What does the future hold for ebooks?
The ebook revolution is over, the major battles have been fought, and the ebook is here to stay.
Yes, there are still a few skirmishes on the sidelines as traditional publishing houses fight on in vain trying to protect the privileged position, monopolistic profits and champagne lunches they held as their right for so long, but they will eventually cede to the new reality.
Since the advent of the Internet in the mid-nineties, consumable entertainment and productivity producers of music, movies, software and games have all experienced the same initial digital revolution, and then the need to adapt progressively over the years of evolution in their markets.
The packaging has disappeared.
Before the revolution, all of these products were sold individually in containers, stacked on store shelves.
Microsoft sold its software in boxes, on floppy disk with a thick book of instructions. Games were sold in boxes, lined up again on store shelves.
Music changed its containers from vinyl to tape to compact disk, all in plastic wrapping on music store shelves. Movies moved from VHS tape to DVD to Blue-ray and filled movie rental stores.
While all of these products disappeared from brick and mortar stores, and the all the stores closed up shop, books remained, stacked high on the shelves of bookstores, with the market controlled in most part by the Big Six publishers.
All of these industries, apart from books, were forced by digital delivery to move away from selling their products in plastic-wrapped boxes in malls and high street stores to selling their products online.
For some time, this worked well until piracy became a telling factor.
Apple, of course, was the leader at that time in selling digital downloads in the music business with iTunes and the iPod, and then later with games and apps, which to their credit, overcame a lot of the piracy.
Microsoft was slower to move initially but eventually started selling their software online as most software producers had been doing so well before.
Then, of course, there was Amazon, hitting the movie download and rental business.
Along come subscription services
Then, another big change hit. Subscription services.
Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft and a host of other producers changed tack, with the one holdout being Apple iTunes.
With paid music downloads sales falling, Apple followed suit, finally.
While all of this market activity has been evolving, changing and adapting, books and ebooks have been a little stuck in the mud, mainly due to the reluctance of the publishing industry to change.
Amazon has taken advantage of this intransigence and carved out a monopoly for itself, which has been built on the back of their invention of the self-publishing model.
As authors willingly, happily and enthusiastically took advantage of the ability to publish, first in print-on-demand paperback and then a little later in ebook, Amazon built a war chest of hundreds of thousands of books and ebooks that it used to put pressure on, and then fight the Big Six for dominance in the publishing market.
There are of course those who bemoan the market dominance of Amazon, which currently holds by all accounts, around 65% or more of both the book and ebook market.
But it is worth remembering that it was Amazon who innovated, changed, adapted, took risks, invested and looked to the future and not the past, which was where the traditional publishers were, and mostly still are firmly fixed.
The future of ebooks is adapt or die
The adage adapt or die is certainly fitting, and it will be those in the market who adapt that will survive and profit.
Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) moved to offer it Kindle Unlimited subscription-based model for ebooks, which was logical.
However, this is only available to self-published titles by authors or small press publishers who have agreed to give Amazon exclusivity by enrolling their titles in KDP Select programme.
For many, this exclusivity is a bad thing, but having built their position of total market dominance, Amazon has the right to make their own rules.
No one complains when a traditional publisher demands exclusive rights to an author’s book, do they?
Amazon doesn’t demand the rights to a book, but only asks for the exclusivity to sell, and then only for a period of three months.
This is enough though for Amazon to keep its war chest of 600,000 or more ebooks that it uses whenever there’s a battle to fight with big publishers as was the case with Macmillan and Hachette in earlier days.
That’s the history, but what will happen to the future of ebooks?
Because an ebook is only a digital file, exactly the same as an app, a music track, a movie, or software, it’s logical to assume that what has happened to all the other market sectors will happen to ebooks.
Subscription services have already started with Amazon and others, and there will surely be more jumping into this model by necessity.
Another model that has worked well with apps, in particular, is the revenue model supported by advertising.
If I were to make a small wager, I would keep an eye on Google Play Books, which has yet to find its feet in ebook sales.
Google is not a search company, it is an advertising company, and as its revenue is built almost totally on advertising, it wouldn’t surprise me if Google Adsense in ebooks, (pay per click or pay per 1,000 views advertising) isn’t being considered.
We are all now totally used to almost every website we view having Google Adsense advertising, that the appearance of a small advertisement at the head or foot of every ten pages or so of an ebook may not be seen as that intrusive.
As all types of e-reading devices are connected to the Internet, it makes a lot of sense.
Interactive ebooks? Maybe
Currently, ebooks are boring as they are almost exclusively, except for the cover image, black text on a white background.
With the capacity of devices such as the iPad, Kindle Fire, smartphones, phablets and a whole range of other devices, all capable of delivering rich, colourful interactive displays, the ebook starts to look a little drab, old-fashioned and decidedly dull.
The future of ebooks will depend on moving away from the concept that an ebook is just a copy of a book in electronic form, and therefore must look as much like a book as possible.
Paper pages wrapped in a cardboard cover is not technology; it’s tradition and history.
The ebook will develop and move away from the book by using colour, movement, interactivity and connectivity. The ebook will become less of a book and more of an app. It will become shareable, social and flexible.
Another possibility is in the area of text to voice, and the possibility to produce audiobooks at next to no expense. Voice technology is advancing rapidly every year on our phones and in our homes. Leveraging this technology and applying it to ebooks make logical sense.
The future of the ebook in work in progress
The future of the ebook is by no means certain and will go through a long process of change and adaptation.
But it is as yet an underdeveloped product that is open to creative minds to explore and exploit.
Yes, Amazon has the monopoly today, but monopolies never last forever.
Its market share will gradually diminish as those with fresh new inventive ideas find ways to create new opportunities and revenue streams from ebooks. Just as Amazon did when it invented self-publishing.
So what will the ebook itself and the ebook market be like in five years?
No one knows of course, but one thing is a certainty, it won’t be anything like it is today.