Simon Rowberry on ‘A Historiography of the Ebook’

This Friday lunchtime, the Centre for the History of the Book welcomed Dr Simon Rowberry, lecturer in Digital Media & Publishing at the University of Stirling, to give a lecture entitled ‘A Historiography of the Ebook’. As a printed book enthusiast, I came to this CHB seminar as someone who is fairly sceptical about e-readers. I’ve never read a book on a Kindle, never read a newspaper on my smartphone, and definitely never dared touch an iPad (too scared I’d break it). As a result, I didn’t know what to expect from such an intriguing lecture title; the relatively new term ‘ebook’ seems almost out of place next to the grandiose, scholarly pursuit of ‘historiography’. However, over the course of the lecture Dr Rowberry gave us an absorbing insight into the historical origins, development, and controversies surrounding ebooks and e-readers and their implications upon contemporary reading practices.

anno kindle


Platform Studies

While Rowberry’s current research focuses on the history of the Amazon Kindle from 2007 to 2011, he usefully began the lecture by placing the Kindle within the larger context of Platform Studies, a media-historical methodology which considers the relationship between computer systems and the wider culture and context in which they operate. In a similar way to Robert Darnton’s “communications circuit,” Rowberry demonstrated how each technological, bibliographical, and sociological platform of the ebook affects all others, from the type of hardware it uses through to its external integration (e.g. the ability to tweet from a Kindle).


Problems with Periodicity

With this framework established, Rowberry identified two problems associated with historicising the ebook: periodicity and evidence. He explored these issues by considering the two case studies of Amazon and Microsoft. Owing to Amazon’s seeming monopoly over the marketplace, it is often assumed that the release of the Kindle in 2007 (“Anno Kindle”) was the core date of origin of the ebook. Admittedly, I myself wasn’t aware that Microsoft had created their own (now-defunct) application for the reading of ebooks, Microsoft Reader, back in 2000. But Rowberry took us even further back in time, first discounting the photographic approach to text used by Brown in 1929 and Microform in the 1950s – the origins of digital books rather than ebooks? – then turning his attention to Project Gutenberg in 1971. This digital library project makes available, usually for free, full texts of public domain books in open-formats that can be used on computers, tablets and e-readers. However, Rowberry noted that Project Gutenberg didn’t take off until the 1990s, whereas a similar project established in 1976, the Oxford Text Archive, can be seen as a more viable starting point for the ebook.

Ebooks, then, have arrived. But how did users consume them in a pre-tablet age? The release of Sony’s Discman in the 1990s was one of the first ebook players on the market, which worked by transferring classic works of literature from Project Gutenberg into the Discman format. Following this, the dawn of the new millennium saw an influx of new e-readers, as tech companies reacted to the optimistic prophecies surrounding this burgeoning market. When the Kindle finally arrived in 2007, it looked just like any other e-reader; it wasn’t until Apple’s release of the iPad in 2010 that an influential shift occurred in the e-reader market. Suddenly, ebooks became an established form of serious reading. While both companies used the same ePub format, they strove to outperform one another in terms of user experience, thus developing next-generation models with improved interactivity, aesthetics, and features which continue to evolve with the times.



In the final part of the lecture, Rowberry turned his attention to the available evidence for historicising the ebook, asking which ebook titles are available in each format and what ebooks people actually read. Microsoft Reader presents a real barrier for answering these questions, as it is no longer possible to access the software. In the early noughties, though, the program contained 60,000 titles – although it is difficult to reconstruct which of these titles its customers bought and read. Rowberry compared this to Amazon’s four million titles for Kindle, noting the difficulty of establishing evidence from such a large volume of ebooks. He also observed variation between different editions, comparing the use of italics in the first sentence of Nabokov’s Pale Fire in the Putnam print version from 1962, Penguin’s 2010 Google Play Books version, and Penguin’s 2010 Kindle version. These variants may seem irrelevant at first glance, but Rowberry demonstrated how each sentence affects our reading experience and therefore has an important role to play in the construction and reception of the text.

Rowberry’s engaging and thought-provoking research brings book history into the twenty-first century and successfully demonstrated to a print-lover like myself the merits of examining new technologies to discover what they can contribute to the ongoing book conversation. Time will tell what the next decade has in store for the ebook; judging by its complex history, its future will be rather unpredictable.


Report by Lucy Mertekis, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.

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