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e-Reading Devices are Already Here 

I know this will be new to some people; however, electronic readers (to be used with e-books) have been with us for a few years already. There are a few different brands and configurations from Sony (PRS-700), Microsoft (software-based), Amazon (Kindle 2), and others.

Butler (2009) reports some 1,200 students at the University of Texas at Austin will bypass printed books and will receive e-versions of their texts, which can be viewed and studied via their Kindles. Butler also noted that North West Missouri Sate University students will be testing Sony's e-readers and their own laptops with an eye toward "all e-books all the time" in the next five years. Thus, e-books (and perhaps e-textbooks) are finally on the edge of mainstream. Maybe.

Perhaps the most interesting and most popular e-reader is the Amazon Kindle. Amazon's new Kindle 2 is available at about $359 each. The e-books themselves often cost $9.99 each and Amazon has over a quarter of a million books to choose from. The Kindle 2 battery apparently lasts for days and the Kindle 2 has a wireless ordering system which allows you to buy and load a book (directly into the Kindle 2) in less than a minute, using cell phone technology. If you're in a no-cell zone, you can patch the Kindle 2 into a computer and acquire your e-book the old fashioned way, through your computer. The visual display screen has also received accolades for clarity, lack of power consumption and non-glare viewing.

Despite the multiple benefits of e-readers, there are unhappy consumers, too, especially with regard to pricing. Even though $9.99 per book sounds pretty inviting, many disgruntled customers point to the fact that e-book publishers have no shipping, no paper, no ink and no distribution costs, thus, lower prices might be in order. Further, although one can buy additional memory and store thousands of books electronically, one cannot give the finished book to a friend, nor can it be sold to the used bookstore or donated to the library or university. Butler reported that CourseSmart (a consortium of five publishers that account for 85% of global textbook sales) sells their 5,800 (or more) popular e-text books at about 50 percent of the cost for the same paper book. Sounds good. Then again, students usually lose access to the e-textbook after the class has been completed.

Butler reported that the average US.. college student spends about $900 annually on printed text books....so the potential for real savings is there. Of course, if new e-books were really, really cheap, say 3 to 5 bucks for a new audiology textbook (woah!) the publishers might wipe out the used book market and they would finally eliminate photocopying of books - as buying the e-book would be cheaper than copying it at Kinko's, and maybe the market penetration would increase dramatically, say from 15 percent to 85 percent? Maybe not.

I like paper books. I like to write in them as I read them and I like to save them. I use them for references and I sometimes (rarely) loan them out. I am not suggesting the end of books is near....it isn't. I certainly hope publishers continue to publish hardback and softback books for those of us that want, need, collect, and save them....but perhaps that should just be a small part of the business, while the vast mass market and global distribution of e-books seems poised to become the majority share of the business? Of course, there's more to it than meets the eye. I have often said, "All businesses look easy from the outside."

Seth Godin wrote in his blog (2009) regarding how to improve the distribution and lower the costs of e-books. He noted, e-books would be much better if they had "rights" along with them, such as to allow the reader to forward a purchased copy to a friend or two. He suggested publishers would benefit from the ability to send free samples to people who have expressed interest in a particular author or topic, and perhaps as a particular book increased in popularity, early purchasers might be able to get a rebate (perhaps a credit) from the publisher, thus inspiring additional sales.

Godin suggested that publishing open source textbooks as soon as possible to "demolish" the textbook market and he suggested some publishers may want to insert quizzes into e-books for CEU purposes. Godin suggests a "buffet" approach, too, such as "all the books you want for X dollars per week/month/year..." and he suggested shipping the Kindle (or any other e-reader) with $1,000 worth of free credits to light a fire under the e-book industry.

In his final analysis, Seth Godin pointed out that some publishers look at e-books and ask "how can I use it to augment my current business model." Rather, the question they should be asking is "how can I use this platform to create a new business model?" Some of these ideas may sound extreme, but then again...the recorded music industry pretty much tanked by not participating in the vast and inexpensive distribution of their products. As a result, profits tumbled, market share went away, and everyone started copying and file sharing anyway! It's hard to justify spending $15 to $20 on a CD, when Limewire (and many other web sites) offer the same sounds for free.

For More Information, References and Recommendations:
Amazon Kindle Online Demo

Amazon Kindle List of Titles and Prices

Butler, D. (2009):The Textbooks of the future. NATURE, Volume 458, No 2., April, 2009 Pages 568-570.

Godin, Seth Blog 2009: sethgodin.typepad.com

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