What is an e-book?

E-books, also written as Ebook, EBook, eBook, or ebook, stands for electronic book.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, an e-book is “an electronic version of a printed book which can be read on a personal computer or hand-held device designed specifically for this purpose”.

The history of the e-book

The first e-books tended to be technical manuals for hardware, manufacturing techniques, and other subjects.

In 1993, Digital Book, Inc. offered the first 50 digital books on floppy disk using dbf (digital book format) and in 1996 Project Gutenberg published 1,000 titles online.  The target is 1,000,000

One of the first e-books to receive national recognition was published and released by Stephen King. It was titled `Riding the Bullet`, and it could only be read on a computer; it was download 400,000 times within 24 hours.

Online Originals was the first e-book publisher to win mainstream book reviews (in The Times) and a nomination for a major literary prize (the Booker Prize).

However, not all authors have endorsed the concept of electronic publishing. J.K Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, has stated that there will be no e-versions of her books.

E-books today

E-books are usually read on dedicated hardware devices known as e-Readers or e-book devices. In a nutshell an e-reader is the handheld electronic device, an e-book is the title and text of the story it shows.  Nowadays  personal computers, netbooks, electronic tablets, PDAs and mobile phones can also be used, especially to read documents in different formats.

Currently three e-book readers dominate the market, Amazon’s Kindle model or Sony’s PRS-500 and Bookeen with Cybook Gen3 and Cybook Opus.

As of August 2009 there are over 2 million free books available for download.

Most e-book readers have only monochrome displays, although the technology lends itself to the embedding of images and even animations.

The benefits of e-books

The main benefit of an e-book is you can carry and read multiple books at the same time, without lugging around heavy books (I really wish they’d been around when I was at university). With the addition of extra memory the sky is the limit.  This has got to be good news for students around the world, and their spines.

Most e-book readers allow you to bookmark pages and annotate or highlight parts of the book.  Which is especially useful when reading academic texts.

Depending on the device you have the ability to enlarge fonts past standard large-print size.

Text in an e-book can be searched and cross-referenced using hyperlinks.

With the right device you can read an e-book low light or even total darkness.

An e-book is (or should be) easy to order instantly online, and it can be downloaded and viewed in a matter of minutes.

Publication and distribution costs are reduced, so they are (or should be) cheaper to buy.

Text-to-speech software can be used to read the text and because it’s in electronic format there is the ability to translate books into many different languages.

An e-book can be offered indefinitely, without ever going “out of print”.

You can keep backups of e-books.

It is easier for authors to self-publish e-books (see also downside).

Trees like them.

The downside of e-books

In a repeat of the VHS / Beta fiasco and the production of Land 1 / Land 2 DVDs, there’s the same kind of nonsense going on in the e-book market.  A variety of formats are being used to create and publish e-books.  Every format has its proponents and champions, and debates over which format is best can become intense.   So, some books available as an e-book cannot be read on some e-book readers because they are not supplied in a format those readers allow.

Some e-book formats use DRM (digital rights management) and so they cannot be backed up. If a book is accidentally lost or deleted, you have to repurchase it.  It also restricts the ability to lend or resell the book.  There’s not going to be much of a second hand book market if this continues.  Many publishers aren’t producing an e-book equivalent of their printed books and in some cases the product quality is lower or it is released later.

Once you rely on technology, that technology can become obsolete.  Hardware and software become extinct at a distressing rate.

You can’t get a feel for the book before you buy it, even though some publishers have extracts available, you can’t read the ending first!  This is a tragedy for many people.

Reading e-books requires an electronic device and software. Even in the case of reading it on a personal computer one already has, it may require additional software.

Reading an e-book requires power; in the case of mobile use, the battery can go flat, just as you’re reaching the end of the book.

E-book readers can malfunction and e-books can be damaged due to faults in hardware or software. If you drop an e-book reader it might break.

If you put a book down and forget it, or it gets stolen, you’ve lost a book.  If you put an e-reader down and forget it or it’s stolen, you might lose your whole library.  And an e-book reader is far more likely to be stolen than a book.

E-books can be easily hacked through the use of hardware or software modifications and widely disseminated on the Internet and/or other e-book readers, without approval from the author or publisher. This ease of piracy is a significant drawback for publishers.

Screen resolution of reading devices is currently lower than actual paper, so reading in the wrong light or on the wrong setting could strain the eyes, and some readers are difficult to read in bright sunlight.

E-book readers are an environmental hazard and they’re non-biodegradable.

It is easier for authors to self-publish e-books, this means the marketplace could be flooded with bad literature, and I mean even worse than it is currently.  Hey!  Even I could write an e-book and launch it on an unsuspecting world.

The Future of the e-book

It looks as if e-books could be the future of publishing and not just a niche market for geeks.  With the release of Amazon’s Kindle device and Barnes and Noble’s Nook device, there’s now a mainstream market for e-books, and secret plans for e-readers from Microsoft (Courier) and Apple (Tablet) have been leaking on blogs for months. Even newspapers and magazines are getting in on the act, seeing a lifeline to monetize content.

Someday, our schools and universities will be using e-readers, and new text books, teaching materials, and notes will only be released in e-book format.

Roger Fidler, programme director for digital publishing at Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri said that most publishers are looking at e-readers as simply a fourth platform for delivering content — besides print, Web and mobile.

Like the dinosaurs of the music industry, they may eventually get the point, e-books could be books, but better.  Extra insight from the author, images without the extra cost of printing, embedded dictionaries, the ability to ask questions about the book, set up book reading circles, read along with your favourite author, add a bit of mood music, and maybe even digital book-signings.  The sky’s the limit, or should I say the imagination is the limit.

But, there is a downside to all this, in the same way the music industry is feeling the pinch of downloadable music, many publishers will scream “foul” when e-books really take off.  DRM can and will be hacked, the good news is the marketplace will be that much bigger.

Sponsored by Technology Made Easy.

Since I wrote this the iPad has made an appearance. But before you think of buying one as an e-book reader, read this article: http://txfx.net/2010/09/14/ipad-vs-kindle/