2008: Year of the eBook – Not

In spite of another round of ebook hype prompted by Amazon’s Kindle launch late last year, the signs are not good for 2008 to be the Year of the eBook. One of the best indicators I found was here, at CeBIT, the world’s biggest ICT trade show which runs 4-9 March in Hannover, Germany. A search of its 5500 exhibitors for anything “ebook”, and a browse through its categories of consumer electronics gadgets, finds precisely zero references to ebooks or ebook readers.

Without a push to get great e-reading hardware into the marketplace, the ebook industry is going nowhere. And if it’s not happening in a global marketplace like CeBIT, the chances of it figuring in a small, far-flung market like this anytime soon is also close to zero.

This problem might be partly explained by the tardiness of the US-based players to get their international act together. And remarks like those from Apple’s Steve Jobs don’t do much to help excite the market, especially when Jobs’ iPhone is being touted as one of the ebook readers to watch by those who care about such things.

Perhaps the real problem is simply that the big publishers aren’t pushing hard enough to get e-reading gadgets out there. I’d have expected an active, publisher-driven strategy to work hand-in-hand with pioneering hardware suppliers to seed key markets. Instead, there seems to be a mostly passive role played by publishers. It might be a sign of their own lack of confidence in the market. Potential hardware manufacturers will no doubt see it that way. It might also be a symptom of their lack of connection with the end users who would be targets for such a campaign. Publishers, after all, tend to mostly leave this important role to booksellers and their traditional bookseller customers are probably the wrong ones to help with this job.

Much is also made of the so-called “Tower of eBabel” as slowing market adoption. There’s no doubt it has an effect but given the ability of hardware to support multiple ebook formats without too much difficulty, it’s hard to see how this can be the reason for lack of interest in the hardware sector. With so many key hardware elements, such as screen, battery, mobile communications and processor technology, fairly well covered now, there’s even less reason for their tardiness.

The fact that most of the experimentation has been taking place in the US market to date, might also be part of the problem. Even a publishing market as significant as the UK (for both its domestic and international reach) has yet to see a significant ebook reader launch. All of this serves to constrain the market for the vital “software” (ie the ebooks) and encourage the view among hardware manufacturers – who want global economies of scale – that the market is too small to matter.

Finally, there’s an important knock-on effect of keeping the early adopter skill base mostly in the US: when the market does eventually take off, American publishers, service providers and ebook sellers will have a huge headstart. This is the biggest problem facing us in the non-US world and could result in global dominance of ebook distribution and/or publishing by the US. Longer-term, this has the potential to erode local book publishing (paper as well as electronic) as increasing amounts of profit and expertise are lost to US players with little stake in local cultures.

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