E-Book: A Palm-Reading Perspective

First written on March 26, 2000, the original version this article is one of the earliest works in Chinese regarding the forms and functions of electronic books. As decades past, many information and links presented might have been obsoleted today.

本文中文版/Chinese version

Recently, book publisher Simon and Schuster cooperates with many online booksellers to publish Stephen King’s new 66-page “book” — “Riding the Bullet” exclusively on the web in many digital formats for readers to download.

The event itself was an instant success. Many servers that provides the software for reading the e-book has been jammed, and the download section of the online bookstores were forced to be closed due to system overload.

What is “book in digital format”? Or as some people call it, “electronic book” or just “e-book”? E-books are book contents made into electronic files that can be read on computers, PDAs (personal digital assistants), or dedicated reading devices.

In order for readers to adopt easily, most e-books mimic the look and feel of paper books; but recent e-books can display layouts that incorporate text and graphic, and even let readers put bookmarks, hand written notes, and highlight marks in the pages.

Why there’s suddenly the heat? Aren’t we talking about digital books (or electronic book, e-books, whatever) for many years? Well, maybe it’s because the download is free, maybe because it’s Stephen King, but may it be that the time has come for electronic books?

Maybe. I just said the download campaign is a success, but for now, it’s not essentially a commercial success yet. What if the bookstores charge more than US$10 for each download? What if every reader has to wait a minute or two for checking out at the virtual cashier? What if it was not Stephen King?

One thing is for sure: this will not be the end of similar attempts, and these attempts will pave the way for future development of electronic “book-like” media.

(Note: The electronic version of Riding the Bullet is still available in 2017 for US$3.99.)

Where are e-books from?

E-books has been tried and done since the emergence of personal computers. Many popular games such as Broderbund’s “Just Grandma and me” can be called as “interactive e-books”.

Sometimes they are touted as substitution to conventional books, sometimes they are called “companion” to books and people who need to carry lots of information around. When the wide-area wireless network become more sophisticated, the content of the “book” can be extended to the whole Internet, not just confined to the device on your palm.

But until recently, the focus has been around electronic vehicles. As we know from the development of PC’s, electronic media have massive storage, quick response, and the capability to index and search information efficiently.

On the other hand, versatility, timeless, convenience, cost, and other emotional issues were often brought up by book advocates to pronounce the immaturity of e-books.

Indeed, you can read e-books, but you can hardly feel it. There’s no touchable cover, no pages to turn, no smell of its age, even no ink to dye your fingers. For most people, reading is still more an emotional activity than intellectual one.

So, is it to say that there’s no chance for e-books? Not really. Since the emotional factors cannot be replaced for now, I would say they must learn to evolve and live with each other; just like that ground and instant coffee all have their advantages, satisfy different needs, and won’t replace each other in a foreseeable future.

What could it do?

I have personally involved in an early e-book project around 1994. It was an attempt to squeeze Boeing 747’s repair and maintenance manual (they are several feet long on the shelf) into Apple Computer’s Newton, the world’s first true PDA.

The project didn’t finish successfully because of the huge efforts needed to turn printed pages into a viable electronic format, and the relatively short battery life, small memory, high cost, and lacking of the potential user’s commitment to the new technology.

In fact, these are all the legacy problems about e-books. Since then, e-books are labeled as expansive, impractical, funless, and only suitable for reference books such as Encyclopedia Britannica.

What’s good about an e-book version of Encyclopedia Britannica? Simple, it’s massive, it requires efficient index and inquiry, no one reads it from cover to cover, and no one reads it on a taxi or in the bathroom. So are the Boeing 747’s manuals.

Since there’s only one Encyclopedia Britannica, and very few people enjoys 747 manual, so they represented an intangible market, the e-books silenced.

Read it Now

So there’s Riding the Bullet that clogged the powerful download servers. Why? Do we have a perfect device that also dissipate the smell of paperbacks? No.

Recently, the feasibility of e-books has been spurred by two development that seem to be irrelevant: World Wide Web, and portable computers.

The popularity of portable computers leads people to practical mobile computing and information exchange, and as a result, people demand new products with smaller size, better screen, longer battery life, and new file formats that’s easier to exchange among platforms and environments.

So we have not only 3-pound notebooks, the miniaturization of components brought us Palm Organizer and Windows CE devices; and the quest for information commonality brought us HTML and PDF. These are not essentially where future e-books will reside on, but they reopened the doors for people who wants to book to be read paperlessly.

Since the WWW phenomenon, people are getting used to read articles, jokes, catalogs from monitors that can’t be brought into a bathroom, or from LCD screens on a moving train. The technologies “trained” people to move closer to e-books that were previously unacceptable to paper purists.

So we will continue to see books and e-books to move close to each other, and human issues will be eliminated by ourselves. As technology progresses, the vehicles for e-books will be more versatile and less-expansive, and probably more like conventional books in many aspects.

Swimming through the Channel

So I’ve left many questions to be answered: Is e-book good for novels now? Can we mark on the pages yet? How can we read these books without worrying about power drain?

Well, from the technical perspective, there are actually too many problems such as memory and battery life to be solved by engineers, but it’s for sure they will be continuously to be improved, just like what we see on portable computers.

But there are many things already overcome by pervious innovations. Internet, for example, not only changed our reading habit, but also brought us e-commerce and download option, which represents one of the most important business considerations for e-books: distribution. Imagine that: what if you still need to mail-order floppies and wait days for delivery and installation?

Since most of the download sites waived the US$2.50 charge required for downloading Riding the Bullet, so it’s not yet a profitable business so far, but it did tell us the distribution channels for e-books are already there.

The New Model

So we have viable reading devices, no matter computer or PDA; and we have distribution channels, as well as big-name writers and publishers who are willing to give it a try. What else do we need now?

We need a new model that revolutionizes the publishing business and breaks the past limitations. For example, I talked in a recent article about the pitfalls Amazon.com encountered — Web technology can’t eliminate the overhead for selling physical products. But if e-book works, there’s no need for Amazon’s distribution center, and no boxes and postage are needed either.

Can anyone publish in the physical world? Can anyone sell a 10-page article to the public with a reasonable price tag, and still has anyone in between to enjoy a profit? I’d like to say yes, but the reality is no. We learn from our WWW experience that we are liberated to express ourselves from a medium anyone can see, why can’t we publish our words freely and still get paid?

That’s where the new model comes in. People are trying new ways to reinvent books, but only a few are thinking about a new publishing model. When reading about the “Riding the Bullet phenomenon”, I just found an interesting virtual book seller, and think their model may work for the future.

Mighty Words

This company is called Mighty Words. It looks like a much smaller Amazon.com at the first sight, but after some exploration, the interesting parts started to attract me.

It sells e-books exclusively (its parent company, FatBrain.com, sells physical books), and as you may have guessed, the price is generally lower than the paper counterparts (many of them costs $5 or lower, but some of the newer titles took only the paper cost out of the price).

(Note: FatBrain along with Mighty Words have been acquired by Barnes & Noble Bookstore in September 2000 — six month after this article was witten.)

It’s not a fresh idea to let readers download e-books and pay less. Mighty Word’s most alluring idea is to deconstruct the rules behind books.

The company encourages people to put anything they write on the market: family recipe, research paper, short stories, etc., which may not have a chance to be sold in the past.

They call these “Longer than an article. Shorter than a book” publications “eMatter”. This kind of entries are easier to read, easier to write, easier to download, easier to carry around (the 66-page “Riding the Bullet” is just a perfect example), and it’s cheaper to buy. I don’t know what you think, but I am getting itchy to have many previously unsellable works listed on Mighty Words.

To many people, eMatter is less intimidating and more acceptable form of e-books. You don’t have to argue if people would read a 10-page short story or cake recipe on a PDA, they will.

In e-commerce jargon, the new ways of information exchange will also open new opportunities for C2C (customer-to-customer), and it’s definitely more productive than buying a celebrity’s underwear on eBay.

e Matters

In theory, eMatter completes the necessary elements of e-book business:

  1. Reading device This can be computer screen, PDA, or the electronic paper currently under development. This may not be standardized, as long as they can display the standardized e-book formats;
  2. e-book format Like TV shows, no matter which channel you are on, you receive signals in standard formats. This is the necessity for e-Books’ future.
  3. Deconstruction of books If you insist to read War and Peace in the bathroom, e-book is not for you.
  4. New marketplace As we’ve experienced on WWW, a new way of publishing will stimulate the publishing business itself. It may not pay much for reader to be a writer (although Mighty Words provides a 50% royal fee rate), but the market will be ignited, and we’ll have more stuff to read.

The Last Word

Again, Riding the Bullet or eMatter may not be an instant commercial success, but they are all successful experiments that proved electronic reading media to be feasible and practical.

You may already own a portable computer or a PDA that can double as an e-book reader, or you may be interested in buying a specialized e-book device such as the Rocket e-book, but whatever you choose to give it a first try for now, your future of reading will be changed forever.

Originally published on Liberty Times, March 26, 2000.