Rise of eReaders and its future implications

By 09 Mar 2020

Book publishing is not a conventional business. For the publishers and editors willing to work for the joy of it, book publishing continues to be immensely rewarding. However, for investors looking for conventional returns, the last two decades have not been very encouraging, thanks to the arrival of eBooks.

Som Nath Sapru

Basic eBook Readers use monochrome, eInk screens to display text. The eInk looks a lot like paper, and it's easy on your eyes when reading for long periods. On the least expensive models, it's not backlit, so you'll need light to see the text, just as you would with a printed book. But most eBook Readers now include edge lighting that lets you see in the dark. With each model, you can adjust the intensity of the brightness from barely there to flashlight-bright. On the lowest settings, you can read in the dark while your partner sleeps peacefully next to you.

In all the cases, eInk is much easier to read in bright sunlight, while colour touchscreens on tablets tend to wash out, and their glossy displays can show distracting reflections.

The industry seems to have settled on six-inches as the optimal display size for eInk readers; this is what you'll find on most of Amazon's Kindles, for example. There are exceptions, though. Kobo's Forma is significantly larger — eight-inches. And if it's clarity you're after, you're in luck — 300 pixels/inch seems to be the new standard among most recent eBook Readers (aside from the base model Kindle).

Manufacturers are also improving the quality of these eInk displays. A few years ago, page refreshes were sluggish, the entire screen flashed black with each page turn, and some early eBook readers had problems with text contrast, which made for difficult reading. That's all history. The latest readers have crisp, clear text, and employ caching schemes that almost never refresh the full page; most of the time only the letters fade out and back in again. The page refreshes much faster than before.

Meanwhile, touchscreens have an innate advantage: On-screen keyboards make it easy to take notes or run searches within the text of your books. Also, manoeuvring a massive online bookstore on a device with a touch screen is a lot easier.

So eInk is great for reading books, but tablet screens offer a bevy of other benefits. Their colour screens mean you can read much more than books: magazines and comic books are just two examples. Best of all, even lower-cost tablets like the Fire 7 can browse the web, stream video from Netflix, Hulu or other sources, play music, and run apps.

Amongst the eBook Readers, Amazon is still leading in online book world and its latest wi-fi and IG (and now 4G) devices are in the price range of Rs 6,500 to Rs 8,500. Sony eBook Reader is available in variety of models — its pocket edition PRS 350 is the smallest of all eBooks with a weight of 160-gm with touch screen and grey colour display with a resolution of 600x800-pixels.

There are several other devices in the market like AMS EEE Reader DR 900; JetBookLite eBook Reader; Apple iPad and iPad 2; InfibeamPr eBook Reader; Wink E-Book Reader.

Overall general tendency of the people is to go for Amazon Kindle Paper White, which is the most popular eBook Reader. Next in the range are KiboOhara HD; Cobo Libra H2o; Amazon Kindle Kids edition; Amazon Kindle Oasis (2019); Amazon Kindle (2019); Barnes & Nobles; Nook Glowlight 3; Kobo Forma; Barnes and Nobles Nook Glowlight Plus (2019). All these weigh between 6.9-oz to 9.6-oz and the dimensions vary between 6.6x4.6x0.3-inches to 8.3x5.9xo.3-inches.

The eBook Readers arrived in India long after its global presence exploded in North America and other parts of the world. The eBook Readers are costly, whereas now, there are other alternatives available which have multi-utility features vis-à-vis other devices available, such as like different tablets, mobile phones, smart phones, etc.

In the last two decades, publishers are tantalised by the potentials of ePublishing worldwide without printing costs, without warehousing and inventory, without mailing, without returns, without waste, and on top of all, without paper. The lure of these possibilities is irresistible to publishers, yet to date, the right combination of hardware, software and marketing to make ePublishing viable has proven elusive.

The ebooks, rather I should say, ePublishing has created confusion for the publishers big or small as to how one can keep track of copyright, protect their authors, or the piracy of the book or magazine. If the books or magazines are easily available on one’s laptop, or any other handheld device, including mobile phones, what is the need of bookstores or libraries? A book, simply, is an instrument for ideas and self-expression.

Books are defined by text and still photos or illustrations. Books rarely change unless one updates or revises them. It is cumbersome to carry them around. One cannot read a book without a proper light and one cannot hit a ‘search’ key and find that particular passage. Whereas all these ‘canots’ are easily available on all eReaders and any other had held device, laptop, or mobile.

The eBook is actually a misnomer. The device can display magazine content (eMagazine) and newspaper content (eNewspaper) as well as electronic directories, catalogues, and other material (eStuff). The display device is independent of the content. However, a characteristic of books, magazines, and newspapers is the size of the page, all must adjust to the device’s screen size, which is about the size of a hard-cover book page. The trend towards electronic publishing has been based on several factors:

  • Advancements that provide increased computing functionality at lower cost
  • The development of new channels of information distribution
  • The desire to reduce costs by eliminating paper, printing, and physical storage of the printed materials
  • The ability to search electronic files efficiently and retrieve information instantly
  • The ability to re-use information in other documents and other formats or add texts and visuals, etc
  • The acceptance of reading on screen by larger number of people at very low costs and hassles of visiting a bookstore or a library.
  • The convergence of texts, image, audio, video, animation and interactivity.

It is yet a subject of debate in certain quarters whether an eBook should be treated as a book or new medium of communication, like audiobooks? But what happens when sophisticated software converts the eBook text to hard copy, compile and bind in a physical book form?

The operational technology has developed over the years and the apprehensions of insecure texts and security of copyright of the publishers have diminished considerably. The format is most secure, eReader devices are convenient to use, and soft and easiest on the eyes.

In the US, the UK and other affluent European countries, most of the book stores have ‘com’ in their addresses. Physical books are being replaced by eBooks that have no spines and no pages need to be turned by hand and they are not even made of paper. However, what is nearly fascinating to witness is how both traditional and electronic publishers show great creativity in the way they sell their electronic wares containing texts or pictures on the web.

Asia is home of nearly half the world’s students and the predictions are that this number will rise to almost 92 million by mid-2020. The demands for educational books and equipments, etc will be vast in the world’s two most populous nations — India and China.

Would both these nations be in a position to provide educational books, etc to such a large number of students? The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) has enrolled 28 lakh students from all over the country until this year and has awarded 1.9 lakh students at its 28 convocation ceremony recently. The number, I was told, has come down marginally. It is now planning to conduct online examination. This was the first open university in India to have introduced satellite communication systems to facilitate remote classes and downloading of lectures, although it still relies on printed materials and periodic attendance at study centres. I wonder: for such a large number of students, how could books be provided? Perhaps we would find solutions in creating / providing cheaper models of eReaders with easy access of internet and mobile services with 4G links.

Authors and traditional publishers still fear that eBooks may encourage piracy of original and creative works, besides cannibalising the sales of print editions in the absence of punitive laws or amendments in the existing intellectual property rights or copyright laws of various countries, although there is ContentGuard software which is very successful in pinning down hackers infringing copyrights.

Although copyright protection software have been developed but still there are several issues with this new electronic technology of eBook — death of the paper book, death of the traditional publisher, printer, distributor, bookstores and, above all, the overall death of the library. All these entities have to combat this intrusion at individual levels in the sacred world of books.

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