The rise of the e-reader

Read on everything from Kindles to iPads, the e-book has undergone a massive uspwing in popularity - and its success mirrors that of another, much older innovation in publishing.

A commuter uses a Kindle while riding the subway in New York June 1, 2009. Taiwanese display maker Prime View International said on Monday it would pay about $215 million for E Ink, whose flexible digital displays are used in Amazon's Kindle and the Sony Reader. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES MEDIA BUSINESS)
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During the final weeks of 2010, I happened to undertake a rapid survey of the emerging cultural landscape - though that wasn't really my intent at the time. It happened while walking up the aisle of an aeroplane, about halfway through a four-hour flight. Among those passengers not sleeping or talking to one another, I noted a handful of ways of diverting themselves. About one third were reading books, magazines, or newspapers. Another third were focused on their laptop computers - usually watching movies or playing games, though at least one person was intently attending to a spreadsheet.

So far, then, so familiar. You might have seen the same pastimes underway on a trip five years ago - or 15, for that matter. But this time, I noticed another category of passengers: the dozens of people who were using ebook readers of one kind or another.

We amateur sociologists tend to use a very impressionistic sort of statistical analysis, so keep that in mind. But after making another trip through the cabin, my estimate was that about as many people were using an e-reader as were consuming print publications. Some were using devices such as the Kindle or the Nook, intended specifically and exclusively for reading text, while others had digital tablets that could also run video or other sorts of files. Alas, I have no data on precisely what people were reading. The stewardesses clearly wanted me out of the way, making it difficult to snoop… that is, to research the matter further. But the gizmos were used by people of both sexes, and various ages and races. No demographic peculiarities were evident.

Neither (and this was the most striking thing) did their fellow passengers seem to be paying much attention to the devices. Even a year earlier, someone using an e-reader in public could expect to be interrupted by strangers asking how they liked it. That is, perhaps, the clearest sign that 2010 was the year when digital reading devices really broke through - becoming so commonplace that they started to be taken for granted.

It helped, of course, that the prices began to fall dramatically just a few months earlier. The online bookseller Amazon had begun offering the Kindle, the best-known such device, in late 2007, at a price of about $400 US. It was the sort of commodity charged with an aura of conspicuous consumption, even after the cost began to go down. In August 2010, with a number of competing digital readers already on the market, Amazon reduced the price of the Kindle to about $140. The Sony Ebook Reader is now available for roughly the same price, as is the Nook, sold by Barnes & Noble.

As the influential publisher André Schiffrin notes in his recent book Words and Money (Verso), there was a time when the ballpoint pen was an outrageously expensive luxury item. The comparison seemed particularly apt when, a couple of week ago, my wife reported seeing digital readers on sale at a neighborhood drugstore - not as cheap as a box of Bics, just yet, though the trend is clear.

And with affordability, the actual benefits of the device stand out more sharply. Each one is able to store hundreds of books, pamphlets, and magazines. You can also download newspaper articles and other forms of text as well as graphics (though the quality of the image on the screen is highly variable). No accident, then, that such an item is so appealing to a traveller; it allows you to carry a library in your pocket. It is also possible to change the size of the type - adjusting text to the needs of the reader. It is a commonplace that young people have an almost instinctual affinity for digital technology. But in this case, we have a device seemingly designed with the middle-aged eyeball in mind.

The year's most extravagant claim for the transformative power of ebook readers came from Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, best known now for launching the One Laptop Per Child campaign in developing countries. During a conference in August, Negroponte quoted a recent report that Amazon was selling 143 digital books for every 100 hardbacks and proclaimed that the old-fashioned, paper-and-ink book would be dead within five years.

One hesitates to contradict a digital visionary when he is feeling the vapours - for example, by pointing out that Amazon, which sells an e-reader, has an interest in further hyping its own wares. (The online bookstore is responsible for some 70 to 90 per cent of e-book sales.) The ratio of e-book to hardback sales is impressive, but it ignores the vast markets for paperbacks and secondhand books. Negroponte made lightly condescending remarks about how attached some people are to libraries. Evidently, a taste for "p-books" - to use the queasy neologism for the old-fashioned paper artifacts - will soon be anachronistic and eccentric. But this insistence on framing the relationship between print and digitality as a zero-sum contest is profoundly thoughtless.

So it seems, anyway, to someone who owns one digital reader and a few thousand volumes of the older variety. I am biased in favor of reading itself, rather than towards one format. But for that very reason, I've been left to wonder lately whether there is a glimmer of truth in Negroponte's prophecy of the impending world-historical triumph of the e-book. This summer, he was very specific about the timetable. It would not take a decade, he said: "It's happening in five years." The scale and the schedule of this apocalyptic vision may be wildly overstated. But the course of the past 20 years suggest that 2010 was the tipping point for a deep transformation in how people relate to the written word.

As it happened, this year marked the 20th anniversary of the birth of the worldwide web, a system that turned the hitherto abstruse space of the internet into something readily navigable - and, within a few years, habitable, as people started spending more and more time there. The long-term effects on all forms of mass media are too familiar to need revisiting. By the mid-1990s, some book publishers were trying to anticipate the effect of the internet on their trade, as the British sociologist John Thompson reminds us in Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Industry in the Twenty-First Century, published by Polity in October.

For a long time, thought, the impact was minimal - or rather, felt in marketing and publicity, rather than in the production of the books themselves. The appearance of best-selling horror writer Stephen King's novella Riding the Bullet in a digital edition in March 2000 seemed, at the time, as if it might be a turning point: it sold half a million copies within about a day. But one of the graphs in Thompson's study suggests otherwise. It shows the wholesale revenue for e-book sales in the United States, by quarter, between 2002 and 2009. For most of that period, the market barely has a pulse.

Quarterly sales of more than 10 million dollars only begin at the start of 2008 - not long after Amazon introduced its Kindle, at that point still a pricey item. But then sales take off, growing almost 600 per cent by the final quarter of 2009. This represented about three per cent of total book sales. In the intervening year, that growth has continued to accelerate. The New York Times reports that e-books "now make up 9 to 10 per cent of trade-book sales," with publishers "predicting that digital sales will be 50 per cent higher or even double in 2011 what they were in 2010."

Given the publishing industry's history of overblown expectations for e-books, Thompson writes with understandable scepticism about the surge of the past three years. He notes that "the new reading devices have not been around long enough to know whether the upsurge in e-book sales that followed their introduction was a temporary blip generated by the novelty of the devices and their intensive promotion or the beginning of a sustained pattern of sales growth". And he avoids making predictions, given that projecting sales in publishing over a five-year period is, he says, "like trying to predict the weather in six months' time", since this involves "so many incalculable factors, from as yet unknown technological innovations to the habits and tastes of readers".

Arguably, though, we can see "the habits and tastes of readers" beginning to change in the very pages of Thompson's book. Looking at the graph of e-book sales over the past decade, I noticed that the curve was somewhat familiar. It resembled one found in an essay by Franco Moretti, the Italian literary critic, who has in recent years been studying the development of the novel using number-crunching methods.

For example, Moretti charts the rise of the novel in various countries during the 18th and 19th centuries by tabulating how many new titles appeared each year. In each case, the curve is the same. It starts out with just a handful of novels appearing in a country, year after year. Then something happens. It picks up momentum, and the curve goes up - slowly at first, then taking off like a rocket.

The graph reveals, in effect, the emergence of a new market. But more than that, it charts the emergence of a new form of reading. People had developed a taste for novels; they were growing accustomed to consuming new ones regularly. The novel was a kind of book - but also a kind of habit. The curve of e-book sales resembles that chart. Or so it seemed to one observer as he looked around the cabin at one point in 2010, with his fellow passengers absorbed in the text on their screens.

Scott McLemee is a recipient of the US National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.