Digital books on electronic shelves

If there’s anything new we will ever learn about search engines,  databases, and online information collections – Tara Calishain probably knows it already. Since 1998 (that’s 10 years ago!) Tara has been
publishing one of the best resources on searching-for-research-purposes.
Her fantastic website and newsletter are choc-a-block with information,
find them at

Tara drew my attention to a pet topic of mine – free books on the internet. Free books got mega-exposure suddenly when more than 1 million copies of Suze Orman’s book “Women & Money” were downloaded after talk show suprema Oprah Winfrey offered it on her show on a free download for 33 hours.

Oprah’s amazing ‘call to action’ capabilities have been discussed often, if Barack Obama makes it to the White House, we may even learn how many people voted for him on the strength of Oprah’s public endorsement, rather then his message or personality. Another interesting question is – what would happen if (or when) Oprah decides to run for President herself, say, as an independent? My gut feeling is that she’ll cruise in, technically unopposed. But I’m digressing.

Free books online are not a new concept — Tara Googled almost 30,000
results, here is how she did it (try it yourselves. Simply enter the
phrase below in your Google box):

“university press” free download site:edu

Tara also refers to a post in freakonomics blog (“Free Books on the Internet: HarperCollins, Oprah, and Yale Join the Fray“.) The gist of the story is that an ever increasing number of publishers allow for certain books to be downloaded for free. This, I feel, is not a sudden act of generosity but an admission that publishers feel the need to reinvent themselves and their trade.

Consider, for example, Kindle (“Kindle: Amazon’s New Wireless Reading Device“) – it’s an electronic-paper display that is linked via wireless connectivity (or, I presume, your own web connection, ADSL or WAP) to Here, you get to choose, buy and download books directly on to your Kindle. It’s iTunes for books, only here, instead of having an iPod using a computer to synch with the online shop, Kindle does it for you directly. Naturally, the future may hold promise for Kindle descendents, enabling users to download – in addition to books – also music, movies and digital games.

Kindle came about when realised, some time ago, that publishers are not exactly enamoured with the idea that books will appear in any format other than print. One can understand their reticence to commit professional suicide, but for, printed books a turnoff becayse they are unable to use the most fundamental tool of digeracy (aka “digital literacy”): the ability to speed-search any body of knowledge, of any size, at any location. The world’s most powerful mover of books started their migration from literary to digital by introducing “Search Inside” – a digital copy of a book, with full search capabilities. The publishers screamed their heads off, even threatened to sue, but – eventually – they had to simmer down. Here is why:

Most of the world’s authors will sell, at best, an infinitesimal fraction of what stellar writers like Stephen King, JK Rowling, John Grisham, or Lynda La Plante sell. This means that most authors see little-to-no return from their books. (By theway, Duma Key, a new novel by Stephen King, sells online for $9.99 against a print version price of $28.00.)

I imagine that one could upload her book in digital format on to, where it will be accessible via search engines (external, such as Google, as well as’s own engine.) As the book is placed on the digital shelf at there were no costs, other then the author’s time. Let’s assume that the author places the book online with a price tag of 7 Dollars (the average on the Kindle bookcase seems to be around 8 dollars.) Each and every book sold gets you 7 dollar, less the commission paid to Advantages? – Several: there is no need to keep stock of printed copies, it is possible to search inside the book for keywords, people can purchase and download a copy from anywhere in the world, 24/7. Most important – the mark-up is minimal – good books that are cheaper will probably sell better.

So, is this the end of the printed book as we know it? Not immediately. But look at children who were raised as digerate, rather than literate people (calculate book time vs. PC time, cellphone time, digital games and TV time to find the extent of their exposure to digreature!) and ask yourself: what will future digerate generations want with books when they could have a centralised system (cellphone, iPod, PC, reader, movie player, GPS, gamer etc.) running off a single, lightweight mobile unit?

Not much, other than nostalgic love for printed books which you and I will take with us to our graves, one day.

[* Kindles cannot currently be sold or shipped to customers living
outside of the U.S.]

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