A Brief Snapshot of eBooks, Videotext, and Future Shock

a guest post by Linda VandeVrede

Ebooks have come a long way in the last three decades.  In 1983-84, when I was researching my master’s thesis at Boston University, ebooks were only just emerging and were referred to as “electronic novels.”   Many of us studying the industry foresaw their future popularity, but it took a bit longer than we anticipated and the screen clarity and ease of access have far surpassed our original predictions.

The first ebook – 1983   

The very first electronic novel was created in 1983 at a computer show in Toronto. Author Burke Campbell wrote a “suspense novelette” on an Apple III and sent it to the Source Telecomputing Corporation, a commercial enterprise based in McLean, Virginia, that provided information along telephone lines. Campbell created a 19-chapter, 20,000-word book, which was then edited by The Source, and made available to subscribers only three hours later. Subscribers had the choice of reading “Blind Pharoah” on their video display terminal, printing it, or storing it on a floppy disk. The cost to download the story was just over $2.00 for nighttime fees, cheaper than purchasing a paperback novel.

Videotext was a 2-way channel

Videotext was initially a government-subsidized service that had become popular in Europe in the 1970s. For that reason, it took off faster in Europe than in the United States, where it was a commercial enterprise. It was a two-way interactive system which transmitted information along telephone or cable lines to a specially adapted television set or home computer. Books as a service, however, as opposed to time-sensitive data, were considered rather a novelty at the time.

Factors Slowed Down Acceptance

The reason for this is that the television sets, video display terminals and home computers that received the information were very primitive. There was a lot of flickering on the screen, which made long-term reading very challenging. Refresh rates of the images was approximately only 30Hz – 60Hz.  Extensive reading off the screen was therefore not a pleasant experience.  Most people at the time could only see electronic delivery being viable for time-sensitive information. Indeed, Grolier Encyclopedia’s Academic American was provided online in the early 80s through Compuserve, another information retrieval system, and this was deemed a perfect delivery vehicle because it allowed easy updating and changes and smaller chunks of information.

Another factor that slowed acceptance of ebooks was the heavy cost to access the novels.  Fees for The Source were $20.75/hour during the day, and $7-10/hour in the evening.  There was both private and public Videotext at the time, but the costs were significant, and there was a learning curve among subscribers. Subscribers to the Source tended to be more affluent and more educated, based on demographic surveys conducted at the time.  This limited the initial acceptance and proliferation of the technology.

The big question facing publishers then was puzzling over where videotext would fit in relation to print publishing: what would be published, and for whom? The concept of being able to interact with the data, request changes, ask for more details and customize the information was revolutionary.

The next big development did not arrive until 2000, when authors Michael Crichton and Stephen King provided electronic books – the first big name authors to do so. They were part of an evolution of the growing online exchange of music spurred on by Napster and other services. Even as late as 2008, however, pundits were still saying that digital books couldn’t compete with the cozy familiarity of curling up by a fireside with a traditional print book. Recent statistics, however, have shown ebook formats surpassing traditional formats in sales. The changes to and acceptance of ebooks since 2008 have been exponential.

What does the future hold?

More than 40 years ago, Alvin Toffler predicted the information change in his book “Future Shock.” This is a time phenomenon, he wrote: “a product of the greatly accelerated rate of change in society. It arises from the superimposition of a new culture on an old one.  It is culture shock in one’s own society.” Children under the age of 12 have grown up around the concept of Kindles and Nooks. What major changes are in store for them in terms of their understanding of what a book is, as they grow older? Interesting to ponder.

a guest post by Linda VandeVrede

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  1. Pingback: Who wrote the first e-book?

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