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eBook History

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1970s and 1980s

In 1971, Michael Hart created the Gutenberg Project with the aim of digitizing a large quantity of books and creating a virtual library offering a collection of electronic documents for free access. With this project, Hart wanted to initiate new dissemination (and, possibly, reading) practices that were different from paper.

Released on July 4, U.S. National Day, the U.S. Declaration of Independence was Project Gutenberg’s first electronic document (5 KB file). Due to the limited access to the Internet, the project is progressing slowly. From the 1980s, however, the community enjoyed regular access to the Internet, and the rate of publication growth accelerated. In 1989, the tenth anniversary of the project was celebrated with the online publication of the King James Bible.

At the same time, in 1978, the Canada Council for the Arts created Canadiana, a non-profit organization aimed at preserving Canadian heritage and bringing it online. In 1986, the Franklin company set up the first dictionary “searchable on a pocket machine”.


During the last decade of the 20th century, new initiatives took shape in the world of digital books:

  • In 1990, Eastgate Systems published one of the first examples of hypertextual literature, Afternoon, a story by writer Michael Joyce.
  • In 1993, John Mark Ockerbloom created the Online Books Page. Unlike the Gutenberg project, this project seeks to list and bring together various English-language digital texts already published, within a single access point.â
  • In 1994, the Gutenberg project marked its hundredth digitization, with the publication of William Shakespeare’s complete work online.
  • In 1995, Jeff Bezos created Amazon.com, the first major electronic bookstore in the United States. Amazon.com then enjoyed rapid success; today it is the benchmark for digital booksellers. The same year, in Montreal, Pierre François Gagnon founded Éditel, a first electronic publishing platform. The press, in its broadest sense, then begins to come online.
  • In 1996, Olivier Gainon founded Cylibris, the first French-speaking digital publishing house that publishes digital and printed books on the web6. Brewster Khale, for his part, founded the Internet Archive.
  • In 1997, the National Library of France created Gallica.
  • In 1998, 00h00 was founded, a publishing house entirely dedicated to digital books.

Early 2000s

  • In 2000, the Mobipocket reader software was created. This software “specializes from the outset in the reading and secure distribution of books for personal assistants.” The Gemstar ebook then becomes the first official digital reading tablet after purchasing the two competitors: Nuvomedia and Soft Book Press.
  • In 2001, Adobe Flash Player launched its first free software that allows the playback of digital files. The same year began the French-speaking concept of the mail-novel, which consisted of publishing, one chapter at a time, a novel by email. Also, a first reading tablet is launched in Europe; this is Cybook. The year 2001 finally marks the creation of the first smartphone.
  • In 2004, the Sony company produced its own tablet. According to Marie Lebert, this release by Sony marks the beginnings of the popularization of digital reading tablets (or “readers”). The same year, Google launched Google Books, which made it possible to read books online, consult metadata (date of publication, author (s), publisher, page (s) consulted, etc.) and perform searches in the body of the text.
  • In 2005, the Open Content Alliance was jointly created by the Internet Archive and Yahoo, with the aim of making it possible to read all the texts available on all search engines.
  • In 2007, Amazon released Amazon Kindle, or Kindle, which allowed the company to specialize in digital reading, whereas it had previously focused on paper publishing.
  • In 2008, publie.net was created, the first authors’ cooperative for the digital edition and distribution of contemporary literature. Publie.net takes resources in the ePub3 format to add sound, music and videos as the story unfolds, and a hyperimage navigation system (currently only available on iPad and iPhone). The same year, the Big Ten Academic Alliance founded HathiTrust and the European Commission launched Europeana.

From 2008, the reading quality on the e-reader screen improved considerably. Combined with other factors (including the generalization of Internet access), these improvements ensure that digital technology increases the American market share in the book sector, from 2010. Many publishers therefore began to distribute, in electronic format, books which have fallen into the public domain.

At the same time, for reasons of cost and profitability, some publishers are starting to publish their authors this way. Also, some authors wishing to free themselves from the constraints imposed by publishers, or whose manuscripts have never been published, therefore choose to take the route of digital self-publishing to make their work available to the public and this, free or not (paid download sites).

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