Stephen Cole books his 20th year in the ebook business

Stephen Cole founded eBooks.com in January 1997. It grew into a much-loved e-bookstore and a global supplier of digital texts to universities and colleges. Here he discusses two decades of e-bookselling

A tech rock star is born

Early in the morning of New Year’s Day 1997 I sat in an old armchair in our living room, nursing a vaguely sore back and mulling the future. Fifteen years of bookselling, hefting boxes of books hither and yon, had taken its toll. We had recently sold our beloved bookshop to friends, Anne and Christopher Day, and it was time to think seriously about what comes next.

Whatever the next thing is, I thought, it can’t involve shifting tons of paper for another decade.

Cole in another, analog era. A time when it was unlikely that, when you got to work in the morning, the prices on all your books had changed to $0.01. “I don’t think it ever happened that a customer asked if we had a title in stock and we answered, ‘Oops. Page not found.'”

I’d recently invested in a PC and had read every page of those fat white books that Microsoft delivered with its software. We’d rigged up a flaky, intermittent dial-up connection. We were using email. I was gaining a sense of the Internet and its potential.

As I sat there, it slowly dawned on me that books are essentially just text and images, and that this emerging Internet thing specialises in just that. Text and images. Surely the Internet could be a medium of transmission for books. Crucially, a medium that dispensed with heavy lifting. It was just a sort of fancy, and I dismissed the idea on the assumption that there must be teams of Californians working on it already.

It was a blazing hot day, topping 44 degrees Celsius (112 F) and no aircon at home. Perhaps the extreme heat explains what happened next.

The notion burned in my brain. Surely I’d have heard about it if someone were doing it already? I spent the rest of the day on AltaVista searching for evidence, but there was none. Well, that’s not quite true. There were some enthusiasts talking energetically about digital books on a listserv discussion group called EBOOK-List. The group was founded by Jon Noring, who is to this day an important figure in digital publishing.

progress emerges from the collision of hubris, happenstance and natural selection

Much of the discussion on EBOOK-List was about digitising public domain and self-published material, including detailed analyses of potential technical solutions. Which was all well and good but, as a bookseller, it seemed to me that there was a commercial opportunity here. As far as I could tell, no-one was talking to book publishers about this.

I explained to my family that I was already pretty much an expert on this stuff, probably a genius; the whole thing is very simple and easy. Just a matter of getting pre-press digital files from publishers and converting them into a format that could be encrypted and downloaded by end users.

We would license books from publishers (who would jump at the chance), pop up a website, and start selling to the world. In six months we’d be the next big internet thing.

Green fields. Low-hanging fruit. An amazing business opportunity, there for the plucking.

Progress emerges from the collision of hubris, happenstance and natural selection. If we knew the half of what we were getting into, so many journeys would just not begin.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

LEAVE A REPLY