I've spent years on the bleeding edge of electronic reading, starting with a Handspring Treo 600. Back then, in 2003, I used Plucker to download Web pages which I later read on the subway and sidewalks, during my commute between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Since then I've only increased my electronic reading, and early last year I stopped buying paper books. I now routinely read fiction ebooks on my iPhone in BookShelf, Eucalyptus, Instapaper, and Amazon's Kindle for iPhone app.
I know I'm atypical, but it's clear that reading fiction electronically is beginning to take off. Reading ebooks is different in many ways from reading paper books, and some of the changes have far-reaching and interesting implications for people and businesses beyond readers and booksellers. Obviously publishers, resellers, and device manufacturers are keenly aware of this turmoil and frantically trying both to figure out what's going on and to ensure they are still viable in the new world - this tension has been palpable at the recent O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conferences. Of course, all this is complicated by the fact that nobody knows exactly what that new world will look like.
I don't know how many fiction authors have fully grasped the personal ramifications, though. The very nature of ebooks, compared to paper books, is bound to have profound implications for what we read, with the largest challenge coming from an unexpected group: authors who long ago passed from this world, but whose books remain alive. In other words, zombies.
Mobile Phones Point the Way to Ebook Readers -- What could cause this sea change? After all, despite the continual improvements in reading technologies, many people are upset by the idea of reading anything but a paper book. They think of themselves as Luddites, refusing to use the newfangled technology - forgetting that today's paperbacks and hardcovers are themselves highly refined technology that we have been perfecting for thousands of years, developing and then obsoleting cuneiform, papyrus, illuminated manuscripts, and hand-set type presses along the way.
But the refusal of some adults to change their habits is irrelevant in the long run. Mobile phones are just as much a part of children's environments as books, and many young people don't have the habit of reading on paper. Instead they are accustomed to reading and writing Web pages, text messages, Facebook updates, and even email on computers and smartphones. Books are longer and (currently) less interactive, but there's no question that our kids will read them online. Short fiction is already popular on simple "feature phones," which are much less capable reading devices than smartphones and dedicated ebook readers.
And it's amazing how rapidly the experience of reading on an electronic device is improving. Modern smartphones use color LCD and LED screens with excellent resolution, color and responsiveness - my iPhone offers six times as many pixels as the Treo 600, enabling far superior font and image display, and Google's Nexus One and the Verizon Droid have even more impressive screens that display 800 by 480 pixels or better. Although it doesn't have the color or responsiveness of LCD and LED screens, the E Ink screen used in the Kindle and Nook has effectively solved the battery life and glare problems. And the 9.7-inch screen on Apple's iPad is gorgeous - full color at 1024 by 768 pixels. At this rate of evolution, in another dozen years I almost expect free ebook readers (subsidized by ebook vendors, as cellular phones are now), which never need recharging or run out of space.
It's significant that the iPhone and iPad share the iPhone OS, the Kindle runs Linux, and the Nook runs Google's Android cellphone operating system, which is also based on Linux. That's a good indicator of impending convergence for ebook readers and mobile phones, as are the component-level similarities - the differences basically come down to sizes, screens, and lack of microphones.
While there's no difficulty seeing how mobile phones are taking over the world, it's more difficult to determine the actual popularity of ebook reading devices given Amazon's steadfast refusal to divulge sales figures for the Kindle, although analysts have estimated that there may be 1,000,000 Kindles out there. Sony claims it sold 300,000 of its Readers between their introduction in 2006 and late 2008, but no new numbers have been forthcoming. Amazon did reveal that it sold more Kindle ebooks than physical books on Christmas Day, 2009, but that's deceptive because anyone who received a Kindle on Christmas Day would have started buying books that day, whereas paper books given on Christmas were all ordered ahead of time. So Christmas was likely one of Amazon's worst days for physical book sales, exaggerating the spike in ebook sales.
Whatever the actual sales to date, electronics companies clearly believe the potential market is huge, which accounts for the numerous ebook reading devices that have been announced to compete with the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle, including the Barnes & Noble Nook, QUE proReader, Skiff Reader, and IREX Digital Reader, not to mention's Apple's iPad, due in April.
The irony is that our most advanced technology may in fact be responsible for the rise of undead authors.
Zombies Start to Take Over Book Catalogs -- Reading on paper is constrained by physical availability of books, but the Internet has already solved this problem for ebooks. Twenty years ago almost all books came from bookstores, libraries, or schools. The first major change in book availability was the replacement of many small bookstores, each with their own unique set of titles for sale, with more homogeneous chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders. People adjusted to the changes in what was on sale but limited shelf space kept the zombies at bay, as bookstores focused on new books from living authors, largely relegating classic works from undead authors to dusty top shelves.
Next a variety of Internet vendors appeared, offering much larger catalogs of physical books. Since then ordering books online has become commonplace, with Amazon holding unquestioned dominance in this market. Concern about the impact of the loss of small bookstores and physical bookstores in general aside, we have much more choice in reading materials today than when I was a kid, mostly thanks to the Internet. And where did much of that choice come from? Zombies like L. Frank Baum, whose Wizard of Oz books were suddenly as accessible (if not as popular) as J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.
The third transformation has just begun, as our ebook catalog choices explode. On the commercial side Amazon is easily the best known, with 390,000 Kindle ebooks available as of December 2009 (compared to the millions they sell in paper form). But commercial vendors are clearly adapting their existing business models for ebooks. Selling bits is easier in many ways than selling atoms: gratification is instant and Internet bandwidth is much cheaper than printing or shipping. This is a relatively simple shift, with a much lower barrier to entry than opening a physical bookstore.
The non-commercial side of this third transformation is more radical for the zombies, though, because catalogs of free books combine the best aspects of booksellers and public libraries, making available vast numbers of books for immediate download with no limitations. Project Gutenberg offers about 30,000 free ebooks (largely out-of-print classic works from zombie authors, as they are what people take the time to post) for download in a variety of formats. Google Books is commercial, but already offers 500,000 free titles. Project Gutenberg may not be nearly as famous as Amazon, and Google Books is still better known for its lawsuits than for its book catalog (see the TidBITS series "Google Books Settlement," for more details). But readers will inevitably discover the free options - aided by Google and every company that makes a Kindle competitor.
Many ebook reading devices can access Project Gutenberg's collection of zombie works directly, although hardware vendors have focused on their own commercial storefronts, and Barnes & Noble's Nook offers direct access to Google Books. Various modern authors offer free downloads of their own ebooks, but unfortunately there isn't yet a good way to search for books across multiple catalogs and personal author sites - the best option right now is to look for an author's site and hope to find download links. The Internet Archive's BookServer project is intended to tie together a searchable network of ebooks, making it easier to find books from a wide variety of sources - whether free, for sale, or for loan. Google is determined to be a player in some or all these areas, although the details are not yet clear. There's money to be made in curating books and power in brand awareness, which is why everybody is scrambling to get in on the ground floor. It's clear that reading choices are just going to keep expanding.
The Power of Free -- The vast catalogs of online mail-order booksellers broadened the competition for book buyer dollars. On one hand, this (combined with print-on-demand) meant popular authors had more competition, but they also made it easier for new writers to get published, and much easier for readers to buy a wider variety of books.
The current round of change, though, is likely to be hard on fiction authors. It's easier than ever to give your work away, but convincing readers to pay for it is becoming more difficult as the alternatives proliferate and become better known. Even the most self-confident writer might be daunted at the prospect of convincing readers to pay for a book rather than reading works from zombies like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, James Joyce, and Jules Verne - all free at Project Gutenberg. (Creative Commons photo credit: sundaykofax on Flickr)
Classic works from the great authors throughout history have long been available in print, but on paper they weren't notably cheaper than current works. In ebook form, however, works from zombie authors have a steep price advantage. I've already read a few ebooks I never considered buying, both to save money and for cultural literacy. As copyrights expire (assuming Disney and friends don't continue buying extensions), and as people publish more free content, the pool of available free ebooks grows inexorably.
Additionally, the costs of printing and shipping have always provided a floor for prices of paper books - no one could afford to manufacture and distribute books without charging for them. Since the unit price of an ebook is negligible, ebook prices can vary much more widely (although the Google Books settlement, if it stands, may create a de facto price floor for ebook pricing as well). It's not yet clear whether reduced costs will result in authors earning higher royalty rates, or if dropping prices will reduce overall royalty income regardless of royalty rates. This is largely a new issue - for decades authors have been competing primarily with other authors in the same fields, at the same prices. Now authors are competing not just with each other, but with undead authors from all of history.
Every time I finish a book and decide what to read next, I have several choices. Will I read a free ebook, a (relatively expensive) Kindle ebook, or a cheaper non-Kindle ebook? Predictably, I have been reading a lot of free books - both titles from zombie authors that are available in the public domain and modern works posted by living authors. I've also been reading a lot of non-Kindle titles. The Kindle books I read are by favorite authors and unavailable from other sources. Faced with two books I expect to like about the same, my inclination is to read the free one, deferring the purchase for later. Faced with dozens of books to read and no particular preference, I tend to read the one I believe is "better," which is more likely now to be a classic title by a zombie.
For instance, in January and February of 2009 I read 7 books - all paperbacks. In March I started reading ebooks seriously, and my Goodreads history shows a dramatic shift. From March through December I read 14 paperbacks, 15 purchased Kindle ebooks, 8 ebooks bought from other vendors, and 24 free ebooks (some from Amazon's Kindle store).
Competing with the Zombies -- In the end, it's clear that the easy availability of older and free books has already begun to change the competitive landscape for fiction authors. Writers will increasingly find themselves competing not against their living peers for shelf space at Barnes & Noble, but against Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and thousands of other zombie greats whose copyrights have expired - not to mention the many books contributed to the Creative Commons by living authors like Cory Doctorow and Peter Watts.
To make things a bit more interesting, professional writers find themselves at a profound price disadvantage compared to authors who no longer collect royalties - being, well, dead. But that's not to say all is lost - competition can drive innovation, and dead guys don't dance... or blog, or podcast. (Creative Commons photo credit: Hryck on Flickr)
So how can today's authors avoid being steamrollered by works from zombies and other free content? One way is to engage with readers. Cory Doctorow makes a living giving electronic versions of his books away, which helps grow sales of the paper editions. Building a relationship with readers can be more effective than DRM for convincing them to pay. Authors connect to audiences through blogs (Laurie R. King), Twitter feeds (Neil Gaiman), podcasts (Spider Robinson), user forums (Orson Scott Card), and various other means, each of which helps build a connection beyond the bare text, hopefully encouraging readers to support their favorite writers.
Some authors have taken a page from musicians and open source programmers, developing ancillary revenue streams such as merchandise and speaking engagements. Virtual tip jars are common, although they generally do not produce enough to live on.
The explosion of iPhone books and comics in the App Store has shown that there are many excellent ways to present stories, with which the long strings of words from the undead populating Project Gutenberg can't compete. These new types of ebooks can be more attractive and engaging, more dynamic, and more interesting (particularly for the many people who find novels - whether old or new - boring). They can also be updated, tied into other books and applications, linked to video or educational activities, or enlivened in ways we haven't thought of yet. The Kindle and Sony Reader are perfectly adequate for books from zombies - much of the publisher and author interest in future reading devices like the iPad is driven by people who want to do more, even if they haven't figured out exactly what that means yet. It will be a long time before copyright expires on the first pieces of hypertextual fiction.
On the other hand, there will certainly be room for authors who just write, without adding graphics or reaching out to embrace interaction with fans, but they will need to adapt to the changing marketplace, and nobody seems to have fully figured out how yet.
Run for Your Lives! It's a tough time to be a professional (or aspiring) author. The zombies are crashing the ebook party, and they cannot be reasoned with or slain (again). Modern writers need to find ways to distinguish themselves from the undead, and to convince readers to become paying customers even when there are plenty of free alternatives. This might be through active participation in community Web sites, producing alternative content, or techniques that have not yet been invented.
But it's clear to writers like science-fiction author Charlie Stross that the old model of delivering a large chunk of words to a publisher, and then moving on to the next book, is in trouble. Over the long term, we need to figure this out to keep people writing the books we want to read, but the answer might not be comfortable - or look much like today's fiction marketplace. One way or another, change is coming, and without taking their fate into their own hands, writers might find themselves spending more time behind the counter at Starbucks than sipping lattes with their publishers.