My "aha" moment came when, suddenly, about a year ago, I stopped seeing the familiar Amazon smiley face boxes on my doorstep each week. Secretly, I was elated because that meant we'd eliminated one of our biggest household expenses (right after our kids' private school tuition!) and that maybe we could plan that trip to Hawaii sooner rather than later.
But then my husband, a voracious reader, admitted that the boxes stopped coming because he finally got his Kindle and was able to instantly preview, purchase and consume almost all of his new books digitally. He was actually spending more money on books and was no longer as interested in building up his physical library. I knew then why Jeff Bezos was betting the future of his company on e-books and the device that would bring them to life.
Stuart -- and the many millions like him -- is the reason for the seemingly endless parade of new digital reading devices in recent weeks (Hearst's Skiff, Spring Design's Alex, Plastic Logic's Que, the EnTourage eDGe, and the impending, multi-purpose Apple tablet are just a few -- not to mention the niche devices or the smartphones that are retooling to better service mobile reading fans). And, even in the last 48 hours, more aggressive competition between Amazon (new revenue split with Kindle authors and Kindle apps) and Apple (rumors of new iTunes-like model for media of all kinds).
The press and pundits are already arguing that "there are officially too damn many e-readers," that they're too expensive, invite piracy, etc. They're wrong. Or at least very short sighted. The e-reader explosion is good -- no, excellent -- news for pretty much everyone. Here's why:
The device companies recognize the huge market potential in e-books and have decided that they can't afford not to play ball. On Christmas, Amazon sold more e-books than print books for the first time ever. Since there are relatively few Kindle owners compared to the total number of book buyers using Amazon (based on analyst estimates), this milestone is significant and explains the e-reader land grab. (Note: I'm using Kindle as an example not because I have a preference one way or another but because of the relative market maturity of their e-book and device offering).
For book publishers, media companies and even novice writers, more devices means more distribution options, more demand for content and possibly even higher profit margins -- no more failed print runs or out-of-print books, the ability to correct mistakes and cultural references instantly and set prices dynamically based on real-time market research. Mobile also presents a terrific opportunity for publishing houses and imprints to strengthen their brands and establish a more direct relationship with the actual reader-consumer (why is this not happening already?!).
The big challenge for content owners will be to get their content onto multiple devices quickly and efficiently. Which then presents an opportunity for platforms/aggregators like Scribd to present a one-stop-solution to professional publishers; there would still be the issue of digital rights, but that's another post entirely. (Disclosure: I work at Scribd and run the company's content and marketing groups.)
Most importantly, though, the reader-consumer benefits. Big time. These devices give consumers easy, immediate access to hundreds of thousands, even millions, of books and other written material, including hard-to-find special collections and out-of-print books. They can carry around entire libraries on a 10-inch piece of hardware.
Even for people who can't afford e-readers at their current price points, anyone with a web-enabled phone now has access to millions of public-domain books and documents for free (Google Books and Scribd are great sources). Many device choices means better products offered at better prices very quickly.
There's no doubt that e-reading will continue to proliferate, not only in volume but also in format and richness of experiences. As a lover of the written word, I'm incredibly heartened by this Renaissance.
Reading is hot. No matter how you look at it, that's great news for everyone.