Book illustrator Duncan Long reads an old-fashioned book instead of the eBooks he prefers

I’ve been in the publishing industry several decades now (and had a love for books and writing for many decades before that). I’ve followed with interest the appearance of the eBook.

I was an “early adopter” of the eBook in idea if not name, reading text in 2002 on a Dell Axim PDA (personal digital assistant — a forerunner of the smart phone, sans ability to make phone calls) before anyone was actually talking seriously about eBooks (and perhaps even calling anything an “eBook”). Books in Doc and Txt formats were available from the Gutenberg Project and elsewhere for free, so rather than shelling out cash for print books, reading them on the PDA seemed a viable money saver to me. Later (and long before the Kindle and other modern readers had appeared), I graduated to an eBookwise reader (that I still use on occasion — though loading books into it is iffy since the company making them went out of business and I am now using Window 8); the eBookwise reader has a lot of nice features with a liquid crystal display that allows for lots of reading before recharging the battery.

The PDA and eBookwise reader were crude compared to the modern Nook and Kindles, but they got the job done, and I soon discovered I preferred reading text on one of these devices more than I did reading print (the exception being technical or art books with charts and illustrations). They could be held and read at all angles, were lit in a darkened room, and allowed adjusting font size to ease the reading task. So, yes, I’m pretty much sold on eBooks.

With any new medium, there’s always the question of whether it will prove economically viable and where how it will change in the future. Such changes can be profound — who would have thought in 2000 BC that scrolls would ever evolve into a book with pages?

So the most caveat: I have no crystal ball that reveals the future. And neither does anyone else.

The first question about eBooks has been answered, however. They are economically viable. In fact, some of the small publishers I’ve talked to are now making more money with their eBooks than with the print version of the same title. At first this seems a rather amazing given there’s still a large segment of the public that doesn’t even own a Nook, Kindle, or other discrete eBook reading device, and these folks have no plan to start reading eBooks any time soon.

So why the large sales figures for eBooks? I think the secret is eBook readers have a bigger appetite for reading, and possibly also have more disposable income to buy books. Additionally, the Kindle books can be read (via the right app) on smart phones, tablets, PCs, or any of a number of other devices. So even though there may not be a lot of Kindles and Nooks out there just yet, that doesn’t mean folks aren’t using other devices to read eBooks.

What about the future of eBook formats?

I’m betting that the text-only eBook is going to be a viable proposition for the foreseeable future, just as text-only print books have been popular since Gutenberg inked up his first plate. There’s usually room for another medium; the radio has been able to coexist with TV, and movies with both. I have little doubt there’ll always be a niche for text-only eBooks.

Print books and magazines have expanded past the text-only format, sometimes encompassing color photos and layouts Gutenberg could never have dreamed of: “Coffee table” books full of illustrations, comic books, graphic novels, pop-up books, children’s books… There’s a wealth of variation out there. You can bet the eBook will expand into some new territory as well, with some publishers already producing eBooks with bits of video and background music to go along with the text.

Of course there may be some journeys in directions that turn out to be economic dead ends, oddities that never catch on — the publishing counterpart to the 3D B&W movies of the 1960s. What makes things interesting is that you never know what might catch on and what will fall to the wayside. (And sometimes what didn’t work in the past becomes viable later on — like the 3D movies that are appearing in theaters today.)

One possible direction eBooks could take can be found in some of the books by Mark Z. Danielewski (with an overview of these here in “The Revolution Will Be Digitized: A look at the eBook”). Danielewski has produced eBooks with a fixed layout, pictures, and even a soundtrack. Other publishers are producing books with hotlinks to the web, some with video sections, and other add-ons.

Will any of these become a form that proves to be a money maker? Or will these become oddities that fail to inspire a following? No one will know until the bottom line is totaled and the format proves to be a money maker or a money pit.

One thing for sure, it’s going to be a fun, and perhaps a bit terrifying, roller coaster ride for those in the publishing industry over the next decade or two.

For those self-publishing eBooks, my best advice: Don’t be an early adopter of new formats. Let the big publishers and cutting-edge folks spend the money with videos, original music, and who-knows-what to test the markets. Wait and see which critter is still standing when the dust of the stampede clears, and then saddle up on the winning horse.

In the meantime, if you’re writing novels or other text-heavy book formats, don’t be afraid to stick with what has worked since the 1400s: Text and good story telling.

Duncan Long is a writer/illustrator who has had over one hundred books published with HarperCollins, Avon, Paladin Press, Delta Press, and other publishers. He also recently started his own publishing company Duncan Long Publications.