick and very lightweight. Low power consumption. Price: £359.98 from Udiggit.com
* iRex Iliad
Sharp, stable display, readable in bright sunlight. Navigation and annotation by stylus. Rechargeable, Wi-Fi connectivity. Price: £433 from Iliadreader.co.uk. Software (all free downloads)
* Microsoft Reader
Read ebooks in Microsoft Reader format on your PC, laptop, Tablet and Pocket PC.
* Adobe Acrobat Reader
Industry standard for reading PDF ebooks. Works on PCs, Macs and Linux.
* Foxit Reader
A fast, lean alternative to Adobe Acrobat Reader. Versions for Windows Mobile and Linux, but not for Macs.
* MobiPocket eBook Reader
Works on Windows PCs, Palm OS, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian OS. MobiPocket.com offers a large ebook store.
* Ybook (paperback emulator)
For Windows and Tablet PCs. Text sizes from tiny to huge. Has a textured background so pages look like real paper. Aimed at free-from-copyright ebooks.Reuse content