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40 years of the ebook: from Project Gutenberg to market domination

9 Sep, 11 | by BMJ

Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart, who created the first ever ebook, has died aged 64. Launched in 1971 when Hart decided on a whim to type the US Declaration of Independence into a computer, Project Gutenberg is now one of the largest collections of free ebooks in the world. In 1998 he told Wired magazine that “20 or 30 years from now, there’s going to be some gizmo that kids carry around in their back pocket that has everything in it – including our books, if they want”. How right he was, though the rate of progress has been considerably quicker.

Amazon’s latest financial results reported that so far in 2011 its US wing had sold 120 Kindle ebooks for every 100 paperbacks. “Additionally, during this same time period the company has sold three times as many Kindle books as hardcover books,” the company said in a statement. But is the ebook movement really a “ferocious advance upon the bastions of literary culture“? Is it worthy of comparison with Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th century printing press in terms of milestone status?

Emergence of ebooks
Early ebooks were intended to be documents that only small groups might share. The consequent fractured market of independents and specialty authors created a lack of consensus on the best way to package, sell or read ebooks.  Numerous ebook formats emerged, some supported by major software companies (like Adobe’s PDF format) and others supported by independent and open-source programmers. Multiple readers followed multiple formats, thereby fragmenting the market further and keeping ebooks from going mainstream.

Ebooks continued to gain in their own specialist and underground markets. Many ebook publishers began distributing books that were in the public domain or simply old and hard to find. At the same time, authors that had been rejected by publishers began to strike out on their own, offering their work online to gain exposure. Unofficial (and occasionally unauthorised) catalogues of books became available on the web and sites devoted to ebooks began spreading the word to the public.

Libraries and publishers get involved
Libraries started paying heed to ebooks in 1998 when NetLibrary began to provide content. In 2002, they were purchased by OCLC (Online Computer Library Center) and then sold to EBSCO, who continue to provide content to libraries today. The major publishing companies finally took notice of the ebook movement around 2001-2, when Random House and HarperCollins started selling digital versions of their publications. Reacting in much the same way as the music industry to the MP3, publishers were initially reticent but are now trying to better understand and exploit the new ebook format. They have established online stores and partnered with e-reader manufacturers to establish themselves in the market.

As a result of this activity, new selling models are being developed, formats are beginning to homogenize, dedicated reading hardware is now available and ebooks are achieving global distribution. The latest report from the Association of American Publishers, compiling sales data from US publishing houses, shows that total ebook sales in February were $90.3m (£55.2m). This makes digital books the largest single format in the US for the first time ever, the AAP said, overtaking paperbacks at $81.2m.

The 40-year history of ebooks, illustrated
To comemmorate 40 years of ebooks, Piotr Kowalczyk has created the following infographic. He says that  “In the minds of many, digital reading has only been around for a few years. I’ve been reading books on PDAs since the year 2000, and there are people who’ve been reading on mobile devices for even longer; my own father has been doing this since the 80s. Thought ebooks were new? Think again–they’ve been around since 1971.”

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