EBooks in the US: A History

Lab Reports, Timelines
E-reader on table next to coffee mug.
Credit: @felipepelaquim


Reading habits and formats have evolved in recent history. While many people still prefer print formats, I thought it would be interesting to examine the history of digital book formats – specifically eBooks. The book industry has been shaped by tech giant disruption through online bookselling and through the development of apps and hardware to deliver products to consumers in a different way. Library lending, digital product pricing, and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic have all influenced reading habits. Up until the pandemic, eBook sales had mostly plateaued, but with bookstore and library closures, there has been a renewed interest.


Once humble tech start-ups now make up a major part of the US economy. Analyzing the history and evolution of the some of the biggest names today makes for interesting analysis. I was inspired by reading about Netflix on the Information Visualization blog and liked how it examined business models and customer habits.


Timeline JS is an open-source software that uses Google Sheets to easily input data and then output into a well-formatted carousel of frames with a timeline across the bottom of the website. Since my topic had varied aspects to consider I mostly used news reports as well as trade articles from the book industry to develop a linear picture of how eBooks have evolved over time in terms of hardware, customer adoption, and various challenges of the market.

Screengrab of instructions from Timeline JS website.
The Timeline JS website has step by step instructions


Timeline JS made it really easy to create the visualization. The Google Sheet template has columns for start and end dates, headline, descriptive text, media, credit, caption, and some styling options. For my images, I chose to mostly focus on the hardware since most people don’t know about the early eBook prototypes. Also seeing the early versions of hardware from Amazon and others shows how far the products have developed in a relatively short period of time.

Screengrab of Timeline JS Google Sheet template
Timeline JS Google Sheet template
Screengrab of published timeline.
Sample display of published Timeline

Reflection & Next Steps

I enjoy studying the history of technology because I think it informs products of the future. Having worked in the book publishing industry since 2008 and seeing how it has fared through a major recession, legal challenges involving big tech companies, digital transformation, heavy amounts of consolidation, and a pandemic has shown its resilience and the value of stories.

If given more time I would have liked to have figured out if it was possible to including inline links within the event descriptions. I also would have liked to have explored more custom styling with typography and color. Finally, overlaying audio book products in the analysis could also add more dimension to get a better sense of digital reading experiences.