Commentary: E-books unlikely to affect traditional book sales

Gartner analyst Rita Knox says e-book initiatives as constituted today will likely not reduce sales of traditional books to any great extent.

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By Rita Knox, Gartner Analyst

The ability to download and read books on portable devices will likely not reduce sales of traditional books to any great extent.

The cost of printing books is negligible compared to the intellectual property costs, which will remain a major element in the cost of e-books. Most readers will continue to find paper books more pleasant to hold and to read than any electronic device, and books are easy to buy.

Efforts to improve e-books as representations of real books, such as improving the readability screen fonts and boosting download speeds, will not overcome those competitive barriers.

E-book and content vendors must rethink what electronic content can do for readers. With the emphasis on particular devices for delivery, such as Microsoft's Pocket PC, a major weakness of e-books is that they tie readers to a type of device--the e-book appliance itself--or even a particular brand.

Readers may demand more flexibility. Otherwise, e-books will not improve on the convenience and portability of paperbacks or magazines.

Readers will not want to be limited to a single device. People who already have a laptop computer, personal digital assistant and cell phone may not relish carrying around an e-book, too. A reader could start a book during lunch hour at work and prefer to read on a desktop or laptop computer; on the drive home, the reader might want to continue the book in audio format. Elsewhere, a handheld device might work best.

Nor will readers want to buy from a limited pool of texts such as, for example, the e-books that Microsoft sells on Microsoft Network.

The problem of digital rights management also looms for e-books. This is relatively simple for readers of ordinary books: You buy a book and can pass it on to anyone else. Or you can borrow books for free at the public library. Copying and distribution of electronic content by individuals is potentially unlimited, and private communities, such as Napster with its digital music technology, could trade e-books among themselves.

Publishers will have to work hard to solve the problems with distribution protection, pricing models and the reuse of e-books. It remains to be seen whether e-book consumers will tolerate barriers to easy acquisition and reuse--for example, time constraints on use or regulations that prevent or limit copies.

As with so much information delivered via the Internet, competition could force the prices of e-book downloads to the commodity level--or make them free. In short, it will be difficult for vendors to figure out the business rules to make e-books attractive to all constituents, from author to consumer.

E-books such as Microsoft envisions today will likely form a publishing niche similar to audio books. A breakout to wider popularity for e-book content will require proper identification and management of a complex set of factors. Many types of vendors will likely become involved, including sellers of hardware and software, Internet service providers, e-commerce Web sites, book publishers, bookstores and other retail outlets. The e-book industry will have to simplify property rights and payment so that these do not inconvenience consumers or authors.

Vendors will have to work with technologies such as XML that can provide digital rights management and support rendering of e-book content for different devices. The mobility and usability of e-book devices must offset some of the pleasure, convenience and near-universal availability of traditional books.

Entire contents, Copyright © 2000 Gartner Group, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.