Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Bye-Bye PDF: The New Coming e-Book Revolution - An Interview With Antonio Tombolini

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The next ebook revolution is coming.

One of the new e-ink based portable ebook readers

After 15 years of associating the word e-book with some sort of PDF content designed and packaged for commercial delivery via the Internet (often with very low production quality and internal value), I have been struck by the fascinating insight taken by Italian online entrepreneur Antonio Tombolini, who after a number of successful stints on the Italian web, has now focused his efforts on leveraging the new disruptive opportunities created by the coming of a new generation of portable ebook readers.

Italian ebook publishing entrepreneur Antonio Tombolini

Under the Simplicissimus brand, Mr. Tombolini, who is also a highly followed blogger and a very respected web marketing consultant, has taken it as his main new business objective to create a digital publishing house that leverages the disruptive power that a new line of revolutionary ebook reader is bringing about.

Characterized by the use of e-ink technology, these new line of portable devices sports traits and characteristics that make these units much more electronic reading devices than portable computers with a special screen.

Some of the traits that characterize this new generation of hardware-based ebooks are in fact nothing short of revolutionary. Let me just highlight four of the key traits that make these new ebook devices so special and interesting, both for would be authors and writers as well as for anyone wanting to access text-based information while on the move.

a) E-ink screens can be read under direct sunlight as well as a newspaper can. In the dark a little USB-light-pen is all you need to make the screen as readable as in day time.

b) When you use these new ebook devices, the device is actually "off", consuming no energy at all.
As a consequence batteries last forever and the ebook unit produces no noise or heat as it is being used.

c) The new ebooks connect to the Internet, have WiFi, USB and Ethernet ports, can download and upload most any file and have very large memory capacity allowing for hundreds of books to be stored in the space of portable paperback.
d) Contents of ebooks can be commented, highlighted, written upon or interacted with a simple pen device. Forms can be filled, quizzes can be answered, and notes can be easily written and stored "together" with the content that they are written on.

Quite humbly, Antonio Tombolini states that choosing this technology opportunity as his next project is none of his insight or far-reaching vision, and that outside of Italy companies have been on this lead already for a while. He mentions the likes of Sony, Philips and Amazon, just to name some, but so far, in Italy, he is the only one who is betting seriously on this frontier.

In this one-to-one video interview I try to uncover all that there is to know about the new ebook revolution, and where opportunities may be for both users and entrepreneurs.

(Though the original video interview is in Italian I am also providing a full English text transcript right below each video).



Robin Good: Antonio, please, introduce yourself.

Antonio Tombolini: I am Antonio Tombolini, I am 47 and I live in Loreto, a small city of Marche that is located nearby the Adriatic sea. I work since more than ten years "with" and "on" the Internet. Until 1997 I was a commercial company executive. Since then I gave up what everyone calls career" to work on the Internet and focus mostly on web marketing and e-commerce.

Robin Good: What do you do with the Internet?

Antonio Tombolini: Presently I have two main areas of interest for my professional business on the Internet. The first is the management of the web marketing efforts of a company called San Lorenzo which sells quality Italian traditional food products and wine on the web.

The other one is a start-up, a business that is being born at this time; it is a publishing house called Simplicissimus Book Farm... we created this company a few months ago, and we started operating in March. The particular characteristic of this publishing house is that we will exclusively publish e-books, "books in electronic format".

What is an e-book?

Robin Good: What is an e-book? Is it hardware or software?

Antonio Tombolini: If we want to use proper terminology it is "software", just as a book is... because a book, beyond the medium you use to read it, is its content...

An e-book is neither more nor less than a normal book that changes medium... it is therefore a book that is produced without being published on paper and it is a book that has to be read by electronic means.

The electronic devices that allowed the reading of e-books had never been very comfortable until now; the reading of long books on the computer or on portable devices has various problems to consider: radiation, the difficulties, the tiring of the eyes, and also the fact that it is impossible to use these devices to read outside, in open spaces, because sunlight makes it so hard to read.

E-ink technology explained - click to enlarge

In order to face these problems, since about a year and a half, new research has been started and new patents have been registered while using new technology called e-ink (electronic ink) which turns upside-down the traditional LCD monitor technology and instead of switching-on some lights to make you read what is on the screen, it turns everything off, and just like traditional paper and with a special patented chemical substance excited electrically it prints some ink dots on it which then turns itself off. The result is this new print technology of electronic ink and paper.

What you see now is the first ebook reader that has come on the world market. It is now being released on the European market and is called iLiad.


It is a product of Philips Group which has dedicated itself to the development of this technology. The uniqueness of this technology is this: you can read even if the monitor is off - the battery is not working - ...and the reader's eyes will not receive any radiation of any kind (in contrast to the traditional technology), and the more light there is, the better you can read what's on the screen.

After reading a page, the computer turns on by itself only when it has to turn on a new page; by turning pages, the micro-capsules of electronic ink are stimulated electrically and those so excited become black dots. The dots get printed on the paper-like surface and everything turns off automatically again.

What does an e-book device look like?

Robin Good: Please show us what does an e-book device looks like and which are its characteristics

Antonio Tombolini: Sure. Here it is....

iLiad, has few hardware controls, having these four basic buttons that allow the user to access four directories: news, books, documents and notes.

In the notes area you can take notes on the fly; in the docs area you can store documents of various formats, from HTML to PDF.

Then there is Books area and the "News directory" represent a very important aspect, which has not yet been properly implemented and on which are making some interesting application tests. Do not forget in fact that is this portable device is based on Linux and the platform is very open... therefore there is a community of developers working around it.

One thing we are currently working on is the possibility of directly acquiring RSS feeds via the WiFi connection - in the formats we will decide to utilize and display in an optimized format on the iLiad.

The other buttons are navigation commands and they are rather intuitive. By clicking on the first one the user can move to a higher level; the second one lets her get back to the main menu. Then there are the direction arrows and the select button.

iLiad shown at CeBIT2007 - source: YouTube Charbax

Robin Good: And what is the use of that big bar?

Antonio Tombolini: This is the "turn-pages" bar. It is a technology that tries to emulate the act of browsing a page when we read a paper-based physical book.

Instead, this little button here lets the user connect to the Internet. iLiad can connect to the Internet via WiFi connection and also via Ethernet. There is an adapter that with an Ethernet cable you can connect to a router. The availability of an WiFi connection is certainly the factor that opens the most interesting possibilities like RSS aggregation on the mobile device to the ones of sending out information for educational and learning purposes.

The user can receive RSS feeds from whatever source she prefers and she can display them the way she likes.

Let's think about a student and how she would be facilitated in her studies by such a device: she could read books, annotate on them, do exercises and send them via the Internet to the person who has to correct them.

The content can also be downloaded from the Internet or from another computer, by using this USB port. The computer detects iLiad as an external mass storage device (just like a pen-drive) and therefore files can be easily transferred to it.

Additionally, iLiad reads different memory cards formats. So we have one USB port and two memory card ports. We can store anything we want on these memory cards. The capacity of this device is indeed potentially unlimited.

There is also an adapter for the battery charger and this is the port for the headphones, since the iLiad is also a mp3 reader; this feature has many possible applications especially for disabled users.

We are currently experimenting with these possible uses with associations that deal with these problems and we are testing this device with automated conversion software that turns text into audible speech. iLiad and similar ebook devices might be also used for teaching purposes, such as language courses (with the possibility to receive audio feedback).

Key advantages of this new e-book technology

Robin Good: What are the key advantages of this new ebook technology?

Antonio Tombolini: The advantage is that by being able to read thing in a comfortable way on a portable device, which has the same weight of a traditional paperback (280 gms), I can take with me an object like this and a whole library of books with it.

On this e-book reader, I could potentially store hundred books on its own memory, but I could also use the traditional memory SD cards that we use in photo cameras. Also, I could use USB keys that allow me to carry the books that I like wherever I go.

Furthermore, a specific characteristic of iLiad that differentiates it from other ebook producers such as Sony - whose e-book reader is commercialized only in the United States - is that it allows its users also the possibility of writing on the electronic content. In this fashion we get closer to our traditional habits with paper-based reading as we can now annotate, mark-up and write extensively on this electronic-based ebook readers while maintaining a version of the content with the notes and one without them.

This makes the new ebook readers formidable working tools, because aside of the fact that these devices allows me to read, they also enable me to take note of my appointments, organize my agenda, handwrite an email and auto-transform it into digital text to be sent as an email over the Internet. The new ebook reader can also be directly connected to the internet, enabling me to do all my ordinary tasks online such as emailing, blogging, etc..

Accessibility and Ease of use of new ebook devices

Robin Good: Can accessibility and ease of use substitute the values that have always been considered essential by the general public (high-quality print, definition, medium) ?

Antonio Tombolini: I think that this is absolutely so and I explain this also in the book.

At the times of Gutenberg, the transition from the highly decorated manuscript prepared by monks to the new print format represented a notable devaluation of the original product. Clearly the original hand-decorated paper writings had an immensely greater aesthetic value than the press format provided by Gutenberg new movable type technology. It is clear that a beautiful manuscript with all its designs and miniatures is incomparably more appealing visually than a standard print-published book.

On the other hand the manuscript presented a disadvantage in terms of distribution, due to the fact that during those times the accessibility to these manuscripts was limited to small groups of intellectuals and monks.

With the invention of printing, the same book (without miniatures) has become immediately accessible to a larger share of the population, in more places and at different times.

The transition to ebooks and digital music is also the same: is obvious that I would always love vinyl to a recorded mp3 copy... but on the other hand it is evident that today I would be able to listen to my music (thanks to the MP3 player) also while jogging, which is something that I could have never done before.

Therefore, this is a new opportunity that implies deep changes in the way we distribute and consume content whether in music or books. Today I can bring this device with me on the train along with 100 different books, which is something that I would truly appreciate, considering that sometimes I wished I had brought a different book with me to read.

Therefore I believe that the changes will mostly be in this direction... "There wont be the scent of paper anymore"...these are the things that I hear whenever I talk about digital books, and I try to illustrate this technology and these possibilities... "the sensation of paper in the hand... the smell of the ink, the glue"... they are all great and beautiful.

I believe that paper will stay, but only the best quality paper will remain - I hope that only the real high-quality things will remain - at least this is what I hope would take place. Hopefully all that bad quality ink and bad paper that I see around will not be used anymore to publish all those low-quality newspapers and many of today magazines.

Therefore, it's not a matter of eliminating, replacing, substituting, or saying that this is better than that; this is a new and different mode of accessing and distributing content that expands the opportunities for reading, just as the MP3 did with digital music. Just as by using MP3 technology, more people have been able to listen to music I hope that the same could be said for book reading with these new ebooks devices.

Who will be the first users of this e-book technology?

Robin Good: Who are likely to be the first users of this technology ?

Antonio Tombolini: Well, I think that due to the initial cost that this product will have ... a product like this is rather expensive and it will cost, in the beginning, something like €550 plus taxes... initial customers will not be driven by passion but by convenience.

What I mean, is that an object like this is very convenient to someone who for his personal business interest that takes her to continuous or frequent traveling. Whether I am a lawyer, a commercial airplane pilot, a software developer or a literary agent who has to read lots of manuscripts....having the opportunity to have at hand all I need to have to carry out my work...

I can have all this information I need at my fingertips...I can use this object to take my notes, keep my agenda...send emails... and this is why this ebook device becomes a very powerful competitor to the traditional notebook. A portable computer, even a tablet-like PC which although is very light and small-sized, it is certainly beautiful and comfy... but it still weights 1.2Kg against the 280g of this portable reader.

Furthermore, the battery autonomy is incomparable. As I have said, the "electronic ink" technology allows this device to always display data on the screen even when it is turned off.

Look: at this moment the device is off and I can still read what's on the screen; but if I use a Tablet PC, or a normal computer, even with an LCD, it will consume energy, the battery will work, even when it isn't doing anything. So the autonomy of this unit is incomparable to one of a portable computer with the added advantage of a processor which doesn't warm up at all, because it is almost always idle.

This is why, in my opinion, the first adopters will be professional users, who will find in this new ebook devices a tool with which they will also be able to read their favourite fiction, next to their work.

There is also an already announced "second phase" of ebook technology introduction, in which new ebook devices based on the same reading technology will be introduced in the market. These will be essentially basic ebook readers with writing or Internet connection capabilities . Companies like Sony and Bookeen - a French company whose products we are trying to import to Italy - are already working on deploying such devices. These are going to be optimum ebook readers that have only "reading" capabilities.

The price of these products will be sensitively lower, I think they will start from around €250 (apx $335), since they are conceived more as consumer tools. Our idea is that these devices could play the role that the iPod and other MP3 readers played in the music revolution, by increasing the popularity of digital reading.

Is price going to be an obstacle to the success of this new type of e-book devices?

Robin Good: If these products would cost 50 euros I would see great benefits... It seems to me that the only obstacle is the price...

Antonio Tombolini: I agree with you and this makes me think about Amazon: if Amazon decides to make a proprietary hardware device as an ebook reader - it is likely that it will distribute this hardware by subsidizing it just like telephone companies nowdays subsidize mobile phones.

I expect that Amazon will launch a marketing campaign that will sound like: "Here is the ultimate e-book reader, look how beautiful it is! Give me $100 and I will fill it with your favourite books too ..."

Editorial publishing services around the new ebook marketplace

Antonio Tombolini: We will act also as an editorial service.

Robin Good: What does this mean?

Antonio Tombolini: It means that since we are equipping ourselves with the technology to print and publish to these new electronic new ebook devices we are making ourselves to independent authors who have written something and who don't how to manage with the format, the graphic design, the cover....and so on... and we do this at very accessible rates... we prepare you an estimate for the job and we print the electronic book that you will have available for distribution and with very high quality standards, a thing that with traditional printing and distribution costs would be prohibitive for most.

Are there new possibilities for content producers?

Robin Good: Which are the new possibilities for those small independent publishers who produce content - aside of traditional writers? Is there any opportunity?

Antonio Tombolini: I think there are.... and I want to give you an example. The example comes from the exchanges we are having at this time for the possible business applications for iLiad.

Something that I have discovered is that even now, in Italy, there are many small publishers who are forced to publish books, either because they are interested in publishing them autonomously, or because they are forced to do so for institutional reasons. University presses for example need to publish most their research in print format. In these cases they print these paper books nonetheless they are fully aware that these prints will have little or no circulation. Nonetheless such awareness university presses incur printing and stocking costs which are completely wasted.

As you probably know no printer will deliver less than 500 copies for the smallest print run, and that far exceed the true circulation and distribution needs of your typical academic publication.

I would like to ask to these university researchers: "What do you need more? The printed book or the guarantee that your book will circulate as widely and rapidly as possible?"

And of course the latter is what a university researcher, rather than an independent author or small book publisher, all want: they want their book to be published and to be circulated as widely and as rapidly as possible.

Opportunities for small independent publishers

Robin Good: For small publishers, news editors and the ones that want to write e-books on web marketing or other subjects, can the emergence of this device present a better opportunity than the one previously offered by PDF format?

Antonio Tombolini: If not immediately, likely later.

I repeat that the factors that increase the popularity of these new devices will depend on the strategies that key market players will adopt and this is not easy yet to anticipate.

For now, the first market signals are of a rapidly increasing interest in such new ebook devices. A few weeks ago I read news announcing that Italian company TIM, along with a Dutch company, PolymerVision is bringing a new unique mobile phone called "librofonino" to the market with a rollable display based on e-ink technology.

Note also the name which has not been chosen by accident. (Libro means book in Italian).

This is a very important thing because TIM is an Italian company that doesn't often easily follow market leads and would not get involved in marketing such devices without first taking into account the possible risks... TIM is not a start-up based in the garage of some geek... therefore it is a good sign that a company this size has decided to bet on this "librofonino" - which, apparently, will be the key announcement of TIM for 2007.

For editors, for writers... the possibility of being one's own editor opens even more doors, as the Internet has already opened many such doors for them. An example is the blog, which allows instantaneous personal publishing. Thanks to the blog I can write everyday, publish articles, provide news, offer my opinions etc. However, I could not publish a book online. Even if I put a book online, who would read it?

Even if you publish your book as a PDF online which can be downloaded and read, this is still generally interpreted as a transitory step up until when some "real book publisher" would see your work and offer you to publish a real one.

...if instead these new ebook devices become popular, then new opportunities emerge also for writers.

What could rather emerge as being a problem for an independent author would be the ability to be findable, and visible online, possibly together with other like-minded writers and authors who promote and market themselves in an organized way.

And here is where our editorial services could become another resource opportunity.

Furthermore, this technology provides reason to invest resources and energies in adding value through the visual and typographical aspects typical of a traditional book.

Many traditional e-book producers cannot really adopt sophisticated fonts, since they have to deal with the issue of readability on computer monitors: with the new ebook technology the reader can now finally tell the difference between a good typographic result and a bad one.

We have to differentiate the term "e-text" from "e-book". A digital text is different from a digital book as this last one requires advanced formatting, design work, usability and ergonomic attention.

Therefore another key aspect into the success of this new ebook technology will be our ability to transfer the characteristics of paper-based fruition into this new digital domain.

e-Book Formats

Robin Good: Can I use the PDF format to publish to these ebooks ?

Antonio Tombolini: PDF is more than fine, but it has to be optimized for the display sizes of these new ebook readers. Since these new ebook readers read every possible format out there: PDF, Mobipocket, HTML... it's all about taking into consideration the size of the display, so it is not a problem of formats.

The only other problem is the quality level I want.

If I need to publish a simple information document I set-up my PDF to output an A6-size format page and that will match perfectly the standard A6 display size of the iLiad.

I need a quality book with typographic quality? I get a graphic designer and I have my book laid out with the footnotes and typographic attention I need.

It is really something within anyone's reach.

Won't this lead to the creation of multiple formats?

Robin Good: Will this lead to the need of creating multiple output formats for each book?

Antonio Tombolini: No, because these formats (the one of the displays of these new ebook devices) correspond to the same screen resolutions available on all popular personal computers.

iLiad, seen in this mode, has a resolution of 1024 by 768. Sony and all others pure ebook readers have instead a screen resolution of 800 by 600.

iLiad has a 1024x768 resolution and corresponds to the resolution of standard PCs; Sony and the other readers currently have a 800x600 resolution.

The Sony Librie

Of course there may be new formats in the future: iRex, for example, is currently planning to bring the A4 format on the market.

At that point there will be different sizes for different uses: an engineer or a designer might even want to have an A3 portable map reader and so on.

What's the advantage of these new ebook devices vs distributing a normal PDF file over the Internet?

Robin Good: Wouldn't it be better to simply distribute a normal PDF file over the Internet?

Antonio Tombolini: Yes, the problem is that when one wants to read a 150-page book in PDF format, if there is not a proper reading device like one of the new ebook readers we have been looking at, that person has to print out all those 150 pages and then try to manage that mess of flying sheets trying to make an enjoyable experience of this unoptimized printout and which weights like 4 or 5 real books. Reading it on an LCD screen is not certainly a serious alternative.

But if I have a tool that allows me to read an e-book and at the same time provides me with the comfort that is comparable to the experience of reading a physical paper-based book, there is the opportunity to leverage the speed of digital publishing together with the advantages provided by the excellent readability these new devices, which make it unnecessary to print paper copies in order to read.

American ebook market response so far

Robin Good: How is American market responding to these new possibilities? Is there anything else coming on the wave of these new ebook devices?

Antonio Tombolini: The coming of a new electronic publishing era was already in the air, but it needed these new devices to make a tangible step forward.

Any attempt to produce electronic books done in the recent past has failed mostly because there wasn't any comfortable device that did truly facilitate reading on the move. It is useless to buy an electronic book if you have to print it out with your little home printer.

But the birth of this new ebook technology is making many things happen. Among some of the key things happening here are a few worth mentioning:

a) Philips, which is now starting its sales of its e-book reader in both Europe and in North America;

b) Sony, which has already been making and selling an e-book reader like this - though without writing capabilities and Internet connection - is selling a lot in the United States. Moreover, Sony has already made deals with all major publishing houses and today as soon as a book becomes a best-seller it is also re-published as an e-book for the Sony platform.

c) But the most interesting news, in my view, is the one of Amazon, which recently decided to:

  1. Produce a proprietary ebook device that will have all the typical e-book reading facilities and unique traits .

  2. Acquire a French company called Mobipocket, which has developed an e-book format alternative to PDF.

With this double move, Amazon invested both on ebook hardware and software, by buying its own proprietary ebook format, and announcing that as soon as this hardware and software will be optimized it will remove all the PDF-based e-books it hosts from its virtual shelves.

I don't know whether this plan will work and I do have some personal doubts, but what certainly this shows is that Amazon considers the new portable e-book readers marketplace as a strategic opportunity in its business future.

e-Book Content Marketing

Robin Good: Content marketing for ebooks: how are you going to approach this?

Antonio Tombolini: Our strategy to bring our product on the market is based on two elements:

1) the first is the sale of iLiad, since I hope that this product will be sold in traditional supermarkets at the lowest price possible and within the shortest possible time.

When I contacted Philips to do my first market research I found out that no Italian company was interested in deploying these kind of ebook reading devices and that allows us to enter the market as the first iLiad distributors in Italy. We will sell hardware on our website, whose URL is (very long and complicated, so that you won't forget it).

The prices will be reduced to the bone, because we don't plan to profit from the first sales. We just want to enter the Italian market and we want to be the first who do this with such a product.

We are also looking for other companies who are willing to sign a distribution contract with iRex and if someone is interested she can contact me directly.

The release of iLiad will be followed by another product, a pure e-book reader, which will cost about €250.

We are about to sign a deal with the French company Bookeen and we will do our best to give visibility and high exposure to the brand while distribute the product inside popular shopping-malls.

2) We will mostly focus on e-book publishing: we will produce professional e-books for the users of iLiad.

iLiad is not a simple reader, it is a powerful tool that lets you read and annotate, write, surf the Internet... and as I have said we can also develop custom applications for anybody's needs, for professionals and different types of users.

We will produce different e-book series, from classic books to thematic handbooks, spanning from American literature to marketing.

Our editorial team will profit from the sales of e-books and the authors will have royalties that are far better than the ones offered by traditional publishers.

Nowadays authors must consider themselves happy if they actually get paid by Italian publishers: most of the writers have their work published without earning any money. The standard revenue is between 5% and 8% of the book sales revenue; on the other hand we plan to offer a commission of 25-30% while our e-book will cost no more than €4 (apx. $6). This way the author will earn more money on each e-book, even if she does not sell many of them.

Read more

If you would like to learn more about e-books, you might want to check out the following links:


Original interview by Robin Good for Master New Media - first published as: "Bye-Bye PDF: The New Coming e-Book Revolution - An Interview With Antonio Tombolini"

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posted by on Wednesday, April 4 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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