The Future Of Books Is Here (And It's Mobile)

Kindle Shipments

Photo: news reports, BII estimates

Noted business author Seth Godin has made waves by using Kickstarter to fund his next book. As of this writing, he has raised over $250,000. The future of the book is here, and it’s exciting. Even before the Internet, the conventional wisdom held that modern mass media would kill the book by dulling interest in it. It hasn’t happened. In fact, we may be seeing a renewal of the book thanks to online platforms and mobile devices.

Apple’s visionary Steve Jobs famously dismissed Amazon’s Kindle by saying that “people don’t read anymore.” And yet by any estimate Amazon’s Kindle has been a fantastic customer success. And Jobs learned his lesson, by trying to take on Kindle with the Apple iBooks store. The two giants are now in a complicated legal fight over pricing, which shows the importance of this market to both.

According to Forrester, the e-books market reached almost $1 billion in 2010 and is on course to triple by 2015. Amazon has said that it now sells more Kindle books than it does paper books. According to our own estimates, Amazon sold around 6 million Kindles last year.

The bleatings of curmudgeons aside, it’s become obvious that e-readers provide a reading experience superior to the printed page. One can fit countless books in their pocket. People of all ages can read in a comfortable font size. A light e-reader is much easier to read with for long stretches of time than a heavy, thick book, and some of them allow you to read in the dark. 

In addition to providing a superior reading experience, these reading devices are connected to online platforms, which provides the following benefits:

  • One-click purchasing in a virtually limitless catalogue. Amazon made its name with one-click purchasing, and its power has never been as evident as with the Kindle. Being able to start reading a book after tapping a button once is a wonderful experience, which explains why Kindle books are now outselling paper books.
  • Buy once, read anywhere. Even though e-readers provide the superior experience, we enjoy reading on all sorts of devices. We don’t take our Kindles everywhere. Which is why Amazon has very smartly created Kindle apps for virtually every platform. After reading on your Kindle at home, you can pick up your book and start reading where you left off — on your iPhone in the subway.
  • The death of gatekeepers. The oligopolistic publishing business model will no longer work. It does not mean that books will be free, or that publishers will become irrelevant. But it does mean that publishers will no longer be gatekeepers, once anyone can self-publish on Kindle. Startups like Wattpad, which has raised $20 million over successive rounds from marquee investors like Union Square Ventures, allows communities of writers to work on material and publish it to all devices. (Apple and other booksellers worry, however, that Amazon may become the new gatekeeper by charging below-market prices for e-books, making it hard for other outlets, particularly physical bookstores, to compete.)
  • New business models. “Pre-selling” via Kickstarter is one. The “Kindle Single,” a short book available for sale for a few dollars is another. One can imagine serials, sold by subscription, for genre fiction.  

While all of this has been theoretically possible since the advent of the consumer internet, what has made it actually possible has been mobile devices. E-readers for sure, but also a universe of smartphones, tablets, computers, and connected devices that makes it worthwhile to build one’s library in the cloud instead of in one’s living room. 

The bottom line is reading and book publishing are and will remain very large markets, and the technological disruption will allow for new products and new business models.

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