Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Digital Library; John Grisham's Digital E-Book Sales

My blog entry yesterday about E-book sales approaching US$1B finds a related development in how the digital sales of writer John Grisham's latest book, "The Confession", has helped his story reach more readers. An excerpt from the article:

In recent years, even some of the biggest authors have lost gravitational pull with readers. But for John Grisham's 24th adult book, "The Confession," the e-book version has helped propel first-week sales beyond that of his last legal thriller.

"The Confession" is the first of Mr. Grisham's adult hardcover novels to also be available simultaneously as an e-book. Doubleday, an imprint of Bertelsmann AG's Random House, says e-book sales were about one-third of week-one hardcover sales, or around 70,000.

The novel, about a guilty man who allows an innocent man to go to jail in his place, also sold 160,000 hardcovers through Oct. 31, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks approximately 75% of general retail book sales in the U.S. By comparison, his last legal thriller, "The Associate," published in January 2009, sold 223,000 hardcover copies in its first week, according to BookScan.

"The e-book sales are astonishing," said Mr. Grisham in an interview. "Would anybody have thought that a year ago? The future has arrived, and we're looking at it."

Mr. Grisham said he initially opposed selling his books digitally because he worried it would cripple his book sales at the independent bookstores that were among his earliest supporters. However, the author said he received numerous unhappy emails from readers who were upset that they couldn't buy his book digitally. "As an author, that hits pretty close to home," he said.

Mr. Grisham has his readers on his mind, and the digital medium has helped him reach more. I'm like him in that even if it's too early to tell, I'm cautiously optimistic that because of e-books, the number of readers may increase. It's the readers after all who are the "bosses". With e-book reading devices such as the Nook, the Kindle, and the iPad, becoming more affordable and popular, it is possible that everyone will now have the ability to take a lot of reading material with them wherever they go.

And would that our country had the same concerns and issues as more advanced ones! Here's an article about how the concerns over a national digital library system has taken prime importance in the U.S. The Philippines has many other basic issues to worry about, true, but making books accessible to a country's population is certainly one sure and strong way to building a better country. An excerpt:

E-book gadgets have finally cracked the mass market here in the United States or at least have come a long way.

Consider a memorable Kindle commercial from Amazon, in which a brunette in a bikini one-ups an oafish man reading off a rival machine. Mr. Beer Belly asks about her e-reader. "It's a Kindle," she says by the pool. "$139. I actually paid more for these sunglasses." Mad Men would be proud. A year or two from now, count on twice as much ballyhoo and on better machines for less than $99.

I myself own both a Kindle 3 and the Brand X iPad and can attest to the improved readability of the latest E Ink from Amazon's supplier, even indoors, despite lack of built-in illumination. Outside on walks, as with earlier Kindles, I can listen to books from publishing houses savvy enough to allow text to speech. No matter where I am, I can instantly see all occurrences of a character's name in an engrossing Louis Bayard novel. I can also track down the meanings of archaic words that Bayard's detective narrator uses in this murder mystery set at West Point and featuring a fictionalized Edgar Allan Poe.

But there is one thing I currently cannot do with my Kindle despite all the sizzle in the commercials--read public library books. Local libraries do not use the Kindle format for their electronic collections, relying instead on rival standards used by Sony Readers and certain other devices. Amazon undoubtedly would love to fix this under terms favorable to CEO Jeff Bezos and friends. But then other issues will remain. How many Kindle books--or those readable on Sony Readers, iPads, and others--will cash-strapped libraries in poorer cities be able to lend? What range of titles will be available? And shouldn't we look beyond books and consider the needs of researchers who, for example, could benefit from reliably preserved electronic discussions linked to individual books.

Might the time have finally come for a well-stocked national digital library system (NDLS) for the United States--a cause I've publicly advocated since 1992 in Computerworld, a 1996 MIT Press information science collection, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere, including my national information stimulus plan here in the Fallows blog? That's the topic of this essay, and many of the same concepts could apply to other countries, including Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, Japan, China, India, Brazil, and various other nations. Perhaps national digital library systems could interconnect, forming a global one. But for simplicity's sake and reasons of self interest, I'll focus here on a digital system for the United States, which, in national digital library planning and execution, lags far behind the diligent Chinese, among others.

A library plan and related initiatives should include the actual collections, not just for traditional education and research but also for job training; tight integration with schools, libraries, and other institutions; encouragement of the spread of the right hardware and connections; and the cost-justification described in the stimulus proposal. Multimedia is essential, and Kindle-style tablets will almost surely include color and video in the future, blurring distinctions between them and iPads. But the digital library system mustn't neglect books and other texts. Old-fashioned literacy, in fact, rather than e-book standards, should be the foremost argument for a national digital library system--as a way to expand the number and variety of books for average Americans, especially students. Without basic skills, young people will not be fit for many demanding blue-collar jobs, much less for Ph.D.-level work, and economic growth will suffer (PDF). Even recreational reading of fiction, not just nonfiction, can help develop the comprehension needed for the job-related kind. But by the end of high school, most young people in the United States no longer read for fun. E-books and other technology could expand their reading choices and make books more enticing, through such wrinkles as Kindle-style dictionaries and encyclopedia links to help students better understand the words in front of them.

The need is there.

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