The slow rise of e-books

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Arnaud Pellé of Emerald Group Publishing takes a look at the history of e-books and what their future holds

What is an e-book? The question sounds uncomplicated enough but it has, as yet, no straightforward answer. E-books have slowly evolved over the past few decades, constantly eluding a clear definition as emerging technologies keep morphing them into different objects.

To date, Vasileiou, et al. [1] are among the latest researchers to have attempted stringing together a comprehensive definition of the medium. Trying to capture ‘both the persistent characteristics of e-books, and their dynamic nature, driven largely by the changing technologies through which they are delivered and read’ has translated into a two-part definition:

  • An e-book is a digital object with textual and/or other content, which arises as a result of integrating the familiar concept of a book with features that can be provided in an electronic environment; and
  • E-books typically have in-use features such as search and cross reference functions, hypertext links, bookmarks, annotations, highlights, multimedia objects and interactive tools.

The origins of e-books

E-books are regarded as arguably the most significant development to affect the literary world since the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1450. The notion of the e-book itself has existed ever since computers first appeared.

In the 1960s, Alan Kay, an American computer scientist, introduced the idea of the Dynabook, close in essence to that of the e-book and the laptop. E-books became a somewhat mainstream reality in the 1970s, when Project Gutenberg [2], founded by American millionaire Michael Hart, first made digitised versions of books fallen into the public domain widely available for free. Nowadays, more that 100,000 titles are available through Project Gutenberg, including more than 20,000 free e-books.

In the UK, Lou Burnard founded the Oxford Text Archive in 1976 for the scholarly community [3]. Today, it provides more than 2,500 resources in more than 25 different languages.


For several decades, however, electronic text remained a very niche area accessed mainly by savvy scientists and academics.

But the end of the 1990s seemingly marked a turn in the e-book’s fortunes. With the internet and the World Wide Web as catalysts, there was renewed interest in the e-book.

The first conference on e-books was held in 1998, paving the way for the Open Book Forum initiative, to address the issues surrounding the future development of this then emerging technology. The Open Book Forum is known today as the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) [4].

NetLibrary [5] was the first commercial e-book aggregator in the USA in 1998, attracting the first British institutional subscription in 2000.

In March 2000, Stephen King’s novel, Riding the Bullet, was released on the internet and sold 400,000 copies in a single day [6], giving e-books worldwide publicity.

A month later, in the April 15, 2000 issue of Library Journal, the first review of an e-book appeared, which was also mentioned on the cover of the magazine, under the title: “E-Books: A Fantasy Come True?”

Forecasts for the future of e-books were encouraging: studies conducted in 2000 suggested that, by 2005, there would be 1.9 million users of e-books and the revenue from digitised book publishing would reach US$7.8 billion [7].

In spite of all this hype and optimism, however, e-book revenues for 2005 reached only US$12 million worldwide [8], a far cry from the billion-dollar market it was anticipated to become.

In reality, there were far too many issues affecting the development of e-books to attract widespread audience.

E-book obstacles

Demand for e-books failed to take off for a number of reasons. Analysts agreed that, initially, the lack of appropriate content was a significant deterrent. There were accessibility issues as well. Most people find reading long texts on paper more comfortable, compared to the strain of flickering screens of computers and backlit hand-held devices.

The general proprietary nature of e-book readers and Digital Rights Management (DRM) also constitute major sore points of the e-book industry. They are cited as some of the principal reasons why e-books have not lived up to expectations.

Bearing these considerations of technology, comfort, content and access in mind, it is not surprising that casual readers have largely shunned e-books in favour of the familiar reliability of “p-books”.

Rising popularity

In the past few years, however, the popularity of e-books has grown significantly again. Vasilieou et al. [1] underline that ‘developments in technology and the internet have changed the nature of digital content and its accessibility and have opened up new opportunities for the publishing industry.’ There is now a vast amount of material available, covering just about any subject area.

Factors such as EPUB standards, enabling e-books to be read on a variety of reading devices, and XML code, allowing for keyword searches within the content of e-books, are helping the trend for e-books.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2008, Dick Kaser, vice president of content at Information Today Inc., revealed that sales of e-books in August 2008 were up 82.9 per cent compared to August 2007 [9].

Nevertheless, despite this increase in popularity, e-books only constitute only one to three per cent of total book sales [10].

What transpires is that the rise of e-books is restricted largely to the academic sector. E-books have become a tool of choice for researchers and students, particularly those belonging to the so-called digital generation, who can access and browse content at any moment from their laptops.

Findings from the first user survey, analysing 20,000 responses from 127 higher education institutions in the UK, show that ‘more than 60 per cent of the academic population are already using e-books, – nearly all in connection with their scholarly work’ [11].

The future

The e-book market does not seem to have reached maturity yet. For the larger public, at least, even though the electronic version of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was the best-selling e-book worldwide in 2006 [12], e-books have still a long way to go before they can claim to dent the “p-book” market.

E-book readers, such as Kindle 2 and the latest Sony Reader, have scored favourable reviews and enjoyed widespread visibility lately, despite the consensus still being on the side of poor value and clunky functionality.

Industry-wide standards need to be adopted and more research has to be conducted regarding the technology involved in e-book readers in order to gain mass appeal. Perhaps, as Bennett [13] suggests, the industry needs to focus more on customer needs rather than on the needs of the market.

Academic publishers have certainly embraced the increasing demand for e-books. At Emerald, two e-book series collections are now available, one focusing on social sciences, the other on business, management and economics. In total, they represent more than 100 titles in more than 500 volumes. Emerald is also intent on making access to its e-books as easy and as flexible as possible, providing access to unlimited concurrent users for each subscribing institution. There are further digitisation plans to complement subject portfolios of e-books.

Further Information

[1] Vasileiou M., Hartley R., Rowley J. (2008), ‘Progressing the definition of “e-book”’, Library hi Tech, Vol. 26 no. 3, pp. 355-368

[2] Project Gutenberg:

[3] Oxford Text Archive:

[4] IDPF (formerly Open Ebook Forum):

[5] NetLibrary:

[6] Herther, Nancy K (2005), ‘The e-book industry today: a bumpy road becomes an evolutionary path to market maturity’, The Electronic Library, Vol. 23 Issue 1, pp. 45-53

[7] Siriginidi, Subba Rao (2001), ‘Familiarization of electronic books’, The Electronic Library, Vol. 19 Issue 4, pp. 247-256

[8] Crawford, Walt (2006), ‘Books, Bookstores and Ebooks’, Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, October 2006, Vol. 6 Issue 12

[9] McGrath, M. (2008), ‘Interlending and document supply: a review of the recent literature: 65’, Interlending & Document Supply, Vol. 36 No. 4, pp. 203-209

[10] Lonsdale, R., Armstrong, C. (2008), ‘Aggre-culture: what do e-book aggregators offer?’, Update, Vol. 7 no.4, pp.28-33.

[11] CIBER (2008), ‘Findings from the first user survey’, JISC national e-books observatory project, ISBN 9780955718557

[12] Bennett, Linda (2006), E-books: the options, The Publishers Association

[13] Bennett L., Landoni M. (2005), ‘E-books in academic libraries’, The Electronic Library, Vol. 23 Issue 1, pp. 9-16