Sunday, September 30, 2007

Are e-books ready to be read?

Are e-books ready to be read?
Paper publishers don't have cause to worry just yet
by Dave Gordon
Financial Post

The days of door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen are long gone with the Internet being a one-click information source. Now, some even think that the days of actual books are coming to an end.

Author Stephen King tried to set the trend. He made his novel The Plant available on his Web site for online reading in July, 2000. The first two parts were available without conditions. The third part required readers to donate $1 to King. By part four, only 46% of the people who started downloading the book paid for it, according to

But that experiment doesn't mean everyone has closed the chapter on electronic books, or e-books. English language classics are available for free online through the non-profit Project Gutenberg. Google Books is also digitizing public domain books ( com). But, as with most Google searches, you have to know what you're looking for. Google does not provide a list of books, authors or genres to pick from.

While books on computer screens are one part of ebooks, a growing number of books are also becoming available for download to a portable reading device. One device that's gaining traction is the Sony Reader, a handheld tablet just a year on the market. It is about the size of a paperback and can also store PDFs, photos and music files. The battery is said to last 7,500 page turns before requiring a recharge, and it will hold about 80 books in its memory. Sony's device weighs about 200 grams, is about two centimetres thick, with a 15-cm long screen; it retails for about $280. The product is currently unavailable in Canada.

Although the device for reading electronic books has still to be decided, some publishers are priming themselves for the inevitable day when downloadable books gain mass appeal.

Sony has partnered with top publishers to offer content for the Reader, available for purchase at the online Sony Connect store. Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins all have e-book titles and multiple genres to choose from: fiction, non-fiction, classics and children's books. Most sell for $1.99.

"Random House's perspective is that consumers are doing more reading on screens every day. We believe that trend will continue," says Matt Shatz, vice-president, digital, at Random House U.S., which currently offers 6,000 e-titles, with 500 more expected for November.

Lisa Charters, Random House's vice-president and director of online sales and marketing in Canada, laments there are but a handful of Canadian e-book titles --Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and the Neil Young bio Shakey, to name two. She says that's because many of the reader devices have not yet been made available here.

For smaller publishers, the interest is more tepid. Rob Sanders, vice-president of Vancouver's Douglas & McIntyre and publisher of Greystone Books, says his company is still deciding which titles to offer. "When you ride a subway, you don't see many people reading things on their handheld. Until the market says so, there really isn't a defined and successful platform yet."

Still, he admits, it is just a matter of time before e-books catch on. "Digital delivery of books is going to become much more important in the future than it is today," he says.

Toronto's Insomniac Press has begun to produce a small number of e-books. "Initially, we were releasing them at the same price as paperback and bound editions. We'll actually be lowering the prices of the ebooks. The paper versions are rooted in the costs of printing and distribution. Online, those are radically different costs," says publisher Michael O'Conner.

Talon Books president and publisher Karl Siegler isn't impressed with the hype. "I think e-books has been a pipe dream since people began talking about them in the late '80s," he says, though his company is investigating digitizing some of its books for libraries.

Some in the technology sector are also not convinced ebooks will be a must-have for this Christmas --or even next.

"It's a real pain for most people to read a book on a screen. That said, I do know a small number of people who like e-books. One person even reads them on his tiny Palm Pilot screen," says Jeremy Lichtman, a programmer at MIT Consulting in Toronto.

David Silverberg, managing editor of DigitalJournal. com, believes people will miss "the old-time feel of dog-eared corners, portability, reading at the beach and the tactile feel of a book."

However, says Mr. Silverberg, the future may open up possibilities for an all-in-one device. He sees a fusion of technologies so users can watch a DVD, play video games, write e-mails and read digital books.

Would he consider investing in an e-book reader? "As much as I am a fan of Net culture and innovation, I like reading a good book before going to bed and I can't do that on a laptop like I can with a paperback. For a book fan like me, it'll be a hard sell."

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