Can News Content Save e-Books?

By: Steve Outing

Both the manufacturers of e-book reading devices, and the book industry are, I
fear, headed down a path toward failure. But the news industry may be what saves
e-books from a dire fate.

Two recent events led me to contemplate this future:

o I started using an “e-book reader,” an RCA “REB 1100.”
o Last week, I attended the organizational meeting of the Electronic Book
Newsstand Association.

While I’ve been following and reporting on e-books for some time (mostly in my
writing outside of E&P Online), only now have I begun using an e-book reading
device regularly. I happen to believe that the reading devices, which I prefer
to call “e-readers” (and I’ll use that term throughout this article), are the
precursors to full-fledged portable digital tablets that consumers will use to
read not only books but all forms of media: newspapers, magazines, newsletters,
corporate documents, etc. Way down the road, they’ll be capable of presenting
audio and video programming.

I’m using the REB 1100 courtesy of Thomson Consumer Electronics, which
manufactures the devices under the RCA consumer products brand name and gave me
a review copy to try out. (Thomson/RCA manufactures the 1100 unit and the more
expensive 1200 color unit based on core technology of the old SoftBook and
RocketBook e-readers, which were acquired by Gemstar, working in partnership
with Thomson.) The devices are very much in their infancy. We’ve got a long way
to go before the e-reader becomes a useful mass-market device.

Books are not the answer

Let me start by saying that there are some serious problems with the current
state of the e-book/e-reader industry. Foremost is the industry’s near-exclusive
focus on books – and consumer titles at that – as the content to be
consumed on these devices.

I purchased, downloaded and read my first book on the REB 1100 – and found
it to be a worse experience than reading a printed version. This is mainly due
to the primitive state of displays for e-readers (and PCs and all digital
devices, for that matter). The 1100 is a black and white display unit, featuring
a digital monochrome LCD touch screen, 5.5 inches diagonal and 320 by 480 pixel

Here’s the problem: If you are trying to read the device in non-optimal
lighting, the touch screen catches a lot of glare, so you’re constantly trying
to tilt it to avoid reflections. In the dark (say, you’re up late reading in bed
and your spouse is sleeping), you can read the backlit screen in the dark and
it’s not bad – but it gave me a headache if I read too long. No matter how
much I tweaked the contrast and brightness controls, I could never get to a
reading comfort level anywhere near as good as plain old ink on paper.

Eventually, this problem should go away as paper-like digital display screens appear. (Companies like E Ink are working on “digital paper” technology that will replace liquid crystal displays. The concept is to create a display that does not need a backlight, can be read comfortably in sunlight conditions, and shows black-on-white text instead of the dark-gray-on-light-gray of LCD screens. E-Ink had some news yesterday that’s relevant to this discussion; see the short item at the end of this column.)

Too long for the devices

The primary issue, then, is this: E-readers of today are poor devices for
pleasure reading of long books. But what does Gemstar (which is partnered with
Thomson/RCA to provide content for the RCA eBook devices) emphasize in its
marketing to eBook owners? Popular books, at prices very close to print. It’s
the wrong strategy.

E-readers will fail to reach the mass market if the industry focuses on selling
popular books for the devices. For now, the reading experience is inferior to
print books. (Despite handy features such as looking up words you don’t know,
changing font size, making digital notes and underlining text, etc., the screen
resolution – even on the more expensive color units like the RCA REB
1200 – obviates the benefits of e-reading.)

Look at the Gemstar eBook marketplace and the problem is obvious. What it’s got for sale to read on the RCA eBook devices are mostly consumer book titles – and a limited selection, at that. (You can’t even buy a Harry Potter book to read on the RCA eBook yet.) And for this inferior reading quality, you are expected to pay about the same as for a print book. (Crypto by Steven Levy is $18.16 for the eBook version; at for the print edition, it costs $20.76. That’s not enough of a discount to encourage e-book reading.)

Students are ready

The e-reader and e-book industries should concentrate on textbooks, reference
books, and news.

Imagine the typical college classroom of a few years hence. Devices like the RCA
eBooks will be in many (if not most) students’ hands. Instead of loading up with
pounds and pounds of printed textbooks and instructors’ assigned materials at
the college bookstore, students will simply purchase and download their
semesters’ books onto their e-readers. (Good-bye heavy backpacks.)

The student market is, of course, primed for digital content consumption. That
generation is far more likely to give up printed textbooks for e-readers than is
the typical Stephen King fan likely to give up printed books. Also, e-
reader features such as appended note-taking and underlining are ideal for

By focusing on consumer titles, the e-book industry is headed for failure –
unless there’s a fast breakthrough in screen technology to improve the e-reading
experience and prices of e-readers drop dramatically. (Neither of those is
likely anytime soon.) There will be far more resistance to using e-readers for
consumer titles than there will be resistance by the student and trade book
reader communities.

News is where it’s at, folks

The other colossal mistake by the e-reader industry is the downplaying of news.
Clearly, e-reader companies like Gemstar-Thomson believe that books will be the
profit center for e-reader devices in the years to come. Books are what are
marketed most prominently.

Gemstar is working with a handful of newspaper and magazine publishers, who
offer their content for sale to eBook users. The problem is that only 6-month
and 1-year subscriptions to news content are offered. (For example, you can get
top news and headlines from The Christian Science Monitor for a full year
for $99.95, or for six months for $57.95; or Fast Company magazine for
$23.95 for a year or $14.95 for six months.)

What’s missing, of course, is the ability to purchase a single copy of the
Monitor, or a single copy of Fast Company on the eBook device. As
e-readers proliferate in the years to come, it will become commonplace for
newspaper and magazine readers to opt for this portable digital reading over
print. (Imagine the business traveler equipped with an e-reader. He/she will
load up on reading material – newspapers, magazines, newsletters, etc.
– before a trip, or at an airport e-book store. It all will fit in a single
digital device that weighs a pound or so.)

Of course, no one really knows how consumers will react to e-reader offerings.
But it makes sense that newspaper and magazine reading is better suited for
these devices than lengthy books. I’ll place my bet now that books will be
eclipsed in the future by periodical consumption when it comes to portable
digital e-readers.

The time is now

This brings me back to my early-on mention of the EBNA, a new non-profit association
organized by online media consultant and entrepreneur Vin Crosbie. The mission of that
group (of which I am one of the volunteer founding directors) is to encourage
the e-reader and e-books industries to think more about periodical content for
the devices; encourage e-book standards organizations to accommodate newspaper
and magazine publishers’ requirements for publishing to this new medium; and to
assist periodical publishers in distributing their content to the e-reader

What’s needed is for e-reader users to have a newsstand where they can purchase
from among hundreds of newspapers and magazines – just as they currently
have for e-books. E-reader users should be able to buy a digital version of
today’s New York Times, or the Duluth News-Tribune, or the most
recent issue of Golf Digest. This may take a concerted effort by
organizations like newspaper and magazine trade associations.

It’s time for newspapers and magazines to get involved. Don’t let the e-book
industry damage this future medium of e-readers by delivering in these early
days content that is not suited for the devices. Early users of e-readers who
try to use them for reading 400-page books are in danger of abandoning the
devices in frustration. The book industry has the potential to hurt the adoption
rates of e-readers by continuing in its wrong-headed direction.

News publishers need to get involved now, for they possess content that is far
better suited for this new generation of portable digital readers.

E Ink, Phillips do business

E Ink Corporation (mentioned in the
column above) has inked a significant deal with Philips Components, in which
the two companies will jointly develop high-resolution electronic ink
displays for handheld consumer electronic devices – such as e-readers
and PDAs (Palm Pilots, et al). The agreement has Philips Venture Capital
and Philips Components making an investment in E Ink to help fund the
latter’s research and development. Philips Components also gets global
rights to manufacture and sell handheld displays using electronic ink.
Commercial development of the display is expected to begin late this year,
the companies say in a press release.

As I explained in the column above, this technology is sorely needed if
e-readers are to become mass-market media-consumption devices.

Practice what I preach?

In my column last week about larger Web ads, I included a sentence suggesting that
with big ads, animation not be continual. As luck would have it, a small ad with
continuous animation was positioned adjacent to that sentence. Much of my reader
mail this week commented on that. Here’s a typical comment:

“I enjoyed your article about how to make money and not enemies
online. I almost clicked off your page, though, because it was difficult to
read. You see there was this annoying blinking ad in the left table of the page.
Maybe you could pass your article to the marketing folks at It is amazing to me how hard it is for people to ‘get
it’ with blinking ads. I read through anyway, and was glad I did.”

For the record, as a freelance columnist for E&P, I have no control
or knowledge in advance of ads that accompany my columns.

Other recent columns

In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are links to the last
few columns:
o How To Make Money, Not Enemies, Online, Wednesday, Feb. 21
o Yes, Interactivity Really Is Good for Your Site, Wednesday, Feb. 14
o E-mail Your Audience Anything They Want, Wednesday, Feb. 7
o Archive of columns

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Got a tip? Let me know about it If you have a newsworthy item
about the online news/interactive news media business, please send me a

This column is written by Steve
Outing for Editor & Publisher Online. Tips, letters and feedback
can be sent to Steve at

Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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