Digital Publishing Relies on E-paper Technology


The well-discussed digital publishing era has not yet come, due to obstacles to widespread digital reading and e-reading. Only when further breakthroughs are achieved in e-paper technology to make mass e-reading adopted will digital publishing revolution really take place.

Key words: self-publishing, ebook, e-reading, e-paper, digital publishing

Throughout the human history, the cultural industry has been driven by innovations in media technology and printing technology. It is the invention of paper that laid the foundation for publishing, and the invention of printing that contributed to the major element of publishing: mass production of copies for wide circulation and trading of written works. As a matter of fact, the first proper book, magazine, and newspaper were all produced after the invention of movable types and printing machines. As Shelley Gruendler (2013) said, “the history of design is the history of technology”. I shall say the history of publishing is also the history of technology, and the technological revolution now is changing the publishing industry in such a way that even the concept of publishing is being reshaped. One key element that will eventually bring forward the publishing revolution is e-paper technology.

The success of publishing relies on mass reading. So where the publishing industry is going depends on what people want to read, how they want to read, and where they want to read. While technological innovations poke new concept of reading in people’s mind, their success is determined by the extent of acceptance. Therefore, though digital technology has been in existence for decades and digital publishing is not a new concept, digital publishing revolution has not really realized, because digital reading has never become mainstream reading.

A variety of factors have been stopping people from digital reading. One factor is the lack of cheaply and conveniently available digital reading devices. Reading on a computer screen cause too much pressure on the eyes, so few people can really enjoy reading a book of two hundred page continuously, let alone reading one book after another on the computer screen. Besides, the inconveniences of reading on the computer throw people off. For instance, to read on the computer, one needs electricity, eposes himself in radiation, may have to stay indoors at one place, may have to access the Internet, and may need a software to read the book. Reading on tablets, smartphones also have the problem of radiation and eye pressure, as well as the inconvenience of small screens. A variety of e-readers such as Kindle, Kobo, and Nood are better choices of digital reading in terms of eye pressure, radiation, and mobility, but as new inventions they are not yet cheaply available. E-readers also have the problem of compatibility. Another obstacle is tech-heaviness. Not many people are comfortable with the technological skills needed for digital reading. Reading on any digital device is not as easy as opening a physical book and turning the pages. The third big issue with digital reading is the lack of physical, psychological and emotional bond between the reader and the book. Very much like people have to talk with each other in person, to see each other, to feel each other, to hear each other, or even to smell each other’s smell to build the sense of existence of each other, most people still feel they have to touch the book, hold it, see it, or even smell it to enjoy the experience of reading the book. Reading on digital devices deprives people of that physical touch and sense of reality.

One solution to these problems is the development of electronic paper, or e-paper, which has been in existence for decades and has been applied to the development of e-readers. The development of e-paper technology, apart from technological challenges, relies on sufficient amount of digital content and on finding ideal cheap material to lower the cost of the e-paper for its mass adoption.

For a time, e-paper market was not promising due to publishers’ reluctant to cooperate with them in providing electronic contents. However, the e-paper has found its way out through e-reader companies’ providing platforms for self-publishing.

The development of Internet technology and social media platforms has helped more and more people realize that they can publish their own works directly. Bestselling authors are realizing that they can market their own books to their own followers, and so they are walking away from their publishers. Less famous authors, especially emerging authors who have been refused or who stand little chance of being selected by publishers are also seeing new hope in self-publishing. Besides, those people who have never thought of being a writer are realizing that they can be writers. E-reader companies found their niche here and are providing very simple direct publishing platforms for these authors. Now that they’ve got enormous content, they can sell more devices at lower costs. And with more, better ebooks more cheaply available, more readers want to buy e-reading devices. Thus both ebook market and e-reader market are gathering momentum.

According to Bowker (June 5, 2012), a leading US bibliographic information provider, the self-publishing market was almost the only contributor to the title growth of print book in US in 2011:

… Based on preliminary figures from U.S. publishers, Bowker is projecting that traditional print book output grew six percent in 2011, from 328,259 titles in 2010 to a projected 347,178 in 2011, driven almost exclusively by a strong self-publishing market.

… “From that standpoint, self-publishing is a true legitimate power to be reckoned with. Coupled with the explosive growth of e-books and digital content – these two forces are moving the industry in dramatic ways.

In another study, Bowker (October 24, 2012) found that the number of self-published print books and ebooks in the US increased by 287 percent in five years, and that the ebook formats had been driving the major percentage gains.

In addition, in 2012, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) reported a global 64.9 percent spending increase in ebook publishing market and predicts a yearly growth of 30.3 percent in the next 4 years, bringing the market share of electronic books from 4.9 percent in 2010 to 17.9 percent in 2016.

Seen the increase of ebook markets, traditional publishers are also catching up with the ebook trend and are converting and creating more and more ebooks. With their enormous storage of backlists, these traditional publishers can drive the ebook market crazy. For example, Bloomsbury Publishing reported on July 11, 2012 that in the three month ended May 31, 2012, it’s global ebooks sales were “up 70% year on year”, while its print sales dropped by 2% in the same period. Again, Bloomsbury’s Interim Management Statement on January 16, 2013 said that “E-book sales continue to show good momentum growing by 58% year on year, in the four months ended 31 December 2012, particularly in the UK.” Besides, Bloomsbury launched an ebook marketing website in December 2012 to grab a larger share of the ebook market.

In December we launched, an innovative and entrepreneurial e-book marketing campaign. The website allows readers to browse a selection of our best titles and then order from their e-tailer of choice. This global e-book promotion is a first for a general trade publisher directly targeting and encouraging readers across the world looking for e-books.

(Bloomsbury, 2013)

Now that a vast market for electronic content is forming and the demand for e-reading is increasing, more profit is been generated from increased selling of e-readers, there is more and more money and drive for the development of better e-papers to better cater to e-readers and to seize an even larger market. According to eMarketer, e-readers enjoyed a growth of 44.2% in 2012 compared to 2011, and they project e-reader sales to continue moderate in coming years.

Similarly, Global Industry Analysts reported in 2012 that the estimated global e-paper market will be US$6.5 billion by the year 2018, due to its increased application in electronic shelf labels, e-textbooks, e-magazines, e-newspapers, mobile phones, signage, smart cards and credit cards to clothes.

These sales figures and estimates and all the excitement about ebooks and e-readers and e-papers do not imply mass e-reading. The majority of people who buy ebooks and e-readers have not formed the habit of e-reading. In most cases, they don’t read the electronic versions on electronic or digital devices, instead they print them to read. And many e-readers are bought as gifts rather than for serious reading. So, as mentioned earlier, because of the obstacles of e-reading, extensive e-reading won’t happen unless there are significant breakthroughs in e-paper development. However, the increasing provision of electronic content and the growing need for e-reading are now strong forces driving advancement in e-paper technology.

Another potential strong drive and challenge for revolution of e-paper technology is the need for e-writing. In this all0-in-one era, reading functionalities are far from being enough for e-paper to be widely adopted. Nowadays, the concept of reading is changing. It is no longer simply reading the book and putting it down. It is now a time of interactive reading. People want to be able to read and mark it, share it, talk about it, comment on it, or even discuss about it with the author, at any time. People want to be able to open a blank page conveniently from the device and write straight on it, using an electronic pen, or just a finger. They also want to be able to erase content, edit it, save it, or send it as easily as possible.

In conclusion, e-paper with ideal reading and writing functionalities has not yet been produced. Therefore, though there have been lots of buzz and excitement about digital publishing, the real revolution has to wait for the breakthrough of e-paper technology to boost mass electronic reading.


Bloomsbury. (2012, July 11). Interim Management Statement. Retrieved from

Bloomsbury. (2013, Jan 13). Interim Management Statement. Retrieved from

Bowker. (2012, June 5). Publishing market shows steady title growth in 2011 fueled largely by self-publishing sector. Retrieved from

Bowker. (2012, October 24). Self-Publishing Sees Triple-Digit Growth in Just Five Years, Says Bowker®. Retrieved from

eMarketer. (2013, Jan 2). More than one in 10 book readers have gone digital-only Read more. Retrieved from

PricewaterhuoseCoopers. (2012, June). Global entertainment and media outlook 2012–2016. Retrieved from

One comment:

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on epaper technology. It’s interesting to note that Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite is now available in Canada:

    And Samsung has announced a phone with a second screen that is epaper:

    I’d like to see some stats on some of the assumptions you have in the paper about people’s reading habits on ereaders and how that in addition to self publishing is related to your thoughts on ereading not taking off completely until epaper is more widespread. I don’t disagree with you but I think you have some good instincts here that would be interesting to explore further.

    Good introduction to this topic.

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