Monday, March 05, 2007

An Interview with Rita Toews, Founder of Read an eBook Week

March 4-10 is Read an eBook Week, and is proud to present an interview with the woman who started it all ... Rita Toews.

You had the idea of starting Read and eBook Week and had it listed with Chase’s Calendar of Events. What prompted you to do this? And what is the purpose of the event?

My idea for starting Read An eBook Week came from the fact that electronic reading was a worthy emerging format for books and it was, in my mind, under attack from traditional book publishers. The Frankfurt Book Fair had tried to honor the best of ebooks but it had been swamped with ebooks rushed to production and submitted by traditional publishers. Once the event was over, many of the books were never made available for sale. Several ebook readers had been brought to market, but the companies were bought out and shut down. It seemed a concerted attack on the new reading medium.

What was needed was a way to educate the reading public to what ebooks were, their benefits, and the various ways they could be read. I felt that if the general population was introduced to ebooks the demand for the material would overcome the efforts in force to wipe it out.

Do you think the event has been successful in promoting ebooks?

It has been a success in that ebooks have not disappeared. In fact, many traditional publishers have started to release their material in both print format and electronic format. They understand the new format and realize the two can co-exist quite well. One offers an advantage that the other doesn't.

Has the event grown in popularity over the years? What kinds of events have been held?

I think more people are aware of the event each year - just as more people have become familiar with ebooks. Publishers of ebooks conduct sales of the product, authors promote their books with appearances and readings. Displays are put up in libraries.

What I would like to see is more authors using the event to promote themselves, and in the process ebooks get promoted. With the week being registered with Chase's Calendar of Events it becomes "official". Authors then have more authority to promote the event by approaching media outlets and asking for interviews and/or guest appearances on television or radio show. It's their event to use as they wish - not just for ebooks, but themselves as well.

Let’s talk about ebooks in general. Do you think that the popularity of ebooks has increased in recent years? If so, why?

Definitely! eBooks sales have grown tremendously.

When we speak of ebooks, we need to realize that the word doesn't just mean books read for pleasure. There's hardly a product produced today that doesn't have an electronic manual to cover it. I know several doctors who carry their pharmacology reference manuals on their Palm Pilots or Blackberrys. The Bible is one of the most downloaded books on the Internet.

The public is also becoming more aware of the ways to read ebooks for pleasure. New advances in technology, particularly the advent of e-ink, have made reading on a portable device more comfortable. Sony's new portable reader has been a hit. For a good comparison of readers, click here.

It's quite common today to see commuters reading on their hand held devices and travelers love the fact that several books can be brought along on a business trip or holiday in one small device.

Why were they so slow in catching on?

Several problems plagued the early ebook industry. Developers rushed to corner the market and produced readers with proprietary formats. There was rivalry and a lack of consensus on the best way to package, sell, or read ebooks. As a result, numerous ebook formats emerged and proliferated, some supported by major software companies (like Adobe's PDF format), and others supported by independent and open-source programmers. The readers were expensive and had a short battery life. As the industry matured those problems have largely been overcome.

Are there still any obstacles to ebooks being even more accepted as a valid publishing medium?

The final breakthrough for ebooks will be a low cost reader with a long battery life and a comfortable reading experience. Each new generation of reader comes one step closer to that ultimate device.

The experience of purchasing an item on-line and downloading it to a reading device is still daunting to many people. As they become more comfortable with their computers and readers that anxiety will fade. Also, the majority of book readers today grew up with a love affair for paper. They speak of the feel of paper, the scent of the ink and the weight of a book in their hands. The next generation of readers grew up using a computer at school and at home. They are more willing to embrace the experience of reading on a screen. Give them a few more years until they buy their own books and ebook purchases will explode.

What are the real benefits of ebooks? Any drawbacks?

There are many benefits to ebooks. The waste of print publishing is incredible. The majority of books printed today are never read--they end up in landfill sites. Ask a book store owner and they'll tell you that most of the books in their shop are window dressing. Add to that the cost of production, the cost of transportation and storage and you wonder how it can continue. eBooks are the natural answer - no trees are destroyed, no fuel is used in production and transportation, and no facilities are needed for storage.

As the general public becomes more aware of the stress on our environment, they are asking what they can do to minimize their impact. Reading electronic books is one answer.

Another benefit is content. Many ebooks authors are cutting edge. While print publishers can only take a chance on an author that will sell millions, ebook publishers can offer the little-known author with the good story a contract. With ebooks you can find innovative material that doesn't follow the formulaic storylines found in many print published books. Over the years ebook authors have learned to hone their craft so the quality offered rivals that of any print house.

The drawbacks - although the cost to produce an ebook is very low, many print houses still charge as much for the electronic version as they do for the printed copy.

Do you think that ebooks will have a profound effect on the publishing industry?

Maybe not profound, but definitely an impact. They have certainly taken notice and had some sleepless nights. In more than one instance an author released their book in electronic format in defiance of their print publishing house. Where once the print industry ignored electronic rights when purchasing a manuscript, that do longer applies. They now purchase all rights. Many print houses will release the book in print and wait to see how sales progress, then release the ebook if they feel there will be a market. Check out the major print publisher's websites and you'll see they are experimenting with online stores, secure selling methods and pricing models, trying to figure out how to establish themselves in the ebook market.

Are there any particular areas where ebooks are more popular than others (i.e, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, comics, etc.)?

The genres of science fiction and romance have become quite popular in electronic format. Science fiction was a natural since it generally deals with future technology. At first glance romance seems a curious choice but as my friend, Steve Jordan, put it: "Romance novels are perfect for ebooks since the genre is considered a "guilty pleasure" by most of the public, due to its oft-ridiculed and notoriously salacious content. eBook romances are easy to shop for and buy from the privacy of your home, and just as easy to read without revealing your guilty pleasure to others."

I heard that Biff Mitchell almost ended Read an eBook Week in 2005 by being a complete dork. Is this true?

That's not the way I remember it! I was out of the country that year and Mr. Mitchell kindly stepped in to rescue the event. My eternal thanks, Biff!

For more about Read an eBook Week, check out the website.


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