Will Apple get into eBooks?

July 24, 2006 | 1 book mentioned 8 2 min read

Today, the Publishers Lunch newsletter pointed to a post at Engadget indicating that Apple might make eBooks available through its iTunes Music Store.

How would this work? Well, it wouldn’t work on current iPods, but speculation is rampant that the next generation of iPods, likely out in time for the holiday season, will have a much larger screen, one that takes up the entire face of the device. (There’s a mocked-up image of what it might look like in the post linked above.) When turned horizontally, the iPod would allow for a screen four inches wide and almost two and a half inches high, not a lot of real estate, but then again, people watch movies on video iPod screens even smaller than that. Some further details:

A separate trusted source let us know that the next iPod will have a substantial amount of screen real estate (as we’d all suspected), as well as a book reading mode that pumps up the contrast and drops into monochrome for easy reading. It’s no e-ink, sure, but a widescreen iPod would be well suited for the purpose, and according to our source, the books you’d buy (presumably through iTunes) won’t have an expiration — kind of like Apple-bought music

Now, I know from previous posts on the topic of eBooks, that this news will likely make many readers of The Millions say that they will never read books this way and that they would miss the look and feel that books offer, but I’m curious as to whether this effort would take off amongst the less-discerning broader public.

What interests me in particular is that this offering would differ from previous eBooks that I’ve talked about. In earlier posts (here, here, and here) about various incarnations of eBooks, I’ve talked about how useful they might be for textbooks and technical books but also how challenging it might be to get customers to embrace them.

The iPod, however, as it has in other realms, would change the rules. Some thoughts (sorry, but I’m thinking in bullet points today):

  • By offering books through iTunes, publishers would suddenly be able to put their books in front of young readers who perhaps never go to book stores
  • The marriage of the book and the iPod would launch old-fashioned books into the twenty-first century. The iPod association would up the cool-factor for books big time.
  • One of the problems with eBooks is that nobody owns the devices to read them. Obviously that would no longer be an issue.
  • Apple already has a distribution system in place, iTunes, that lots of folks are already comfortable using.

Anyway, I’d love to hear thoughts anyone might have on this. I don’t own an iPod and probably won’t get one any time soon, nor can I imagine myself ever being a serious consumer of ebooks, but I still think it would be cool to see kids (and adults) walking around reading books on their iPods. Actually, maybe I will get an iPod after all.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. I have heard the iTunes and ebook rumor. I think it is a potentially great pairing. I don't have an ipod either, but my husband who loves to listen to audio books is leaning towards getting one for that reason.

  2. Interesting. I am totally addicted to my iPod, but 99% of the music on it is from CDs I own rather than iTunes-purchased stuff. I still think that the "what device/how good is the screen" issues are less pressing than the issues related to the cost of the content. It seems to me clear that with every passing decade there's a move towards convenience-at-a-price rather than free-but-inconvenient (how many twenty-somethings are checking books out of public libraries, even the ones who read a lot? not many, in my experience), so if the right pricing system etc. can be developed, I can imagine it happening. But books are awfully efficient delivery systems, with a variety of pricing schemes depending on your own needs. If you're the kind of person who wants to bring 5 books on vacation, it seems to me likely they're a mix of used and new and borrowed, that you haven't spent a lot of money on them and that (this is crucial–it's the biggest difference between books and music) once you've read a book you don't mind ditching it. The only way I could see myself purchasing books for my iPod would be if there was something close to the equivalent of a mass-market paperback–something I could buy for maybe $8 that I would read quickly & move on from. If you figure we pay $16-18 for a new hardcover with Amazon discount, or $14 for a TPO in an independent bookstore, I can't see myself paying nearly as much as that for a digital file. I say $6-8 tops; or I suppose there are a handful of bestseller-type things (Lee Child, Dick Francis) that I might pay a bit more for if I could get it digitally in advance of the print edition, but it would take something like a "you can get it sooner" gimmick for me to do it. It will be interesting to see what happens with this, in any case…

  3. I don't own an iPod, and am vehemently opposed to the concept of ebooks…but you have got me thinking. I love to carry around favourite poems with me, and before now, I have been known to copy them out into a small notebook for the convenience. I actually might be tempted to get an iPod if I could put poems on it to read as and when I felt like it, as well as music. I suppose short stories wouldn't be out of the question either – definitely a plus for travelling, when you don't want to lug books around, or simply don't have room in the handbag/briefcase.

    I also appreciate your point about the popularisation of literature through the iPod medium. Given the rates of functional adult illiteracy, even here in the West, anything that gets people reading is a plus, in my book (no pun intended…).

  4. I would probably buy one as long as I could put on it plain text documents, such as those downloaded from Project Gutenberg. PDF documents would also be a big plus, as many ebooks offered from B&N,Amazon,Lulu.com are offered in that format. If that was offered in addition to iTunes books, then you would have a really useful device.

  5. as a librarian at a university, i have significant doubts that this will have a tremendous impact on the way most people access books. certainly, it will have even less impact on folks conducting research, which i believe will always be analog text based. but as a lover of the written word and technology, i see its benefit in accessing things like newspapers, blogs, and other non-traditional research and/or book materials. now, what is weird, is that increasingly non-traditional text sources (images, sound, and sure, blogs) are the stuff of research. where it all leads to, i don't know, but i don't anticipate my summer reading list being purchased solely in electronic format anytime in the near future.

  6. When I worked in the library, audio was the only growing segment of checkouts. If only more titles were available–and here's the key, Cheap.

    Audio right now is very expensive–which is why it is very popular at libraries. I think a lot of people might be willing to Listen to books on IPOD.

    As for reading them…I think the device is too small. Short stories might gain some popularity or perhaps YA–since kids don't have the preconceived notions that adults do and they have better eyes. Kids have grown up reading stuff on computers and might not even notice the difference.

    I read a lot online, but I'm not buying a device to read, not when the library provides just about any book I want.

    But more audio books–cheap?

    Anything that grows that segment and makes audio books cheaper would be tremendous. And I think kids and adults alike would listen to more books if they were downloadable like tunes are.

  7. Wow, these are some great points. Here are some of my thoughts after reading this.

    I was thinking about how I would use an iPod for reading if this service were to ever come to fruition. I don't think it would replace books for me, but, I think if the iPod-books were cheap enough, I would buy them in addition to the hard copy. When at home, I would read the "real" book, but I would also have it loaded onto my iPod so I could take the book with me wherever I go. I've written before that I think books these days are too big and this would seem to solve that problem.

    Also, regarding Maria's comment about audiobooks. I think it would great if there were more of them. Now that portable devices have enough memory to store multiple audiobooks, I think the time has arrived to find a cheap way to make more books available in that format. I understand that they are expensive to produce, but perhaps by issuing them in a digital format only, publishers could cut back on the costs of cds, packaging, distribution, etc.

    I'm wondering if any digital audio-only publishers or imprints will emerge to take advantage of this trend.

  8. I wouldn't be into this but my husband will be- He's been salivating to get his hands on an illiad- a new ebook reader and even though he now has it, he's talking about getting another ebook reader that is coming out from someone else.

    For me, I need a proper book. . .

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