Beyond the Flickering Screen: Re-situating e-books



How to Cite

Young, S. (2008). Beyond the Flickering Screen: Re-situating e-books. M/C Journal, 11(4).
Vol. 11 No. 4 (2008): publish
Published 2008-08-26
The move from analog distribution to online digital delivery is common in the contemporary mediascape. Music is in the midst of an ipod driven paradigm shift (Levy), television and movie delivery is being reconfigured (Johnson), and newspaper and magazines are confronting the reality of the world wide web and what it means for business models and ideas of journalism (Beecher). In the midst of this change, the book publishing industry remains defiant. While embracing digital production technologies, the vast majority of book content is still delivered in material form, printed and shipped the old-fashioned way—despite the efforts of many technology companies over the last decade. Even the latest efforts from corporate giants such as Sony and Amazon (who appear to have solved many of the technical hurdles of electronic reading devices) have had little visible impact. The idea of electronic books, or e-books, remains the domain of geeky early adopters (“Have”). The reasons for this are manifold, but, arguably, a broader uptake of e-books has not occurred because cultural change is much more difficult than technological change and book readers have yet to be persuaded to change their cultural habits.

Electronic reading devices have been around for as long as there have been computers with screens, but serious attempts to replicate the portability, readability, and convenience of a printed book have only been with us for a decade or so. The late 1990s saw the release of a number of e-book devices. In quick succession, the likes of the Rocket e-Book, the SoftBook and the Franklin eBookman all failed to catch on. Despite this lack of market penetration, software companies began to explore the possibilities—Microsoft’s Reader software competed with a similar product from Adobe, some publishers became content providers, and a niche market of consumers began reading e-books on personal digital assistants (PDAs). That niche was sufficient for e-reading communities and shopfronts to appear, with a reasonable range of titles becoming available for purchase to feed demand that was very much driven by early adopters. But the e-book market was and remains small. For most people, books are still regarded as printed paper objects, purchased from a bookstore, borrowed from a library, or bought online from companies like

More recently, the introduction of e-ink technologies (EPDs) (DeJean), which allow for screens with far more book-like resolution and contrast, has provided the impetus for a new generation of e-book devices. In combination with an expanded range of titles (and deals with major publishing houses to include current best-sellers), there has been renewed interest in the idea of e-books. Those who have used the current generation of e-ink devices are generally positive about the experience. Except for some sluggishness in “turning” pages, the screens appear crisp, clear and are not as tiring to read as older displays. There are a number of devices that have embraced the new screen technologies (mobileread) but most attention has been paid to three devices in particular—mainly because their manufacturers have tried to create an ecosystem that provides content for their reading devices in much the same way that Apple’s itunes store provides content for ipods.

The Sony Portable Reader (Sonystyle) was the first electronic ink device to be produced by a mainstream consumers electronics company. Sony ties the Reader to its Connect store, which allows the purchase of book titles via a computer; titles are then downloaded to the Reader in the same way that an mp3 player is loaded with music. Sony’s most prominent competition in the marketplace is Amazon’s Kindle, which does not require users to have a computer. Instead, its key feature is a constant wireless connection to Amazon’s growing library of Kindle titles. This works in conjunction with US cellphone provider Sprint to allow the purchase of books via wireless downloads wherever the Sprint network exists. The system, which Amazon calls “whispernet,” is invisible to readers and the cost is incorporated into the price of books, so Kindle users never see a bill from Sprint (“Frequently”).

Both the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle are available only in limited markets; Kindle’s reliance on a cellphone network means that its adoption internationally is dependent on Amazon establishing a relationship with a cellphone provider in each country of release. And because both devices are linked to e-bookstores, territorial rights issues with book publishers (who trade publishing rights for particular global territories in a colonial-era mode of operation that seems to ignore the reality of global information mobility (Thompson 74–77)) contribute to the restricted availability of both the Sony and Amazon products. The other mainstream device is the iRex Iliad, which is not constrained to a particular online bookstore and thus is available internationally. Its bookstore ecosystems are local relationships—with Dymocks in Australia, Borders in the UK, and other booksellers across Europe (iRex).

All three devices use EPDs and share similar specifications for the actual reading of e-books. Some might argue that the lack of a search function in the Sony and the ability to write on pages in the Iliad are quite substantive differences, but overall the devices are distinguished by their availability and the accessibility of book titles. Those who have used the devices extensively are generally positive about the experience. Amazon’s Customer Reviews are full of positive comments, and the sense from many commentators is that the systems are a viable replacement for old-fashioned printed books (Marr).

Despite the good reviews—which suggest that the technology is actually now good enough to compete with printed books—the e-book devices have failed to catch on. Amazon has been hesitant to state actual sales figures, leaving it to so-called analysts to guess with the most optimistic suggesting that only 30 to 50,000 have sold since launch in late 2007 (Sridharan). By comparison, a mid-list book title (in the US) would expect to sell a similar number of copies. The sales data for the Sony Portable Reader (which has been on the market for nearly two years) and the iRex iliad are also elusive (Slocum), suggesting that they have not meaningfully changed the landscape. Tellingly, despite the new devices, the e-book industry is still tiny. Although it is growing, the latest American data show that the e-book market has wholesale revenues of around $10 million per quarter (or around $40 million per year), which is dwarfed by the $35 billion in revenues regularly earned annually in the US printed book industry ("Book"). It’s clear that despite the technological advances, e-books have yet to cross the chasm from early adopter to mainstream usage (see IPDF).

The reason for this is complex; there are issues of marketing and distribution that need to be considered, as well as continuing arguments about screen technologies, appropriate publishing models, and digital rights management. It is beyond the scope of this article to do justice to those issues. Suffice to say, the book industry is affected by the same debates over content that plague other media industries (Vershbow). But, arguably, the key reason for the minimal market impact is straightforward—technological change is relatively easy, but cultural change is much more difficult. The current generation of e-book devices might be technically very close to being a viable replacement for print on paper (and the next generation of devices will no doubt be even better), but there are bigger cultural hurdles to be overcome.

For most people, the social practice of reading books (du Gay et al 10) is inextricably tied with printed objects and a print culture that is not yet commonly associated with “technology” (perhaps because books, as machines for reading (Young 160), have become an invisible technology (Norman 246)). E. Annie Proulx’s dismissive suggestion that “nobody is going to sit down and read a novel on a twitchy little screen. Ever” (1994) is commonly echoed when book buyers consider the digital alternative. Those thoughts only scratch the surface of a deeply embedded cultural practice.

The centuries since Gutenberg’s printing press and the vast social and cultural changes that followed positioned print culture as the dominant cultural mode until relatively recently (Eisenstein; Ong). The emerging electronic media forms of the twentieth century displaced that dominance with many arguing that the print age was moved aside by first radio and television and now computers and the Internet (McLuhan; Postman). Indeed, there is a subtext in that line of thought, one that situates electronic media forms (particularly screen-based ones) as the antithesis of print and book culture.

Current e-book reading devices attempt to minimise the need for cultural change by trying to replicate a print culture within an e-print culture. For the most part, they are designed to appeal to book readers as a replacement for printed books. But it will take more than a perfect electronic facsimile of print on paper to persuade readers to disengage with a print culture that incorporates bookshops, bookclubs, writing in the margins, touching and smelling the pages and covers, admiring the typesetting, showing off their bookshelves, and visibly identifying with their collections. The frequently made technical arguments (about flashing screens and reading in the bath (Randolph)) do not address the broader apprehension about a cultural experience that many readers do not wish to leave behind. It is in that context that booklovers appear particularly resistant to any shift from print to a screen-based format. One only has to engage in a discussion about e-books (or lurk on an online forum where one is happening) to appreciate how deeply embedded print culture is (Hepworth)—book readers have a historical attachment to the printed object and it is this embedded cultural resistance that is the biggest barrier for e-books to overcome. Although e-book devices in no way resemble television, print culture is still deeply suspicious of any screen-based media and arguments are often made that the book as a physical object is critical because “different types of media function differently, and even if the content is similar the form matters quite a lot” (Weber).


Of course, many in the newspaper industry would argue that long-standing cultural habits can change very rapidly and the migration of eyeballs from newsprint to the Internet is a cautionary tale (see Auckland). That specific format shift saw cultural change driven by increased convenience and a perception of decreased cost. For those already connected to the Internet, reading newspapers online represented zero marginal cost, and the range of online offerings dwarfed that of the local newsagency. The advantage of immediacy and multimedia elements, and the possibility of immediate feedback, appeared sufficient to drive many away from print towards online newspapers.

For a similar shift in the e-book realm, there must be similar incentives for readers. At the moment, the only advantages on offer are weightlessness (which only appeals to frequent travellers) and convenience via constant access to a heavenly library of titles (Young 150). Amazon’s Kindle bookshop can be accessed 24/7 from anywhere there is a Sprint network coverage (Nelson). However, even this advantage is not so clear-cut—there is a meagre range of available electronic titles compared to printed offerings. For example, Amazon claims 130,000 titles are currently available for Kindle and Sony has 50,000 for its Reader, figures that are dwarfed by Amazon’s own printed book range.

Importantly, there is little apparent cost advantage to e-books. The price of electronic reading devices is significant, amounting to a few hundred dollars to which must be added the cost of e-books. The actual cost of those titles is also not as attractive as it might be. In an age where much digital content often appears to be free, consumers demand a significant price advantage for purchasing online. Although some e-book titles are priced more affordably than their printed counterparts, the cost of many seems strangely high given the lack of a physical object to print and ship. For example, Amazon Kindle titles might be cheaper than the print version, but the actual difference (after discounting) is not an order of magnitude, but of degree. For example, Randy Pausch’s bestselling The Last Lecture is available for $12.07 as a paperback or $9.99 as a Kindle edition (“Last”).

For casual readers, the numbers make no sense—when the price of the reading device is included, the actual cost is prohibitive for those who only buy a few titles a year. At the moment, e-books only make sense for heavy readers for whom the additional cost of the reading device will be amortised over a large number of books in a reasonably short time. (A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggested that the break-even point for the Kindle was the purchase of 61 books (Arends).) Unfortunately for the e-book industry, not is only is that particular market relatively small, it is the one least likely to shift from the embedded habits of print culture.

Arguably, should e-books eventually offer a significant cost benefit for consumers, uptake would be more dramatic. However, in his study of cellphone cultures, Gerard Goggin argues against purely fiscal motivations, suggesting that cultural change is driven by other factors—in his example, new ways of communicating, connecting, and engaging (205–211).

The few market segments where electronic books have succeeded are informative. For example, the market for printed encyclopedias has essentially disappeared. Most have reinvented themselves as CD-ROMs or DVD-ROMs and are sold for a fraction of the price. Although cost is undoubtedly a factor in their market success, added features such as multimedia, searchability, and immediacy via associated websites are compelling reasons driving the purchase of electronic encyclopedias over the printed versions. The contrast with the aforementioned e-book devices is apparent with encyclopedias moving away from their historical role in print culture. Electronic encyclopedias don’t try to replicate the older print forms. Rather they represent a dramatic shift of book content into an interactive audio-visual domain. They have experimented with new formats and reconfigured content for the new media forms—the publishers in question simply left print culture behind and embraced a newly emerging computer or multimedia culture.

This step into another realm of social practices also happened in the academic realm, which is now deeply embedded in computer-based delivery of research and pedagogy. Not only are scholarly journals moving online (Thompson 320–325), but so too are scholarly books. For example, at the Macquarie University Library, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of electronic books in the collection. The library purchased 895 e-books in 2005 and 68,000 in 2007. During the same period, the number of printed books purchased remained relatively stable with about 16,000 bought annually (Macquarie University Library). The reasons for the dramatic increase in e-book purchases are manifold and not primarily driven by cost considerations. Not only does the library have limited space for physical storage, but Macquarie (like most other Universities) emphasises its e-learning environment. In that context, a single e-book allows multiple, geographically dispersed, simultaneous access, which better suits the flexibility demanded of the current generation of students. Significantly, these e-books require no electronic reading device beyond a standard computer with an internet connection. Users simply search for their required reading online and read it via their web browser—the library is operating in a pedagogical culture that assumes that staff and students have ready access to the necessary resources and are happy to read large amounts of text on a screen. Again, gestures towards print culture are minimal, and the e-books in question exist in a completely different distributed electronic environment.

Another interesting example is that of mobile phone novels, or “keitai” fiction, popular in Japan. These novels typically consist of a few hundred pages, each of which contains about 500 Japanese characters. They are downloaded to (and read on) cellphones for about ten dollars apiece and can sell in the millions of copies (Katayama). There are many reasons why the keitai novel has achieved such popularity compared to the e-book approaches pursued in the West. The relatively low cost of wireless data in Japan, and the ubiquity of the cellphone are probably factors. But the presence of keitai culture—a set of cultural practices surrounding the mobile phone—suggests that the mobile novel springs not from a print culture, but from somewhere else. Indeed, keitai novels are written (often on the phones themselves) in a manner that lends itself to the constraints of highly portable devices with small screens, and provides new modes of engagement and communication. Their editors attribute the success of keitai novels to how well they fit into the lifestyle of their target demographic, and how they act as community nodes around which readers and writers interact (Hani). Although some will instinctively suggest that long-form narratives are doomed with such an approach, it is worthwhile remembering that, a decade ago, few considered reading long articles using a web browser and the appropriate response to computer-based media was to rewrite material to suit the screen (Nielsen). However, without really noticing the change, the Web became mainstream and users began reading everything on their computers, including much longer pieces of text.

Apart from the examples cited, the wider book trade has largely approached e-books by trying to replicate print culture, albeit with an electronic reading device. Until there is a significant cost and convenience benefit for readers, this approach is unlikely to be widely successful. As indicated above, those segments of the market where e-books have succeeded are those whose social practices are driven by different cultural motivations. It may well be that the full-frontal approach attempted to date is doomed to failure, and e-books would achieve more widespread adoption if the book trade took a different approach. The Amazon Kindle has not yet persuaded bookloving readers to abandon print for screen in sufficient numbers to mark a seachange. Indeed, it is unlikely that any device positioned specifically as a book replacement will succeed.

Instead of seeking to make an e-book culture a replacement for print culture, effectively placing the reading of books in a silo separated from other day-to-day activities, it might be better to situate e-books within a mobility culture, as part of the burgeoning range of social activities revolving around a connected, convergent mobile device. Reading should be understood as an activity that doesn’t begin with a particular device, but is done with whatever device is at hand. In much the same way that other media producers make content available for a number of platforms, book publishers should explore the potential of the new mobile devices.

Over 45 million smartphones were sold globally in the first three months of 2008 (“Gartner”)—somewhat more than the estimated shipments of e-book reading devices. As well as allowing a range of communications possibilities, these convergent devices are emerging as key elements in the new digital mediascape—one that allows users access to a broad range of media products via a single pocket-sized device. Each of those smartphones makes a perfectly adequate e-book reading device, and it might be useful to pursue a strategy that embeds book reading as one of the key possibilities of this growing mobility culture.

The casual gaming market serves as an interesting example. While hardcore gamers cling to their games PCs and consoles, a burgeoning alternative games market has emerged, with a different demographic purchasing less technically challenging games for more informal gaming encounters. This market has slowly shifted to convergent mobile devices, exemplified by Sega’s success in selling 300,000 copies of Super Monkey Ball within 20 days of its release for Apple’s iphone (“Super”). Casual gamers do not necessarily go on to become hardcore games, but they are gamers nonetheless—and today’s casual games (like the aforementioned Super Monkey Ball) are yesterday’s hardcore games of choice.

It might be the same for reading. The availability of e-books on mobile platforms may not result in more people embracing longer-form literature. But it will increase the number of people actually reading, and, just as casual gaming has attracted a female demographic (Wallace 8), the instant availability of appropriate reading material might sway some of those men who appear to be reluctant readers (McEwan).

Rather than focus on printed books, and book-like reading devices, the industry should re-position e-books as an easily accessible content choice in a digitally converged media environment. This is more a cultural shift than a technological one—for publishers and readers alike. Situating e-books in such a way may alienate a segment of the bookloving community, but such readers are unlikely to respond to anything other than print on paper. Indeed, it may encourage a whole new demographic—unafraid of the flickering screen—to engage with the manifold attractions of “books.”



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Author Biography

Sherman Young, Macquarie University

Sherman Young is a Senior Lecturer in the Media Department at Macquarie University, where he teaches new media theory and production. His research focus is on the cultural impact of the new media technologies. He is the author of The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book (UNSW Press 2007) In addition to chronicling the death of the (printed) book, his current projects include explorations of the death of television, and the music industry. Before becoming an academic, Sherman owned a new media production company which produced multimedia products for corporate types - and book publishing companies.