The Rise of the E-book: My new essay for Nature

By Carl Zimmer | December 21, 2011 2:24 pm

In this week’s issue of Nature, I write about the revolution that technology is bringing to the world of books. It’s a subject that’s been on my mind a lot recently. I’ve been experimenting with e-books myself, and I’ve been giving some talks about them (I’ll be helping to lead a discussion at Science Online 2012 in January).

My essay is accompanied by this funny picture. The guy looks a lot like me, but, strictly speaking, it should be my wife sitting atop the pile of books, with seagulls for company:

In the summer of 2010, on a tiny island off the coast of Maine, I saw the future of books. I had been invited to teach a writing course at Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island, a beautiful bulge of rock covered in scrub and herring-gull nests. During a break at the beach with my family, my wife finished reading her book with typical supersonic speed. She craved another, so decided to experiment with her new iPhone.

She tapped the screen. In seconds, an e-book had streamed invisibly through the air into her hand. Swiping her thumb like a windshield wiper, she soon finished it. She tapped the screen for another. Out of the ether, another e-book appeared.

Now I see, I thought. Everything was in place for a revolution in how we read and write. And the pace of that revolution has surpassed my expectations. Since Apple launched its iBooks application in April 2010, some 180 million books have been downloaded. Analysts estimate that Amazon will have sold 314 million e-books for the Kindle in 2011 alone. The radical change extends far beyond sales volume: the e-book ecosystem allows writers to reach readers in ways that did not exist before.

You can read the rest here. (Sub. required.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Meta, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (7)

  1. One huge change I’m seeing is in technical books.

    Times were, you’d buy a technical book, then check the site for errata. There was ALWAYS errata. Code wouldn’t work. Sections were mislabeled. A security bug was found, rendering certain examples moot.

    These days, when I get an ebook from O’Reilly or Apress, if there’s an update, they just update the book and send me a new one. That is AWESOME. They’ve even added sections to deal with new issues.

    This is also encouraging writing smaller books. Small is not always bad. I’m writing a book on making websites accessible. As great as this topic is, it’s not exactly going to be a tome. My editors and I are aiming for 150 pages for a first pass, which would never fly in a brick and mortar store. As an ebook, however, it works. I don’t have to pad the book with crap the reader doesn’t need, they get something that’s informative, and that the market needs.

  2. Erik N

    Is the $32 price tag on the essay part of the message?

    [CZ: Heh. You be the judge. (My new ebooks are only $7.99, by the way…]

  3. John Kwok

    I have a friend – a well known writer of fiction – who has told his audiences that he’ll even sign their Kindles at his literary events. But, having said that, I think there are serious issues with regards to how much royalties authors will be able to earn from the sales of e-books. While I am thrilled that e-books may be circulating more literature – as well as textbooks – to substantially larger audiences, I hope that this won’t result in further erosion of authors’ rights to earn royalties. As for me, I love the feel of printed paper myself and have no interest in acquiring a Kindle or a Nook any time soon.

  4. You are correct, authors are reaching their audiences faster. However, authors have had access to the internet for a long time (e.g. the cyberpunk movement, pre-dating the www). The new thing is ebooks on portable devices. Now I ask: are authors really reaching their audiences better? Or do publishers just have a better model for making money off of authors?

  5. Ralf

    It’s my understanding that royalties are not affected as long as the middle man, i.e. the publisher, is cut out. After all, their job is managing the marketing, printing and distribution, none of which is required any more. Some indie music groups have reported higher income after putting MP3s on their website for a buck or two compared to income from CDs or iTunes. The same should apply to authors. I’ll gladly pay a buck or three if I can easily download an ebook. Reqirements: No DRM, open format (PDF or epub) so it’s supported on desktop Linux and Android, direct download, easy payment.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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