How The iPhone Can Save The Book Business

January 10th, 2007 · 34 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Here’s how things work: yesterday, Paramount Pictures announced they’re going to make downloads of feature films available via iTunes. In other news, Apple changed its name and announced the long-anticipated iPhone. Lightbulb, on. Bad timing, Paramount. Great news, book industry.

Omigosh, you’re saying, cellphone? Books? Hello? Apples, oranges, dropped calls, excessive fees, itty bitty screens.

Okay, the following is mostly fantasy. But fantasy based on solid science. As we know it*. In addition to an exclusive deal with Cingular (‘nother story, ‘nother day), the iPhone does stuff like surf the web, play media files, and make phone calls (a key feature in a phone). The iPhone also features a surprisingly large screen, and has the ability to automatically change the screen orientation when a user turns it sideways. At 3.5 inches it seems suspiciously perfect for reading.

Our technology expert informs us that iPhone runs on Mac OSX (the same OSX that can generate and read PDF files at the drop of a hat) and can connect to the Internet using any standard WiFi network. As in, you can connect to your own or other open wireless networks, thereby bypassing Cingular’s expensive data transfer fees. You can freely roam the web using a special version of the Safari browser. Sure, it’s not our browser of choice, but let’s remember that when we’re talking about the future of the world, compromises must be made.

We’ve noted in posts past that that an unheralded feature of the iTunes store is the ability to serve up PDF files. Go back and read that sentence again because one key element of the iPhone is its tight integration with iTunes (in retrospect, woefully misnamed). See, if you can browse the web and use iTunes, you can, theoretically, download PDF files. Not a heralded feature, but we have faith in Steve Jobs and his design team.

In other words, you can read lengthy texts. Articles. Short stories. Novellas. Books. Compendiums. On your cell phone/miniature computer/portable media player/killer device.

Setting aside the comfort issues, the iPhone could either kill the nascent e-reader business or take it to new levels. We’ve been saying just about forever that the problem with dedicated e-reader is the fact that the consumer isn’t seeking a device that does only one thing. With its “smart” orientation features, the iPhone could usher in the mass market e-book era.

Are you as excited as we are? Really, are you tingling? You should be. In a good way.

Think about it. Text, high resolution graphics, wireless Internet access, single device. So many readers used the Palm interface to read books…and they were really a fraction of the possible audience. The iPhone, more than any device, fulfills the promise of the future. It is the one thing that the publishing industry has desired and needed.

Please, publishing industry, don’t screw this up. You need this device more than it needs you. We did a poll of five people. They’re all buying this device. They can read.

* – Our chem lab partner spent our entire, well, chem class out with mono. We didn’t learn a thing.

[tags]iphone, apple, publishing, ebooks, pdf[/tags]

File Under: Non-Traditional Publishing · Perennials

34 responses so far ↓

  • SusanGable // Jan 10, 2007 at 12:35 pm

    I already have a phone that does all this. I love it. It’s a Treo. (do NOT get the Treo with windows. bad! Techno hubby HATED the Treo with windows.) My Treo has an ebook reader already in it. I have the Swiss Family Robinson on it. (old books = free, and SFR is one of my favorite classics.)

    The drawbacks — the prices of new ebooks! Oy! I kid you not, there are times when I can buy the paperback from Amazon for LESS than what I would have to pay for the ebook. That’s just not right, and I refuse to do it. For years publishers blamed the high cost of paper every time they raised cover prices. Well, an ebook had no paper. So why do I have to pay the same (or more) for it?

    The best part about this is the convenience. I ALWAYS have a book on hand for those surprise waits. I could have numerous books on hand if I got a memory card for it, and decided to bite the bullet and pay the prices for the ebooks.

    Anyway, I’m with you. This is a very cool thing. (only, I got my very cool thing for Christmas of 2005. G.)

  • kirkb // Jan 10, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    Pricing is also a problem with other forms of digital media. So far the downloadable movies are not a bargain, and I think digital music downloads are still overpriced.

    Content providers really need to start looking at digital distribution as a way to improve their margins instead of using it as an excuse to raise their prices.

    Susan, does your Treo have WiFi?

  • ScottG // Jan 10, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    SusanG, you don’t have to pay for the books. The Gutenberg Project ( has 20,000+ public domain books available for free.

    As for using the iPhone as an e-book reader… I’m skeptical. The resolution and screen size are great, but this is one area where the lack of buttons is a hindrance. I’ve been reading books on my PDAs for about 7 years now, and my one paramount requirement is a scroll-wheel or up/down buttons on the left side of the device. Y’know, for turning pages. If I have to use both hands to read, my inherent laziness kicks in and I promptly lose all interest.

  • SusanGable // Jan 10, 2007 at 6:33 pm

    Ummmm…it has broadband capaibilities, if that’s what you mean. It can surf the net and send/receive email. Except I don’t pay for that service.

  • ktwice // Jan 10, 2007 at 9:32 pm

    Scott’s right about Project Gutenberg. I’m a big PG fan. But, for current, not-in-the-public-domain works, the prices are ridiculous. As I’ve noted once or twice (or thirty times).

    While this may not be the *perfect* e-reader for everyone, based on everything I’ve heard, it’s way closer than most devices. I understand inherent laziness. I was born lazy and don’t see a need to change in my old age. Still, I remain hopeful and excited.

    SG — I think Kirk’s talking about the actual wifi capabilities built into the phone. This allows the user to go beyond the standard broadband packages offered by cell providers. You could, in theory, drop by BS HQ and connect to our connect and surf the Internet while waiting for me to find my shoes.

  • SusanGable // Jan 11, 2007 at 6:14 am

    Did I mention that I am not the techno person in the house? G. No, it doesn’t have that. (But damn, it SHOULD! Maybe the next one.) So, if I’m waiting for you to find your shoes I’ll have to read. (Or play solitaire. Did I mention the phone lets me do that? LOL.)

    Thanks for the info about the PG. I think that might be where I got my Swiss Family Robinson, but I honestly don’t remember. But I want to be able to read NEW books on my phone.

    Scott, you don’t use both hand to read when you read “real” books? I pretty much need both hands. I’m not only techno-challenged, but coordination-challenged. lol.

  • JackG // Jan 13, 2007 at 12:07 am

    ScottG – hmm… no scrollwheel…true….no buttons (physical)…. true… but you are forgetting that you scroll with your finger, sort of like drag-up and drag-down… buttons? how about multitouch? Isn’t that a feature of iPhone? Plus software buttons….so, I don’t see the problem here…

  • Stas // Jan 13, 2007 at 7:01 am

    The core of Mac OS X, the computer OS used in Macs, and “OS X”, the embedded OS on the iPhone. More on this soon in a separate fireball, but do not be confused: Mac OS X and OS X are not the same thing, although they are most certainly siblings. The days of lazily referring to “Mac OS X” as “OS X” are now over.

  • Andre // Jan 13, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    It’s the closets thing from the PADDs that were used in Star Trek.

  • Amit Patel // Jan 13, 2007 at 9:56 pm

    Once turned on its side, there won’t be that many lines of text at once. Scrolling with your finger is going to be a pain, because you’ll have to hold up both your hands to the device. I think you’re better off using the iPhone’s accelerometer to scroll. As you tilt the device up or down it can scroll up or down. (I don’t know for sure what the accelerometer supports, but I’m guessing it’ll be able to do this, just like the one in the MacBook.)

  • Sam Felder // Jan 14, 2007 at 1:22 am

    The criticism that you have to use fingers to do things like change what you are seeing while reading is absurd. Do you not use your fingers to turn the pages of actual books?

    I hadn’t thought about it from this angle but this is a great thought about what the platform is capable of. The concern I have is that Apple will keep a tight fist on development. Jobs has already made comments that iPhone OSX will be a more restricted development ecosystem than Mac OSX. If third-party development is permitted, this use and many others that we haven’t thought of yet will become possible.

    PS – The whole thing does feel very Stark Trek. I love when Apple gives me that fresh “living in the future” feeling.

  • Oyvind // Jan 14, 2007 at 2:46 am

    Very interesting! And a great idea. Take this a step further: Make the iTunes store a store for digital books, and bundle audio and text versions together at a nice price. So when your read an e-book, and later sits in your car, the audio version picks up where you left the text version. And vice versa.

    I’ve posted about this at my site:

    And booksquare added to my reading list…

  • M. Lisa Colvin // Jan 14, 2007 at 8:09 am


    If you enjoy science fiction/fantasy at all, Baen books has a free library and sells their ebooks at paperback prices. Fictionwise usually has some good prices also.

    I read on my Sony Clie. A 64 mb memeory card holds 92 books, so I am never without something to read!

    I didn’t want a Treo when I got my cell phone because the screen, while having the same resolution as my Clie, is much smaller, and that is hard on my 50 year old eyes.

  • Anon // Jan 14, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    Please please please keep in mind that OS X isn’t the same as Mac OS X. What is on the phone will likely be based on the Max OS X we’re used to, but it’s not the full operating system in the same sense, and won’t be able to do everything our computers can.

  • Jack // Jan 15, 2007 at 2:34 am

    Scott G: You do realize that the iPhone uses gestures? Swiping left or right on the screen “turns the page”. And the OS has core animation, so it could look like the page was turning. Hold it in one hand, when you need to scrool down, do so. When you need to turn the page do so. Can’t see too well? Reverse pinch it. Rather read it vertically like a column? Do that (some think column size text is easier to read). It does this now. And this is a 1.0 device.

  • PalmBookGuy // Jan 16, 2007 at 5:01 am

    The screens on PDA and iPhone are small– so using one’s finger to scroll or advance by page is an irritant as it blocks the text!

    I love reading ebooks on my various PDAs… and while each ebook program has the ability to turn pages by screen taps, I almost always use the device buttons– or preferably the jog dial on the Clie! Why? Because I like keeping up the reading flow and not blocking the text with my finger!

    The jog dial itself is a wonderful, wonderful feature– now lost in the mists of time.

    So, no, finger scrolling on the iPhone just won’t cut it (imagine trying to scroll through 100+ addresses…)

    But, I’ll bet that soon, especially if they were to open the device up to 3rd party developers, that on screen buttons will be an option!

  • conradgempf // Jan 19, 2007 at 4:38 am

    Here’s a weird thing, though…. if you read in bed, with your head on the pillow turned to the side and holding the iPhone up… the accelerator-arama (or whatever it’s called) will think that you’re holding the thing in portrait mode. It can sense which orientation it’s at but not where your head is. Maybe there’d be an option to lock it into landscape mode.

  • Tab // Jan 27, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    I have been reading eBooks for years and am hooked on 2 formats, palm eReader ( I probably have 200 books) and MSReader ( about 100 books). I don’t want to loose the books that I have already purchased — Will Apple support (ANYTIME) MSReader format or will Palm support OS X on the iPhone? It really is about the only thing that would stop me from purchasing the iPhone.

  • Scott Scott // Jan 28, 2007 at 1:53 am

    I don’t agree that consumers are seeking a device that does only one thing. Yes, convergence means convenience in the world of phone, email, music player, and storage device, but reading books and long texts is just not a pleasant experience on a phone device (anybody with a Palm or Blackberry will confirm this).

    I own an Iliad reader and I can honestly say that it is a brilliant device and were it not for the £400 price tag, and slow pace at which the publishing industry is adopting suitable DRM, then this type of device would blow written word publishing to bits in much the same way as mp3 players have. I won’t bore you with specification details, but within 12 months I expect to be hitting a button on it and receiving my daily newspaper subscription, and RSS feeds without attaching it to my computer; this is in addition to DRM protected ebooks, although I’m busy with those items out of copyright protection at the moment.

    The hardware end of the market will take care of itself, and just as people choose from a myriad of telephone devices based on preference, they will do likewise with ebook devices. The real area of interest here and what this all boils down to is who controls distribution. Do the publishers get in to bed with Apple, Microsoft, and Napster? Established electronic distribution and DRM platforms, albeit hackable. Will Google manage to persuade the publishing industry to their corner? Might the free ebook websites offer a paid up option? Or will publishers go it alone?

    I suspect that there will be plenty of variety for the next few years, but my fear is that a limited few will start to control distribution, and that will be bad for the two most important groups of people in this sphere – authors and readers.

    The good news is that there is a huge appetite for ebooks, despite the naysayers. Chris Andersons Long tail theory clearly applies to ebooks just as much as it does physical book sales through Amazon and Abebooks (just look at download stats). The difference is that it is unlikely to apply to the distribution end of the market and just as I feel google will be the subject of information industry monopoly debate in the future, so will the major electronic distributors that emerge during the next five years.

  • ktwice // Jan 28, 2007 at 9:55 am

    At this point, it’s all speculation, but my guess would be that the iPhone would support PDF, possibly with some sort of DRM. As PDF tends to a fairly universal format, that works for me, but I realize it would cause some teeth-gnashing for people who have already purchased books in other formats (as it does for music geeks who must buy songs and albums in competing formats as hardware changes).

  • The Editors // Feb 10, 2007 at 3:38 am

    It’s great that more and more devices are able to carry e-books and for some people, this might be a perfect format, especially for technical manuals and maybe even newspaper and magazine content. But will the average consumer ever really accept reading a novel on a tiny handheld device? We’re afraid a 3.5 inch screen will never be suspiciously perfect for reading a trade book. (But we’re completely willing to be proven wrong if it means more people are reading books!)

  • AJ // Mar 18, 2007 at 10:04 pm

    Being a big tech fan and an avid reader, I’ve been reading eBooks on a PDA for years, and I love it! I am never without a book, no matter where I am. And with more and more people having internet access on their PDA, having the ability to go online and purchase more books, while I’m say, sitting at the doctors office, will only add to its appeal.

    I’m a huge Mac fan, and I’m dying to get my hands on an iPhone. from what I’ve seen, the iPhone will only make my current love of eBooks easier for me to satisfy. I think once people see the convenience of it, the industry will start to boom, and I do think that it’s very possible that the iPhone will have a hand in growing the eBook industry by leaps and bounds. I think we’ll have to wait and see if eReader and MSReader will jump onto the iPhone bandwagon because that will be key, but I truely hope they will.

  • daniel mores // May 7, 2007 at 3:17 am

    i’ve been reading eBooks for years now, and after initially starting out with MS Reader (my first PDA was windows-based), i have now figured out that for me, the ideal eBook format is mobipocket.
    but if it’s mobipocket or ereader or msreader, the most important aspect of such readers is that they remember where you stopped reading.
    if opening up PDF files on the iPhone is the only thing that the iPhone will be able to do for us book-wise, then this will probably be not enough to make the iPhone a mass-market ebook reader.
    i would not want to place bookmarks when i stop reading … turn the thing off, go to sleep, turn it on again and continue reading.

    so unless apple opens up the iPhone for 3rd party developers, i predict serious problems, and i will most likely NOT get one due to that limitation.
    sure, apple delivers things that usually offer a whole lot straight out-of-the-box, but they can’t provide for every consumer need.

    if the iPhone will promote eBooks the way it helped MP3 along, then that would be great.
    this might help bring down eBook prices.

    immagine ebooks in the ITS for 0,99 :)

  • Donttouchmethere // Jul 6, 2007 at 6:19 am

    Well, the iPhone has been released, and it’s been a huge disappointment for ebook reading.

    1) There is no file system. So you can’t transfer docs or texts or any other files to your iPhone, only music and vids through iTunes software.

    2) One way of bypassing that is to email yourself the ebooks and pdfs, but those files are opened by the iPhone mail program. PDF are not resized to fit the screen, although texts and docs do. But there’s no ‘pages’ and you can’t bookmark anywhere, so it would suck to read anything longer than a few pages.

    3) Because there’s no pages, you don’t turn the page. You scroll up or down. Very very annoying. I like to read what’s on the screen, press a button, and go to the next ‘page’. Not scroll down.

    4) No landscape mode when reading text. Which doesn’t really bother me, because i like reading it in portrait mode anyways, but some people may prefer landscape.

    5) You can’t organize emails into folders. I was planning on emailing myself chapters but without some sort of organizational system, that would just be way too messy.

    6) the biggest… since Apple won’t release an SDK, there won’t be any third party developers creating ebook readers or pdf readers for the iPhone. And i’m not really holding my breath on Apple doing anything like that in the next couple of years. There’s a lot of other stuff on the iPhone that needs fixing or implementing, and ebook reading is very low on the list i’m sure.

  • macewan // Jul 14, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    These are all reason the Nokia follow-up to the 770 is an attractive option.

  • Maximum Persuasion // Jul 18, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    I’ve got every electronic reader imaginable. And software too.

    Thing is, none of them replaces reading a good HARD book you can SMELL!.

    And flip pages.

    And dogear corners.

    And scribble on.

    Not to mention, the size of the screen leaves a great deal to be desired

  • Gerry Manacsa // Aug 6, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    I agree with Donttouchmethere’s analysis that the iPhone as it stands today is not the long-awaited killer ebook reader. Yet most of the remaining issues (driven mainly by shortcomings in file management and reader software) are just software issues — not insignificant ones, to be sure, but fixable.

    I’ve posted a short video demonstrating the iPhone’s current utility as a pdf ebook reader:

    The key point is that the iPhone platform with its tactile and intuitive user interface is a very viable starting point for a world changer. I fully expect that Apple will incorporate elements of the iPhone-style user experience in Macs and yet-undefined tablet devices in the not-too-distant future.

  • TJRyan // Sep 1, 2007 at 2:19 am

    What about existing (personal) libraries? Google and friends are carrying out their book scanning projects. Would you be interested in a device that automatically scans books which already own? Current devices are extremely expensive though and I haven’t seen a device that could serve consumer markets. On the other hand conventional flatbed scanners are too impractical, as it would take too long to scan a book…

  • Mike // Sep 28, 2007 at 8:07 pm

    I’ve got an ebook reader for my iPhone:
    ( It’s makes the best ebook
    reader I’ve seen in over a decade of reading ebooks (though I’ve never
    used a dedicated ebook reader, so…). That big, bright, hires screen
    is a wonder to read from. And the lack of physical buttons isn’t a
    problem. The touchscreen gives the iPhone over 153,000 buttons. The
    eBook reader in question divides the screen up into three sections:
    strips at the top and bottom and “the rest of the screen”. Tap the
    strip at the top or bottom to page up or down. Tap anywhere else, and
    those two strips get covered by typical ebook buttons: page up/down,
    next/previous chapture, up, preferences.

  • Tiennou // Oct 17, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    Same here… iphone is a great ebook reader
    Currently reading “The Road” in .txt format and everything is just perfect!

  • Tom // Nov 17, 2007 at 8:14 pm

    I think the iphone will make a wonderful ebook reader once we get good reader software (I’m hesitant to jailbreak mine just yet).

    I’ve been reading ebooks on PDAs for years … started off reading Jules Verne in monochrome on my old Palm Pilot Pro. Eventually worked my way through a Casio B300, ipaq 1900, Dell x50v, Treo 650, and several hundred books later the iPhone.

    The benefit of all these devices was that they could do things other than read books … I could keep calendars, notes, games, videos, mp3 files, and eventually use as a phone. The bigger and higher resolution the screen, the better the reading experience became. My favorite reader is still that Dell with the 640×480 resolution.

    The iPhone’s resolution is not quite THAT good, but is still the brightest and best looking LCD I’ve ever had. I can easily imagine reading books comfortably on it. Things that I would want in reader software:

    1. Ability to open txt files. I hated the proprietary system that palm used … it was always a pain in the butt to install a book on my treo

    2. Immediate page turn with only a tap of my thumb. Most of the time, I can operate my iPhone with only one hand, and don’t see why two hands would be needed to read books on it.

    3. Appropriate word wrapping when changing font size: I’ve never understood why people complain about reading on such a small screen … just make the letters bigger if it’s bugging you.

    The dot-resolution on the iPhone is about 160dpi, which is pretty darn impressive. In fact, I’ve been using the iPhone as an eye chart to test vision:

    Anyway, this is a great discussion, and I can’t wait to get mobireader installed if they make it in Feb.

    The iPHone has many faults, but the one thing that has really impressed me is how well I can view full sized web-pages with it … the speedy processor, high-resolution screen, and gui show that a device this small can be used to read larger medium.

  • Angel // Nov 20, 2007 at 5:18 am

    I have an iPod touch and prefer using my old Dell Axim to read ebooks. First of all, it has a button that I can use to turn the page. I tried the scrolling thing and while it works great in all the other areas on the iPod, it’s a pain when trying to read a book. Second, my Axim has the ability to use different types of software, limiting my time converting files.

    Once the iPhone or iPod touch can solve those problems, it will make an excellent reader. However, I’m still going to ask for a dedicated ebook reader for Xmas. I’m still undecided between the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, or the eBookwise device.

  • hitno // Feb 25, 2008 at 10:48 am

    With TextOnPhone, iPhone and iPod touch users can view electronic books (ebooks), text files, and documents on the go using an iPhone-friendly interface when browsing No additional applications or downloads are required. Users can instantly read and choose from more than 20,000 titles by utilizing the powerful search function or by browsing through recommendations (Top 100 Books, Children’s Books, Book du Jour, and more). The interface of the iPhone and iPod touch enables users to create read lists and add multiple books for simultaneous reading. (The system remembers where you left off.) Users can also add and share personal notes on any of the pages they are reading–a unique feature that gives multiple readers the opportunity to read same book and exchange comments. leverages Ajax technology and the Safari browser that is built in to iPhone and iPod touch. It features the following: virtual keyboard for typing and adding books to read lists, tap-screen technology for moving between pages, One-tap Share the Page button for email, adjustable font size for easy reading, variable number of pages per screen Portrait or Landscape mode for easy reading, and Touch-screen scrolling. The site is accessible for reading only from iPhone and iPod touch. It is accessible from any browser for uploading texts, books, poems, documents, and lyrics. Currently there is no limit for text storage per account. Service is free and has a no spam policy.

  • wave panel // May 12, 2010 at 1:38 am

    I agree with Donttouchmethere’s analysis that the iPhone as it stands today is not the long-awaited killer ebook reader. Yet most of the remaining issues (driven mainly by shortcomings in file management and reader software) are just software issues — not insignificant ones, to be sure, but fixable.