The predictions of e-book supremacy in the not too distant future have been made early (see Jonnassen, 1982) and often (see anything written about the Kindle), but I was struck by VP of Oxford University Press, Casper Grathwohl’s comment in the Dec 2009 issue of Library Journal that “we feel the ebook moment is finally here”. The cause of this supposed tipping point is not, as you might imagine, new technology such as the iPad, but good old fear generated by the worldwide recession which Casper feels is the true driver of creative juices.
It’s not easy to translate the belief into hard data, though there are signs that ebook sales are continuing to generate more and more revenue at the wholesale level — keep on eye on this page where, despite a blip in the last quarter, the trajectory is clearly up and up. O’Reilly dropped DRM and report ebook sales up 104%, and there is a general feeling among trend watchers that yes, the moment for e-books to shine has finally arrived. Two years ago, Amazon predicted $3bn in ebook sales by 2012 which has been revised upward to $9bn by some more recent analysts. The Association of American Publishers reports perhaps the most telling statistic: while book sales in general are still moving slowly up at just under 5% a year, ebook sales are rising at a rate closer to 200%. Assuming the pattern is stable (which is an assumption but not an entirely unreasonable one), the moment of crossover is coming.
Those of us who watched this world and studied reading on screen over the years predicted an inevitable time when e-reading would be routine but most of us, well me at least, argued that print would not die as a result but instead, the two media would co-exist, perhaps even synergistically. I still put my shirt on that outcome (digital for management, search, comparison, facts etc., paper retained for leisurely lengthy reading, deep study of narratives, or tasks that require perspective and overview of lengthy document contents ) and have not had a chance to play seriously with any e-book tool that I would want to take to the beach, but I see the future getting nearer. What is interesting is how many people are now reporting, at least informally, that they have switched to digital for the lengthy leisurely reads I felt to be paper’s greatest provision. Few if any studies have been reported on this as yet but it’s definitely an interesting question. Meanwhile, I expect I’ll still be buying and reading paper for the rest of my life but I might just be purchasing more e-texts along the way.