The Rise of the eBook

Sure, 2011 saw a congressman inadvertently tweet his boner to the masses, Steve Jobs’ permanent departure from Apple, and Amazon’s overheated foray into the tablet market. The media and tech news of 2011 that will likely have the most enduring effect on our culture, however, is the rise of the e-book.

The Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group released a report earlier this year that indicated e-book sales in 2010 were 114 million. When sales data for 2011 rolls in, I expect it to have doubled.

Thank the iPad and the Kindle. Though e-books existed in various form long before tablet devices, the sales for Apple’s iPad (about 25 million sold by June of 2011) and Amazon’s Kindle Fire (reportedly selling 1 million a week) suggest cultural ubiquity.

Moreover, these guys are ruthless. Amazon recently raised the ire of indie booksellers and their patrons with its price-check shopping app, which enables consumers to scan a barcode and compare the prices of goods at brick and mortar stores with Amazon’s prices. This in itself wasn’t necessarily offensive; it was the 5 percent discount offered by Amazon for choosing to purchase from the online juggernaut instead of Main Street.

Predictably, an “Occupy Amazon” movement ensued among booksellers, which might seem like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. E-books now account for about 20 percent of all book sales, which is remarkable when one considers that movable-type press was created 561 years ago and the iPad only two years ago. At that rate of disruption, e-books will entirely supplant printed books within the decade. Real life, of course, doesn’t work this way. But still, the numbers are staggering.

Consider this: in 2011, a mere four years after the introduction of its first Kindles, Amazon reported that e-book sales have surpassed those of printed books. Even sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury, who’s been publicly skeptical about digital media (e-books “smell like burned fuel,” he famously opined to the New York Times) has finally permitted Fahrenheit 451 to be released as an e-book.

Of course, the revolution has not been without its casualties—like, perhaps, fair trade. The European Commission recently opened formal antitrust proceedings to “investigate whether international publishers” including Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster and Penguin, have engaged in “anti-competitive practices affecting the sale of e-books in the European Economic Area, in breach of EU antitrust rules.” Moreover, they allege Apple may be helping them.

Be assured, the outcome of this investigation is coming soon to an e-book near you.