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5/23/2011
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Ed Hansberry
Ed Hansberry
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E-Books Hasten Demise Of Paper Books

Advances in mobile and e-reader technologies and authors trying new publishing business models are bringing the end of traditional books closer than ever before.

For the first time, Amazon reported that e-book sales surpassed those of paperback and hardback books combined. Some feel this victory for electronic books is short-lived though and that virtually all books will be gone in a relatively short period of time.

Last week Amazon reported that for every 100 print books sold, 105 e-books for the Kindle are being purchased. E-books are nothing new, but it has only been in the last two to three years that they garnered serious attention from the average consumer. Before the Kindle, e-books were mostly targeted by geeks that would do anything on their phone or PDA just to say they could.

E-books have been around since at least the late '90s. Peanut Press was one of the original e-book sellers that originally focused on the PalmOS platform, later expanding to half a dozen platforms as the years went on. They were even owned by Palm for a few years before passing through several more hands until ultimately being purchased by Barnes & Noble. The problem for them, and most other e-book publishers at the time, is the technology to put e-books in most consumers' hands just wasn't there.

That all changed with the Kindle in 2007. E-ink screens could be made large enough that you didn't feel you were flipping pages after every 10 lines, something that was, and still is, a problem with reading on a phone. Yes, Kindle software is available for the big phone platforms, but most people are reading on a Kindle device or a tablet, either with Kindle software or Apple's iBook software.

The whole revolution has thrown the publishing industry for a loop. E-books are a disruptive technology, ignited by the Kindle, that has traditional publishers concerned for their future.

Forbes has a blog that goes as far as saying that books themselves are going away. I don't agree with that, but the article makes some valid points and there is no question in my mind that certain kinds of books are on the way out. It points out that immediately after the BP oil spill there were books chronicling the entire saga, and their sales were as disastrous as the oil spill itself. Twenty years ago, a book like that would have had decent sales, but today, people got so much information from 24/7 news stations and a constant stream of updates from Twitter and news sites on the Internet, they didn't need to get a book that recapped most of what they already knew.

People will always have a thirst for novels though. That model too is changing. There are dozens of articles like this one from USA Today, which describes how talented authors are going straight to the consumer with 99 cent books. People will gamble on a book that is less than a dollar and if the story is any good, sales will take off. Sure, there are some authors that can easily command $9.99 prices, but they are a dying breed. Independent author John Locke summarizes the situation by saying, "I don't have to prove my books are as good as the New York Times Best Selling Authors -- they have to prove their books are 10 times better than mine!" That is getting harder and harder to do. E-books and suitable reading devices make publishing within anyone's reach.

I think there are other books that will always have a market as well. Historical books that are well written and go beyond the dryness of the poorly researched online information still have a large following. Who knows? Maybe in 10 to 15 years there will be a book about the BP oil spill that will show how the fiasco changed the course of energy policy in the coming decade and will be a big seller.

The final chapters on most paper books are being written and e-books are taking center stage. Do you think e-books have a long life before them or do you think books themselves, whatever the format, may be on their last legs?

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