Electronic Books (eBooks)

Update 2005

A brief history of books

The traditional books of the paper variety have been around for over 4,400 years.

It began about 2400BC when scholars used papyrus scrolls to write the earliest texts. Around 600BC, a general agreement was made by Mediterranean cultures on left-to-right writing and reading. In 295BC, the Alexandria Library was created to hold all the scrolls of the known world. Started by King Ptolemy I Soter. he enlisted the services of the orator Demetrios Phalereus, a former governor of Athens, to acquire the collection. Approximately 40,000 of the 700,000 volumes did get destroyed by fire in 47AD. But by around 200AD, much of the library was destroyed and by 400AD, all volumes were gone. The destruction of Alexandria Library was under the direction of Archbishop Theophilus of Antioch. But eventually the first 28 public libraries were established in Rome, Italy in 370AD.

We find the earliest time for colour printing began in 1457AD as seen in the major work known as the Mainz Psalter. In 1753AD saw the first British Library established. First paperbacks began by Tauchnitz Verlag Germany in 1841AD.

After 1984, publishers took advantage of electronic tools known as desktop publishing software to prepare and print books (the p-book). Personal computers and laserwriters soon took over traditional printing methods. Only larger publishers continued to use high quality photographic high-speed printing such as coffee-table edition p-books.

In 1999, p-books remained the most popular item for purchasing by consumers as the following statistics show:

As this graph indicates (1), out of a total 28 million purchases, approximately 9.2 million users purchased p-books and information (E) compared to software (A), clothing (B), computers (C), and CDs and videos (D).

Then the next revolution had to be the price of desktop publishing software, computers and printers (except for the consumable inks and toner cartridges). As the prices for these tools came down to an affordable level, more and more individuals and groups started to realise they too could become their own publishers as well as authors of any works they wish to create.

Then after 1998, an American software company called Adobe Systems, Inc. came along with a new publishing medium to deliver information in an electronic format showing the p-book can be profoundly affected by technology. The technology is called e-books (based on PDF), and it allows artists/publishers to directly sell their works digitally online through the Web Buy Technology scheme and an online e-business.

Once people saw the benefits of electronic delivery of information without printing and a means of delivering the information to anyone using the internet, virtually anyone can be an author, publisher and distributor of information across the globe.

There remains just two problems:

  1. How do the traditional big publishers, book shops, printers and everyone else in the book production and distribution chain be able to share in the profits that authors can now potentially make (assuming authors can market and sell their information effectively enough)?
  2. How to accommodate the diverse range of small portable devices that could double as e-book readers? The intensely rich designs of a PDF page are difficult to read on small displays. And there are plenty of people happy with the tradition plain black text on white or very subtle grey page background is in a traditional paperback.

At the same time, people had developed a simple electronic platform of getting together text and pictures that would originally end up being publish on a web site and just re-package the HTML text files and pictures into a single compressed ZIP file, and called it the ePUB format. Later, Amazon.com added its own means of protecting the ZIP file by creating a Kindle ePUB format and to sell the e-books exclusively on its web site.

Apple, Inc. joined the party by making use of its popular iTunes software to make the e-books even more accessible. Combined with the purchasing to the final reading stage on an iPad or iPhone process that is virtually effortless and at the same time create its own file protection technology, at last there is an effective way for companies to make money from the books people were writing, publishing and distributing.

So now, the only problem is how to standardise the large number of different e-book formats that will work on any e-reading platform? The story continues...

Definition of e-Books

Here is the Visual Book Project definition of an e-book:

"The result of integrating classical book structure, or rather the familiar concept of a book, with features which can be provided within an electronic environment, is referred to as an electronic book, which is interpreted as an interactive document which can be composed and read on a computer." (2)

Terje Hillesund provides an alternative definition in his essay titled Will e-books change the world?:

"A narrow definition treats an e-book as a digital object designed to be read on a handheld reading device or to be listened to from a speech generating tool. The core of this definition is that an e-book is content, a digital object containing an electronic representation of a book, most commonly thought of as the electronic analog of a paperback or clothbound book." (3)

Japanese e-book image from http://www.enc.hu/1enciklopedia/aktualis/ebook.jpg

These quotes are considered fairly broad and may include such things as CD-ROMs and web pages. However, we shall focus on Adobe's definition of an e-book. The difference between Adobe's definition of an e-book compared to other electronic versions is in the presentation. Whereas other e-books are designed to present digital text in any reasonable manner (often in the ASCII format), only Adobe attempts to recreate a book.

Adobe uses technology to convert p-books to e-books in a way that retains the integrity of the original document structure, font style and size, and graphics of p-books.


The advantages of having eBooks are as follows:

The consumer advantage

The librarian advantage

The author advantage

The business advantage

The global advantage


The disadvantages of having eBooks are as follows:


p-Books are here to stay. However, the younger market are now so tech-savvy that nearly all are opting for e-books with the right portable e-reading device. Understandable considering there are students from high school right up to university that find carrying lots of books a considerable burden. Hence the advantages of a single e-book reader device to store literally thousands of books at the palm of your hand.

But they are not the only ones to see the benefit. In fact, more consumers in the older markets are seeing the advantages of e-books with sales of this new publishing medium reaching 10 per cent of all book sales in 2005 according to Andersen Consulting, and continuing to grow as of 2012.

However, for traditional publishers, they remain a little more reserved and skeptical. Of biggest concern to them are the security problems associated with Adobe's e-book technology. For example, a Russian hacker turned entrepreneur by the name of Dmitry Sklyarov discovered the limited protection offered to authors and publishers by Adobe's e-book technology sometime in mid-2001. He set up a business called ElcomSoft for the purposes of selling his own software designed to help customers work out their own passwords for common applications in case they were forgotten.

Among the software he was offering was a tool to crack the PDF security codes of e-books. The security flaw was so serious that when Adobe Systems, Inc. finally discovered what happened (thanks to Elcomsoft's web site which advertised the new software) and realised he was on his way to a US conference to present a paper on how he did it, it almost landed Sklyarov in jail by the US Government at the request of Adobe. However, Adobe suddenly dropped all charges against the hacker amid worldwide protests because he did no wrong-doing. The onus was on the customer to do the right thing by using it on his/her own legitimately-purchased e-books for personal use.

Adobe's sole argument was that he had intended to sell the software to allow people to read and distribute their e-books without payment. But this was not clearly shown. Sklyarov had intended to sell the software to people who had legitimate-purchased e-books for their own personal use. Furthermore, Sklyarov's lawyer Joseph Burton said:

"After all, if we buy a book, why can't we read it in whatever format we want?" (4)

As a result, the complaint from Adobe was withdrawn. The company has now addressed the serious security flaw in the e-book technology. However it will take some time before traditional publishers and authors can feel comfortable about the new publishing medium:

"While electronic books have yet to set the world on fire, experimentation by publishers and developers in the e-book marketplace continues....

'Publishers are unwilling to embrace electronic publishing until better copyright protection systems are in place, mindful of the music industry's ongoing battle to control its works [due to the availability of the MP3 technology]." (5)

The only alternative solution is simply to give publishers time to make a profit on the sale of p-books and later produce e-books for libraries to hold in their own collection without expectation of a profit.

Indeed, with many of the latest e-book formats including Amazon.com with their Kindle e-book format and Apple's own re-packaged ePUB format with its own file protection technology can now be bypassed and made accessible and open to anyone with the right tools, this may be the only way for traditional publishers to make a profit.

It is likely e-books will complement traditional books rather than replace them until all the technological problems are fully ironed out.