Newsletter - sign up here
Search Webster
Webster's pieces from The Oldie
Webster's Webwatch

Up the Amazon

September 2010

Amazon, the world’s biggest bookseller, startled me with an  announcement in July: for the first time they are now selling more electronic books (eBooks) than books printed on paper; 40% more in fact.  For every five real books they sell, they sell seven electronic books.

I knew that sales of eBooks were growing fast, but overtaking real books?  Is this the end of the book?

It is certainly a moment to ponder, but it is excellent news for authors.  I’ll explain.

eBooks have been around for ages.  The idea is simple enough: you store all your books in electronic form on your computer and call them up whenever you want.  It all sounds fine.  We’ve already got used to storing music this way; very few people buy CD’s in any quantity these days, most music is bought and stored in electronic formats.

The trouble with eBooks has been that reading a book on your computer is an uncomfortable and awkward process; you can’t walk around the house with it, and it’s all a bit of a fiddle.

That changed when the latest generation of specially designed book reading devices were introduced.  They are called e-readers; they tend to be a flat slab, about the size of a page of a book, and less than an inch or so thick.  The screen can display a whole page at once at normal print size, or can make the text as large as you need.  The memory can store thousands of books, and all of them are with you all the time.

The best known models are the Kindle, from Amazon at about £125, or the Apple iPad, which costs over £400 but does much more besides read books.  eBooks themselves come in all prices, but are cheaper than the physical versions, say £3 or so for a recent book.  If the book is out of copyright it is often free.

The biggest improvement is the screen technology; it’s early days, but they are much more comfortable than reading from your laptop.  They will get better, but they work well already.

However, the most astonishing aspect of all this is the galvanising effect they have had on book buyers.  Once readers become hooked on using an e-reader, they seem to lose all restraint, and are generally buying up to ten times as many electronic books than they ever bought hardbacks; yes, ten times as many.  One reader of this column tells me that he is unlikely to be buying any more books on paper, and he isn’t alone.

Part of this might be explained by the desire to establish a basic library of electronic books, and part might be the lower prices, but I think that it is mainly the ease of doing it.  You simply press a button or two on your Kindle, for example, and the book quickly downloads without you doing anything else.  Your credit card is debited.  You may never read it, of course, but the purchase is made.

Clearly, this is very good news for writers and publishers, but it gets better: you can’t lend or re-sell an e-book (click here).  What you buy is a licence to read it on a specific machine, and it is non transferable; it’s for your use only.  If your friends want to read the book, they will have to buy their own, brand new copies, with another few bob going to the author each time.

This is very good news;  I am always very grumpy about lending books anyway (you never get them back); this now gives me a convincing excuse.  I don’t know how the libraries are going cope with it, though, if everyone gets an e-reader.  I’m also not sure what will happen to eBook collections after you die (I can’t see any mention of it in the Licence Terms).

Obviously there are problems; if your battery runs down (while camping, perhaps), you can’t read; you wouldn’t want to take it to the beach with you, and above all it is yet another piece of electronic clutter to lug around, along with your phone, laptop, blackberry, camera and the rest.

However, the sheer commercial success of the things means that we have to take them seriously; I would be most interested to hear from readers with their experiences.