It is tempting to read too much into Adobes decision, effective June 3, to close its online content store. Neither Adobe nor online content seem any worse for the companys experience in selling electronic books, but they dont seem very much better for it, either.
Despite Adobes efforts—and they have a big stake in this—electronic books are one of the big disappointments of this "Internet era" weve been subjected to lately.
The idea is simple enough: Publish a book that can be read on a computer screen. Add search and other capabilities not available in books printed on paper. Format the electronic book so it looks good if—make that when—the reader decides to print it.
The next step is the most difficult: Get people to pay for your electronic book.
Ive commented before on the unwillingness of customers to pay for information presented online that theyd gladly pay for in print. While paper may not be a very good storage mechanism, it remains an excellent display medium.
Many people, including myself, happily print long documents (or even short ones we need to refer to while working online in a different document) because its easier to read paper than a screen.
Maybe its different for young people. Perhaps they are more accustomed to using screens because they started younger than their parents. Id test this hypothesis, except I dont know any young people who read. Thats definitely a more serious problem than the failures of electronic publishing, but not one I can do much about.
But as a reader, customer, electronic publisher and author, Ive observed how electronic publishing goes wrong (mostly) and right (rarely). Heres my report:
1. The most important issue remains the lack of an excellent platform for reading electronic books. Most people have no interest in "curling up with a warm laptop" so they can read a new novel. PDAs ought to provide a decent reading experience, but as yet dont.
2. E-books are not for recreational reading. Want to "read" a book on a computer? Visit Audible.com and download an audiobook for your PDA or MP3 device. Its a lot more fun to have someone read to you.
3. Publishers dont seem to understand that electronic books need to be short. You cant just force-fit traditional books into electronic book jackets. Adam Engst, publisher of the Mac newsletter TidBits, is having some success with how-to e-books that are, essentially, long magazine articles.