Beyond ebooks: The rise of digital ecosystem of reading

While you immerse yourself in your favourite pastime, the digital world is silently changing the way you connect with books.

April 3rd, 1995 when the first ever book was ordered online on a then-unknown website called [1], little did anyone know that soon we would witness an incredible experience of digital reading and learning. That we would get a book the moment we ‘desire’ and carry with ourselves thousands of books in a little device. That books will no longer be measured in pages but bytes. That we wouldn’t actually have to read the book to ‘read’ the book – we would just listen to it without anyone’s help. That anyone would be able to publish a book in few clicks and you will be recommended the best of the books by a machine which would have otherwise been an unknown unknown for you.

Welcome to the digital ecosystem of reading.

As the industry transformed from print media to digital content we witnessed quite a few companies who emerged as winners whereas the other established ones struggled to stay in the game. The whole ecosystem of reading has evolved in 4 dimensions:


As more and more physical books started getting sold online, Amazon released the first Kindle in 2004 – a device that enabled users to browse, buy, download and read e-books, newspapers, magazines and other digital media via wireless networking to the Kindle Store. [2] The product was sold out in 6 hours. [3] The ability to get the book immediately with just few clicks and to set the font large or small as per own comfort, provided instant gratification to users who could now have thousands of books stored in Kindle and carry them anywhere they want. The subsequent versions of Kindle enabled users to use the product on the beach, underwater, darkness, bright sunshine with a perfect look and feel of reading a book. By 2010, Amazon was selling more e-books than hardcovers[3]. As of date there are multiple ebook readers prevailing in the market – kobo, nook, ibook on ipad etc.


In early 2000s, companies like audible, simply audiobooks etc. launched ‘talking books’ that read out the book for you. Users could now listen to their favorite book while driving, physically moving or just when they don’t want to take the pains of reading. People could also rent the audiobooks if they didn’t want to pay the full price to keep it forever. This made reading (or listening) books much more efficient than before.


As an obvious next step, to cater to the need of sharing and recommending books to one another, companies like goodreads emerged in 2006 – a ‘social cataloging’ website that allowed individuals to freely search its database of books, annotations, and reviews. Sharing what you are reading and helping other book readers through online reviews and recommendation closed the loop for book reader who could now buy online, read whenever they want and get recommendations on their next book.

Another extension of matching phenomena was captured by Booktrib who gave an opportunity to lesser known authors to reach out to vivid readers. [5]

Goodreads members growth 2007-2013 [15] [16]


In 2005, Amazon further pushed the boundaries of reading world by allowing every individual to publish their own book in minutes. While established and conventional publishing houses were very selective in choosing their next publication, Amazon once again captured the tail authors who never got a chance to publish their work so far but now could self-publish it with few clicks and printing was on demand which means book was only printed once actual order was received on Amazon book store [7]. Recently Amazon has moved from Create space to Kindle Direct Publishing to integrating the publishing feature within the Kindle ecosystem. The ebook version of the book can now be made available on Kindle Store or Amazon book store in minutes.

How is the tremendous value created, captured?

Many companies have come up with a subscription based model where users pay a monthly fee to have limited or unlimited access to the content. There is also a free subscription model that supports ads relevant to the reading profile of the user. Moreover, the cross-selling based on reading history and other data captured has tremendously helped to increase the revenues.

Who lost?

Conventional Bookstores:

BookWorld, founded in 1976, closed its 45 stores in the US in 2017-2018. [8] Barnes & Noble

Borders Group, founded in 1971, filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection liquidating 399 stores in 2011 [9] and was finally acquired by Barnes&Noble – the last standing national bookstore which is also now struggling to sustain itself. The brand has lost $1B in value since 2013 [10]


While print publication definitely got cannibalized by ebooks [12], The traditional publishing industry has largely reshaped embracing the digital publishing that has helped the publishers to adapt to this change and maintain business continuity [11]. Whether it is a print book or ebook, authors still need publishers to design and market the book which is a major chunk of cost in any book publishing [11]. Having said that, the power is definitely getting drifted from Big 5 publishers to Self-publishers and indie publishers.


  Market Share by major publishing categories [13]


The phenomena of print to digital is not just limited to book but we also see the shift happening in other publications – newspapers, magazines etc. The UK’s national newspaper, The Independent, went 100% digital in 2016 [14]. The whole ecosystem of reading that the digital world brings to a reader makes the rise of the innovative concepts like audible, goodreads and KDP inevitable and it will be interesting to see what is next in store for us that will make reading, one of the favourite pastime of people, more convenient, efficient, connected and fun.




[1] Garber, Megan. 2019. “Here Is The First Book Ever Ordered On Amazon”. The Atlantic.

[2] “Amazon Kindle”. 2019. En.Wikipedia.Org.

[3] “A Decade Of Amazon Kindle”. 2019. Techcrunch.

[4] “Goodreads”. 2019. En.Wikipedia.Org.

[5] “Our Mission – Booktrib”. 2019. Booktrib.

[6] “Self Publishing | Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing”. 2019. Kdp.Amazon.Com.

[7] “Createspace”. 2019. En.Wikipedia.Org.

[8] “Bookstore Chains, Long In Decline, Are Undergoing A Final Shakeout”. 2019. Nytimes.Com

[9] Sanburn, Josh, and Josh Sanburn. 2019. “5 Reasons Borders Went Out Of Business (And What Will Take Its Place) | TIME.Com”. TIME.Com.

[10] “The Sad Decline Of Barnes & Noble”. 2019. The American Conservative.

[11] “The Resurgence Of Traditional Publishing In A Digital World”. 2019. Ribbonfish.

[12] Mason, Caleb. 2019. “Why Ebooks Will Eventually Replace Print”. Book Business.

[13] Friedman, Jane. 2019. “The Myth About Print Coming Back (Updated) | Jane Friedman”. Jane Friedman.

[14] “The Independent Will Become The First National Newspaper To Go Digital-Only”. 2019. The Independent.

[15] “Here’s Another Fast-Growing Social Network: Goodreads – Readwrite”. 2019. Readwrite.

[16] “Goodreads hits 1 million members”.2008.Goodreads.


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Student comments on Beyond ebooks: The rise of digital ecosystem of reading

  1. This is an interesting overview of the evolution of reading/reading tech. I’d be curious to see how these changes map to changes in other media (decline of broadcasting, rise of Netflix and other streaming services). I wonder if the entire decline of bookstores can be attributed to eBooks/audiobooks, or if there was also just a general shift in terms of what types of media consumers wanted to engage with.

    1. Thank for your reply. There is definitely a similarity between the shift that we see in books or music or videos. One thing that I personally feel differentiates books from the rest is that more people still ‘feel’ for books and like to have a hard copy as a collection than the ones who like to keep physical music or video library. So I don’t think we will ever 100% move from print to digital.
      As far as decline of bookstores is concerned it is due to 1) shift of printed books sale from stores to online followed by 2) shift from print to ebooks (that obviously don’t require a store). Barnes&Noble tried to adapt to this change by providing a reading experience within the store (through instore seating and starbucks) and launching Nook but it is still struggling hard to compete with this whole digital shift and the accompanying concepts (like audible and goodreads) that readers enjoy by shifting to digital book.

  2. Thank you for this post.
    A clear winner of this transformation is the environment, as less paper is used on a daily basis. The paper-markers (also recycled) are losers.
    Although I clearly see clear gains in this transformation, I wonder if and what are the physical implications (eye-sight for example) that we as a society need to address due to our growing addiction to screens – and what kind of technologies (E-ink for example) will develop in order to overcome them.

  3. Great thought! I can’t agree with you more. There is a clear tangible benefit of using less paper, ink, logistics etc. that helps the environment – thus making it as a winner. However, I don’t think this gain can be ruled out because of our addiction to screen as I would argue there are better ways of avoiding screen than by not reading books which is a great source of knowledge and fun. We are living in a world where using screen (laptop/smartphone) is inevitable and I see reading online as one of the best use of these devices. What do you think?

  4. Clear and interesting. It is interesting to see the rise and fall of e-readers in this shift. The sales peaked in 2011 and have been falling since due to the frequent use of smartphones, other tables, computers for reading like you touched upon in your comment above.
    More here:

    Self-publishing has clear advantages to the author despite higher costs like you mentioned. Speed of getting published and rights are definite benefits. The one loss I see as a reader is finding good content might take time or might not be discovered as the volume of self-published books increase.

    Thank you for your post Gaurav Chawla!

  5. Thanks for your comment!
    I would say the market has evolved from: print books- store pickup –> print books- ecommerce –> ebooks –> e-books on e-reader –> ecosystem of reading with multi-device access, audiobooks, self-publishing. Hence, I would see the decline of e-reader is a testimony of evolution of this ecosystem.
    I agree with your concerns on content quality with ease of publication. I guess the social cataloging websites like goodreads will grow stronger with time as they help to classify the content based on reviews, ratings, quality etc.

  6. Great post Gaurav! It’s a very comprehensive review including the audio books and sharing platforms. Also it did not occur to me that self-publishing has eroded so much of the publishers’ market share. It’d be interesting to see the competition within the e-reading platforms. In China, there is an App called Himalaya which draws more millennials who don’t like reading actual books and spend a lot time on commuting to work towards audio books. Not only the book reading, they also developed many audio courses on soft skills using the platform and charge subscription fees per course or for membership. I have not done any research yet on how they are doing compared to e-books in China but it would be an interesting topic to look into.

    1. Thanks Ge! For sure, Audio books (and courses) market is still untapped and has huge potential. It will be interesting to see how users who are fond of reading, respond to audiobooks. One value that reading provides (and audio does not) is that it helps a person to concentrate on the book and disconnect with other thoughts for that duration. I am not sure if it would be feasible with audiobooks which actually helps you multi-task (like driving while listening), which is another kind of value creation though.

  7. Hi Gaurav, very interesting post! Our Launching Technology Ventures class actually just experimented with an interactive version of a HBS case using the digital content platform Glose ( where everyone in the class can see what other students highlighted and annotated, and then respond to those. It’s an extension from just consuming the content to interacting with the content in a social way with people in your community. As the ebook digital ecosystem moves beyond one’s home to the classroom, I think there will be many more opportunities to create and capture value. To your point, I think publishers and book stores could stand to lose far more – just imagine all the textbooks that may no longer be bought!

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