The Guardian has taken a look back at early e-books, trying to determine when they began. One example the article points out is a novel called Host, published as a publicity stunt on two floppy disks in 1993. Since the book was about a scientist who downloads his mind into a computer, I imagine it seemed like a natural way to drum up some publicity. The Bookseller reports that London’s Science Museum has accepted the book for display as “the world’s first electronic novel,” but there seems to be some question as to whether that’s really true.
As the Guardian notes, Project Gutenberg had launched in 1971, and had posted its tenth e-book by 1989. There were plenty of text and interactive storytelling adventure games from the 1980s, and an electronic book called Uncle Roger was released in 1987 for computers like the Apple IIe. The article mentions a 1989-90 hypertext story called Afternoon: a story, another early e-literature inspiration.
And there’s a link to an academic site on “Electronic Literature & Its Emerging Forms,” which seeks to chronicle the history of such early electronic publications.
Between these, and the online writing forums I described in my “Paleo E-Books” series, it seems like there was an awful lot of online writing activity back in the days before anyone had even invented the “e-book” terminology. And, of course, science fiction writers like Ben Bova had been putting a lot of thought into the idea, too.
Regardless, it’s good to remember that e-books existed before Amazon, and even before Peanut Press and Fictionwise. They didn’t just come out of nowhere.