Why I’m an ebook evangelist, especially in Africa

E-publications can solve our woes:  why I’m an ebook evangelist

This article is meant for a South African audience, but my feelings about the value of e-publications are meant for everyone. 

A decade ago you listened to music and watched video much differently – the same transformation is happening to books. Ebooks represent 15 – 20% of major US trade publisher sales [1] – a fraction of the global ebook market – and the South African market is growing. Readers buy ebooks from Kalahari.net [2], subscribe to You via iPads [3] , send documents from Blackberry to Blackberry. Soon, we will buy books directly from copy shops [4] and lend ebooks from libraries [5].I firstly discuss the practical aspects, then finish with my motivation for advocating ebooks.

Practical: where to get an ebook


Search your favourite author, book or title – look for an option entitled :”get a copy”. If the publisher offers the option, you can to buy the ebook from many stores – or get it for free.


Google books searches inside existing books. I found 856,000 publications referring to Nelson Mandela and can read many of them directly from my browser.

Google ebooks takes this a step further, giving you access to the ebook – if available.

Main ebook formats

Any text document is theoretically an ebook. The main file formats for what most understand as ebooks are:

1) Portable Document Format [6]

PDF thrives in a fixed-layout environment. It’s easy to generate and to share. However, mobile devices cannot reflow the content of a PDF, making it difficult to read.

2) Electronic Publication [7]

Epub is based on HTML – the language of the web. No-one owns this format. It’s becoming the standard way to deliver e-publications and is reflowable – perfect for mobile displays.

3) Kindle [8]

Kindle is also based on HTML, but Amazon owns the format. Amazon is the global market leader in sales of its Kindle devices, so I expect you’ve heard of “Kindle books” already.

Ereaders / media tablets / smart phones (EMTS)

The difference between these devices is their displays – both in terms of dimensions and operation.

E-ink versus LCD

Ereaders use a display called e-ink [9]. Unlike other displays (e.g. LCD), e-ink looks better in sunlight. E-ink also uses less power; a device can last for two months without recharge. LCD displays consume a lot of power, so media tablets such as the iPad have a limited battery life (around 8-10 hours).


If you want to try out one these ‘reading devices’, but aren’t sure which to try, consider:

Ereaders Media tablets / smart phones
Cheaper (R1200+) Expensive (R3000+)
Long battery life (in weeks) Short battery life (in hours)
Read better in sunlight Read worse in sunlight

Both offer internet access, though, which is important.

Think in terms of the platform, not in terms of specific devices

You don’t need an EMTS to read ebooks. Amazon realized this and released their Kindle software on multiple platforms (Mac, PC, iPhone, Blackberry, Android…) [10].

Motivation: why I’m excited about e-reading

A publishing student asked me why we learn about ebooks in South Africa, where people can’t afford ereaders, never mind books. I didn’t have a straight answer for her back in 2006, when digital media consumption hadn’t yet reached the book sector – but as anyone in the publishing profession can attest, things have changed.

South Africa is a connected society, and increasingly so

Now my answer is: a majority of us can afford mobile devices [11]. Our reading is moving towards the mobile internet [12]. To emphasize my point about SA and mobile media consumption, consider Blackberry. There are more Blackberries in use in SA than any other phone – yet, globally, Research In Motion (RIM) has a 13.4% share. [13]. RIM is the only company to offer free mobile internet access via its Blackberry devices –  access to ebooks.

Investing in the digital marketplace, we can save money

Media tablets are currently only for the privileged. Ereaders prices are dropping steeply (R3200 to R1200 in three years [14]). Also, Amazon offers free 3G browsing on its Kindle ereader. Initiatives such as Worldreader and Paperight (a-must-read for publishers) [4] are underway to place books in every African’s hands – and ebooks play a significant role in this.This is why I’m excited about ebooks in South Africa – as you should be.

This will also appear in the OSALL newsletter. 

Other presentations

Digital publishing: ebooks and mobile devices
Making sense of ebooks

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