Being ahead of the game can be beneficial for business but it can also be problematic – you see a market no one else sees!
Did I invent the E-Book? Could I have been Kindle?
Back in 1993 I had a strong belief that everyone would soon be reading electronic books on their computers and laptops and so I would create and publish electronic books for the education market. I boldly named my business SoftText and was convinced it would be the Next Big Thing in the ongoing digital revolution that was gathering momentum across the globe.
The era was BI (Before Internet) and only a very few hardcore geeks had connections and I was not one of them. I owned an Apple Mac SE (or similar), a machine with a small hard drive and tiny memory (4MB) but it was the right platform for the higher education market as Apple were doing great deals for students, universities and colleges.
So I had the hardware and the next step was to find the software tool. It didn’t take me long as I think there were only about three or four and only one that was sensibly priced – The Voyager Company’s Expanded Book Toolkit. It enabled you to create Expanded Books in which the digital text could be bookmarked, annotated with a user’s own notes and shared, ideal for lecturers and students, and other cool features most of which are standard on today’s Kindle and other ebook platforms.
All I needed now was a text to convert into an Expanded Book. The text had to be out of copyright and in a digital format if possible. After some research I discovered electronic texts existed in the domain of academia and came with a hefty cost attached, one I couldn’t justify. The only solution was to buy a cheap paperback copy of a coursework text and type the damn thing into my Mac. After a two week period of intense typing, proofreading and correcting, of sleepless nights, blistered fingers and RSI, I had my own digital text version of John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’.
For some strange reason I decided one sample product was not enough and so launched myself into a six week session of demented typing. At the end of it I had Stephen Crane’s ‘The Red Badge of Courage’, Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ and William Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets’. You may have noticed these are all relatively short works.
I now had my product samples and took them to ‘market’. I met university professors of English and heads of departments in Sheffield, Manchester and Oxford but all looked at me with the same expression on their faces; said aloud it was- a BOOK on a COMPUTER – WTF? Most of them thought I was a con-man, a quack or just a weird nutter who had somehow managed to blag a meeting.
To be fair a few did understand where I was coming from and some even bought a few copies. From these bitter disappointments I went to meet the head of electronic publishing at the Oxford University Press who admired my DIY approach but had his own plans. He also pointed out the fact that if the OUP didn’t yet have a market for this type of product, then neither did I. I left Oxford with a heavy heart and realised I was a flyweight in a heavyweight’s game with a product nobody wanted. I had been naive – a creative mind with zero business acumen.
I decided to cut my losses, shut down SoftText and returned to interior decorating to pay the bills. My vision of an ebook future had burned and crashed after less than a year.
The Kindle Era
Now I own a Kindle. I have ‘Paradise Lost’ which was free as was James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, a book I had actually considered typing into my Mac one evening back in 1993, and hundreds of works of fiction and reference.
In 2012 we have the rise and rise of the ebook – from ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ to ‘The Bible’! Kindle sales are over 3 million, although Amazon remain cagey about releasing detailed sales figures, and the Apple iPad has shifted 40 million units since its launch, a perfect device for reading ‘expanded books’. So I did see a market after all – it just happened to exist well over a decade in the future and a decade is a long, long time in technology.