The history of ebooks and the publishing business is longer than most people realize, but it took a long time both for development of the technology and attracting the interest of readers. Amazon introduced the Kindle e-reader in 2007. It’s one of those devices that seemed like an enormous gamble, took off like wild fire, and now feels like it has always existed. And of course, not everyone was happy to allow Amazon to profit so much from its revolutionary device.
Amazon didn’t invent the ebook or the e-reader. The idea of a machine for reading actually started in 1930, even before Penguin launched the mass-market paperback book industry, which also revolutionized the publishing business.
A writer named Bob Brown conceived of the idea of ebooks as he watched his first talking movie. He wondered why, if movies could have “talkies,” readers couldn’t have “readies.”
The early history of ebooks
In 1930, he published a book titled The Readies, in which he explained his idea. He wanted a machine “which I can carry or move around, attach to any old electric light plug and read hundred-thousand-word novels in 10 minutes if I want to, and I want to.” Such a machine would allow readers to adjust the type size, among other features.
Of course, wanting a machine does not mean having an idea how to make one, and there does not seem to have been a groundswell of enthusiasm for it. The practical history of ebooks only started at the end of the 20th century.
The first dedicated ebook readers did not appear until 1998: the Rocket Ebook and the Softbook. That same year saw the introduction of the first International Standard Book Number (ISBN) issued for an ebook and libraries starting to provide ebooks through their websites. In 2002, both Random House and Harper Collins started to sell digital versions of books. Sony issued its Sony Librie ebook reader in 2002.
The public pretty much ignored these earlier devices for reading them, however. Ebooks seemed like an idea consumers didn’t much want. Then came the Kindle, which is not only one way that Amazon has disrupted the publishing business.
Successful ebook readers
The Kindle, a major milestone in the history of ebooks, made it possible to download an entire book from Amazon in 30 seconds or so. It could store hundreds of titles. It used some kind of electronic ink, so its display looked like a printed page, and readers could use buttons on the gadget to turn the pages. On the other hand, it was black and white with no pictures. Who would pay $399 for that?
By now, we know the answer is that lots of people eventually bought one. The price plummeted. Today, a basic Kindle costs only about $100, up from $79 in 2012.
The publishing business took notice. In 2008, the first full year after Kindle’s debut, ebook sales made up only 1% of the revenue of the largest publishing houses and less than that for small and medium-sized publishers. After three years, ebook sales reached 20% of revenue for some of the major publishers.
Needless to say, Amazon’s rivals were not content to let the Kindle take over the entire market for reading ebooks. Barnes & Noble responded with the Nook. Apple launched the iPad. By that time, people could not only read ebooks in color, but approach them interactively. Amazon eventually introduced an app that enabled reading Kindle books on computers, tablets, and cell phones.
At first, each new device, each new file format required a different approach to publishing ebooks. That is, Kindle, Nook, and various other devices all required different formatting. By now, the industry has settled on one called EPUB. Even Amazon has abandoned its proprietary Kindle platform for EPUB.
The book publishing business embraces ebooks
Publishers began a flurry of activity to get their lists available electronically, but for years, ebooks remained an afterthought, an extension of traditional print publishing. But in 2012, sales of ebooks surpassed sales of hardcover printed books in the US, and by the end of 2013, accounted for 20% of book sales here. As it turns out, ebooks cost less to produce than printed books, which is an advantage for publishers.
The rise of ebooks, and especially the Kindle, has enabled authors to self-publish and avoid dealing with traditional book publishers entirely. Self-publication accounts for about a third of all ebooks. The number of new self-published books worldwide is growing at a faster rate than the the global publishing business in general. Of course, self-published books sell fewer copies than published books and many authors make no money at all from them.
What about printed books?
These days, sales of printed books in physical stores account for less than 20% of book sales. There are at least three reasons. One, Borders and other major bookstore chains have gone out of business, leaving the field mostly to Barnes & Noble and small, independent booksellers. Two, Amazon sells more printed books than physical stores do with a market share of about 40%. Three, publishers and authors can use social media to connect directly with readers and bypass the middlemen.
But don’t look for the funeral of print books any time soon. Most people, including most young people, prefer reading in print to reading ebooks. For one thing, they cause less eyestrain. The recession of 2008 took a toll on the sale of printed books, but sales started trending upward again in 2012.
Nonetheless, both the publishing business and the general public have come to depend on ebooks. What seemed like a gamble at first has paid off bigtime. The two formats coexist and will continue to do so. Probably more titles are available only as ebooks than only in print.
So have we come to equilibrium and stability in the book publishing business? Watch out for artificial intelligence!
The history of ebooks from 1930’s “readies” to today’s GPO ebook services / Government Book Talk
<The Impact of Technology on Publishing / Dean Talbot, WordsRated. March 2, 2023
A publisher’s perspective on ebooks / Andrea Fleck-Nisbet. American Libraries (link no longer works)
Self-published books & authors sales statistics  / Nicholas Rizzl, WordsRated. January 30, 2023