Digital Publishing: the Evolution and Future of E-Books

iBook’s bookshelf view (not actual size)

Earlier today, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled his company’s latest creation: the iPad, a half-iPhone/half-laptop device. On the UNC Press Blog, we’ll leave it to the experts to explain most of the bells and whistles, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t take a look at one specific feature included in the completely-touchscreen answer to the laptop: iBooks.

Jobs highlighted iBooks as one of the iPad’s strongest features, and made it clear that Apple plans to battle Amazon’s Kindle in the burgeoning world of the e-book. And while some are concerned that the iPad’s LED-backlit screen won’t be as easy on the eyes as the Kindle during long reads, book lovers¬† should be happy to hear news about products and programs like iBooks and Kindle at all: in a time when the publishing world has seen some uncertainty, we are optimistic to see one of the main questions selling points hovering around the debut of a new product be, “this will help you read books!”

In his January 26th editorial for The Atlantic, media guru Peter Osnos makes just that point. “It is fascinating and encouraging to see the titans of technology competing to distribute digital books,” the senior media fellow at The Century Foundation begins. In 2006, Osnos launched The Caravan Project, a nonprofit effort to aid university publishers in claiming a stake in the world of the e-book. Osnos writes,

Caravan’s goals came to be summarized in this motto: “Good Books. Any Way You Want Them. Now.” . . . In its first year, Caravan’s 501(c)3 host was The University of North Carolina Press, whose director, Kate Torrey, served as the founding chair of the project.

Since Caravan’s completion, UNC Press has continued its commitment to digital publishing. Today, over 500 UNC Press titles are available digitally in partnership with Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Sony eBook Store, and Powell’s Books.

Is the e-book still a baby compared to its paper-centric ancestor? Yes. Is there still a great deal to be decided in the world of the e-book, from its audience’s preferred screen style to the unsolved questions of copyright? Of course. Yet, Peter Osnos offers the following:

Technology is an ally to the book process by increasing access and bringing down costs. There will always be a tug-of-war among all those in the chain from author through distributors to consumers in which every one focuses on their particular self-interest, particularly when it comes to revenue and price. Technology will shape the outcome of that tussle. But the market will, as it always does, set the value of the goods.

Given the pioneer success of the Kindle, the hype surrounding the Apple iPad, and most of all, the $130 million in e-book sales generated in 2009, that market will make sure digital publishing is a force in the future.