Blog Post

Will E-Readers Help Spread Knowledge, Or Wall It Off? Here’s A Scorecard That We Can Use

Upendra Shardanand is the Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Daylife, which helps publishers add content and inventory without additional staff or engineering. He also co-founded Firefly Network, a spinoff from his work at the MIT Media Lab, that he sold to Microsoft.

Plenty of holiday shoppers spent hours puzzling over which e-reader to purchase, comparing traits like screen size and battery life, and weighing non-tech specs like the utility of being able to lend a book once for 14 days (Nook) and the whether it matters that a company (Amazon) can delete a customer

9 Responses to “Will E-Readers Help Spread Knowledge, Or Wall It Off? Here’s A Scorecard That We Can Use”

  1. I think it’s too early to answer most of these questions. Amazon has a head start but it also has a lot of competition. Book publishing has been thrown into turmoil by the abrupt rise in popularity of ebooks– mostly because of the Kindle. Publishers are scrambling to find a new business model that fits the digital age; the one they have didn’t really make much money in the print age, so they’re not having an easy time of it. In the long run, I think things will be better for those who can afford at least a minimal ereader (which should be a lot cheaper in 10 years) because books themselves are bound to get cheaper once publishers no longer have to support the old practice of printing and shipping thousands of books, many of which did no sell and they had to accept back from the booksellers. It’s a lot like a revolution; things may get better in the long run, but it won’t be easy and not everyone will survive.

  2. George Busa

    E-readers are an exciting technology but there is no single device that seems to be compelling to consumers as of yet. However, readers on phones are quite popular and seem to attract free premium content such as The Street, CNN etc. The e-readers such as Kindle and Nook are considered to be used and sold by content sellers who have no underlying interest to provide or distribute low cost or free content. In fact their “pipes” are like cable TV; you pay your provider for their programming offerings and as you know, the programming costs continually become more expensive to access.

    The e-devices could have become wildly successful and may be so in the future, if the public school systems across the country insist that all textbooks be provided digitally on open standards e-book readers. This would force textbook publishers no excuses to provide such a book at a greatly reduced price and still maintain the same profit margins but without the cost of book materials, manufacturing and distribution of the textbook itself. Surely you would think Universities would do the same but one needs to contemplate that the reason no school has adapted a mandate to have all students use e-book textbooks is that, the schools and teachers may have a financial interest to maintain the current physical book status quo.

    Ultimately what book sellers and schools may fear, is that e-book may well be available in electronic lending libraries to be borrowed for a tiny license fee instead of a library paying for the book up-front. Could this be the reason a Publishers fears e-readers or and for any format of pay content? It may mean that paid content must be superior with the danger of the paid format being rejected outright to alternatives such to sponsored or traditional advertising models and even hybrid models combining paid / advertising models.
    Publishers of all stripes will need to address their content being available for free or pay on all platforms to be competitive and will also need to take a leadership role as to whom will control their destiny. Amazon and Barns & Noble are major distributors of books whom are establishing foothold in the world of digital books; if not they will wither and go away just as some Publishers will if they do not get involved with this issue

  3. Upendra, I agree that Amazon was wrong to remove 1984 from customers’ Kindles, and hope that as the ereader market develops, competition will force it to treat them with more respect, understanding that their books are _theirs_. But I think you’re too quick to imply that Amazon is to blame for ebooks being expensive and hard to share. We know that Amazon has tried to cut ebook prices, but book publishers have blocked them doing so. And I doubt very much that Amazon would hesitate to make books shareable, if publishers would go along with this. Indeed, I expect that in the next year or so, we’ll see Amazon or another retailer allowing customers to share books with other readers, so long as they’ve all bought subscriptions to a virtual library that includes those books. This is the 19th-century subscription lending library model, and I think it holds great promise as a means of making ebooks more popular, and more important as a means of disseminating ideas, narratives, and argument. No, this won’t make ebooks free, but a subscription system, I think, will make them much cheaper, on a per-item basis, than they are now. And I can certainly see public libraries and schools getting free subscriptions, as a loss leader by retailers, with those subscriptions allowing sharing only to other library members or students. Ebooks’ limited impact, to this point, is due not to technical limitations or reader reluctance, but to a failure of imagination on the part of publishers and retailers. I’d bet that Amazon will be in the forefront of changing this – and if not, it won’t survive as a major player in publishing.

  4. Michael Scott

    Many of the problems noted are due to myopic policies of copyright owners, not the technology companies or the technology itself. Amazon would be thrilled if it could allow Kindles to be used by libraries and would see it as a distinct plus if titles could be shared. Don’t blame the technology or the vendors. Blame the book industry that is holding on to a dead business model.

  5. Juho Heikkilä

    Good points. However, I’d like to point out a problem with your point 7. It’s only true very theoretically. In practice, however there is a very common problem with any long term digital storage: formats. I have great doubts that any data formats in use today will be readable in, say 50 years. There are few possible exeptions: plain text, possibly jpeg and png. For any proprietary formats I wouldn’t bet for significantly longer lifetime than 10 years. And of course, even if the data formats themselves are readable, it is essential to be able to transfer the files to a fresh physical media every few years.

  6. D Carroll

    Amazon’s proprietary approach will probably not be successful over time, unless the competition really drops the ball. Regarding your list:
    1. e-readers will drop in price over time; most likely will be merged with another device
    2. there is no model for a secondary market – it won’t exist.
    3. e-readers will be cheap enough that you could own more than one or on more than one device. sharing rules in other sectors already allow up to 3 copies. in the future, access for various content will probably be on an Internet server in a user account and streamed/cached to the device of choice.
    5. Libraries will evolve into multimedia outlets, and get special licenses.
    6. Physical copies or decentralized files will remain for “illegal” books – they won’t be covered by copyright laws, so an infinite number of copies will be available everywhere.

  7. Daniel Stasiewski

    Hi Upendra. Dan from OverDrive here. I just wanted to make a brief comment about your fifth point, regarding libraries.

    OverDrive’s download service enables more than 10,000 public libraries around the world offer free eBook downloads for devices like the Sony Reader, Barnes & Noble nook, and a growing list of e-readers. You can find libraries here: These are best-selling, popular, and new release eBooks, not the titles you’ll find for free on Google. Plus, they can be downloaded to a personal computer to be read on the screen or transfered to devices.

    If you have any questions about the service, let me know.

  8. Kathy Gillis

    Many Falun Gong practitioners have memorized the book Zhuan Falun, which outlines the principles of their practice. The former president of the Chinese Communist Party has vowed to eliminate all Falun Gong practitioners and the current president is trying to fulfill that objective. There have been massive book burnings in China.
    Communism doesn’t tolerate belief systems they can’t control..
    If you are a Christian I suggest that you might want to start committing the bible to memory. The Chinese Communist Party is very ambitious.

  9. There was this guy I remember named Max Metral who used to run a site off MIT called Rare Grooves but that’s another story. It seems the biggest factor to all your failures listed is the implementation of wi-fi connectivity on these e-books. I still think a disconnected e-book model would be a better solution to ensure issues like censorship and tracking what people read do not become an issue.