My theories about the future of electronic books

Posted: February 2, 2008 in Futurism, writing

Before I start, let me be clear on what I mean by electronic books. I don’t think this is the right term, but I don’t know the correct one, so I will just provide the definition that I am working from: I mean books that can be read on a portable screen reader, where a person downloads an entire book into a hand-held electronic device that displays the book page by page on its screen.

(Warning: completely off topic)

I saw a few people with these a few months ago. While initially expensive, they have the tremendous benefit of being able to store multiple books. So you buy one reader for, say $200, and then you can buy a thousand books for fifty cents each. That’s 1000 books for $700, grand total. Try doing that with paperback novels, and you’ll pay at least ten times that amount.

I don’t know if this technology will ever completely replace the book, but as resolutions improve and it becomes less and less of a strain on the eye to look at one of these screens for hours at a time, they will at least become more and more popular (and, likely, cheaper). As much as I love the feel of a book in my hands, I can definitely see the appeal of going on vacation with five hundred books that all fit in my pocket, so that if I don’t like one, I can just skip it without fear of running out of reading material.

But, in all honesty, I don’t think that recreational reading is where they will become the most popular. I think that the major surge in popularity for these readers will be in academia. Specifically, in college book stores.

Someone will come up with this idea, if they haven’t already, and get together enough capital to make it happen.

Think about it. Right now, students pay an average of $75 dollars per course they take in books. That’s more or less accurate depending on the student’s major, of course. History books are cheaper than Chemistry books, and English books, while often more numerous, are still cheaper than Engineering books. But let’s use the $75 figure for ease.

Now think of how much it costs to operate a book store. The storage space, the stocking, the ordering and receiving, the cashiers… lots of money.

What if some college out there got rid of their book store and developed an online version? The college would, of course, still have a supply store (to sell sweat shirts, coffee mugs, drawing supplies, etc), but instead of students all going and buying books every semester (spending an average of $300 each for 4 classes), they buy one reader when they enter college (for $200), and then buy their books online. Since they are sold online, and there is no warehousing fees, no shipping, no packaging, and not even any printing, the books could be sold for a fraction of the price and still make more of a profit for the publishers. (If a book sells for $50, but costs $45 to be made, there’s not much profit. If it’s sold for $10, but only costs $1 to make, there’s a whole lot more profit–both percentage wise and in actual dollars).

Everyone wins in this situation. If the college has only 1000 students, then instead of them spending $600,000 dollars a year (2.4 million over four years), they buy one reader for $200 each ($200,000), and buy their books for, say, $30 a semester (60,000 a year). Now they pay $440,000 for four years–that’s a saving of almost 2 million dollars. Spread back among the 1000 students, they save two grand each. And the book publishers, who sell, say, 15,000 books books a year, make a hell of a lot of profit off it.

Maybe people aren’t ready to do their entertainment reading on a hand held screen. But I bet students in college would kill to save that kind of money. And while, granted, students couldn’t sell their books back, at this point they make so little doing that already (I got $5 back for a $60 book once, and my wife got $11 for a $95 dollar one) that it might not make a difference.

So books may be around forever, but sooner or later, someone’s going to figure out that electronic book readers can make a killing at the college level.

  1. carpenoctemtomorrow says:

    Fantastic! I’m hitting myself in the head because I hadn’t even thought of this when I heard of Electronic Book Readers. I’ll shyly admit I was thinking of a way to store all my Harry Potter Books (go ahead, laugh). But I’m a biochemistry student at U of T, so I have monstrous textbooks like “Microbiology of the Cell” and “Organic Chemistry” that I don’t even bother taking to school. I should because I have a lot of time between classes, and I could get alot of homework done. But if my books were electronic, I could have them with me at all times and whip them out even on the subway to read. Hmm, you’re making me think about talking to my bookstore about this.
    However, I still don’t think the price in textbooks will reduce too much, because university textbooks specific to a course usually cost a lot more money to make since there are fewer buyers than, say, textbooks in elementary and high schools, where an entire District School Board purchases them. But for convenience sake, I have to definitely agree with you.

  2. cogitas says:


    I’ve had that same wonder about the price of textbooks. I helped write a text book for the english program where I teach last year, and though it was a very short book with no permissions (we wrote everything), it still ended up costing the students around $40.

    But I have to wonder why the price is so much higher for in-house books. If its because a small print run is more expensive (because of setting the type, changing the binding machines, or whatever), then e-printing should still be cheaper, because it shouldn’t cost any noticeable amount more to e-publish 1000 copies than 1, and so print run sizes wouldn’t matter.

    I don’t know; maybe the e-readers work with .pdf files. If that’s the case, they can be ‘published’ with free software.

    If you do talk to your bookstore about this, then best of luck. There is one problem that needs figuring: how to stop students from giving each other copies of books. I think it’s possible to make a file un-copyable, but I remember being in college and knowing a whole lot of people with thousands of dollars worth of ‘un-copyable’ software on their computers (not me, of course!).

    And consider the idea of the creative commons type: use it as you like, just please give me credit.

  3. Aifos says:

    I love this idea of the eletronic books 🙂 lol

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