I don't know where the term 'watershed' came from, but to me a 'watershed event' is one that we can look back on historically and identify a real turning point in the evolution of a certain cause.
I think that the launch of Amazon's Kindle reader is a watershed event in the cause of e-book adoption.
What I think is very interesting about e-books is that they are probably more reviled by real bibliophiles than they are by those of us for whom books are just another part of our lives. It's not that we don't love them - far from it - it's just that we are more interested in the content than the form. Thus, it seems the battle for e-book adoption seems to be us against ourselves - a civil war of sorts.
So, when I think about e-book adoption, a military metaphor comes to mind. It seems that for generations those that have revered the hard bound, printed tome have held the high ground. Over the centuries they have repelled many intruders. Paperbacks, both 'trade' and 'mass market', have tried to win the top of the mountain, but have had to settle for 2nd tier status. While those formats didn't win, they did inflict casualties and win some converts, reducing the numbers in the high ground, but not reducing their power or position.
Then along came audio books. Although strong for a brief period, they never were able to pose any serious threat to anyone above them, nor form alliances with other forms that could pose any threat to the high ground. Eventually, audio books found their own small place on the mountain side away from everyone else.
For the past 10 years, e-books have been trying to work their way up the mountain. Because there numbers were small, and relatively weak, they were easily repelled by both tiers of books at the higher ground. In fact, it seemed that all books were in union to repel this latest invader.
The e-book generals continued to throw weapons and soldiers against the ramparts, but have failed to make any real break through. There were times when the e-book army thought that they had the weapon to break past the fortifications of the higher ground (like the Sony reader), but alone, it was simply not enough.
But, the tide seems to be turning for the upstart e-books. e-Book forces have been consolidating (aligning on standards). And, a new 'armies' have come to join the battle - handheld devices, like iPhones and other PDA's can now display e-books. Search programs, like Google Print and Microsoft Live Book are developing new online reading followers. And with it's introduction, probably the most powerful new army is joining the fray - the Kindle army.
Kindle has the power to convert a whole new population of book readers into foot soldiers. The marketing power of Amazon almost guarantees that many, many of these devices will sell.
What appears to me to be happening is that many of the second tier landholders are re-evaluating their loyalties to the high grounders and starting to side with the e-book armies and Kindle. The high grounders are starting to feel the threat as is evidenced by their vociferous pronouncements about why the e-book revolution will fail, and the hardcover will never go away. This is a major shift in the battle, and why I think the Kindle launch is a watershed event.
While it will be a while before the results of this latest onslaught are in, one thing is for certain, defenders of the print book world are taking casualties, and the e-bookers are gaining ground. Additionally, the paperback book forces are seeing a weakness at the top, and attacking the hardcover as well.
However this battle ends up, there is good news all around: the number of readers will grow, and the opportunities to have a work published will grow as well. Instead of fighting among ourselves, we should welcome each other and try to figure out the best ways to work together to take advantage of these new market opportunities.