The Elusive E-book

(October 31, 2006, Business Standard)

The first evangelists of the e-book claimed, back in the 1990s, that the new, electronic book would kill off the printed paper version forever. By 2004, it was clear that the reports of the demise of the paper book had been greatly exaggerated. The few e-readers on the market were clunky machines that sacrificed the charm of the portable, user-friendly device we know as the paper book without significant gains.

Readers wanted the same print quality they had on “real” books, the same portability, the same ability to flip pages with ease, scribble in the margins—and more. They wanted cheap e-readers and cheap e-books, high print quality that didn’t strain the eyes the way reading on a computer screen does, the ability to search books with ease, to copy and paste paragraphs or chapters and to share and download books the way we increasingly share and download music and video.

Publishers wanted copy-protection to safeguard their rights and the rights of authors, relatively high prices so that e-books wouldn’t undercut the print versions, guarantees that investing in e-books wouldn’t lead to rampant piracy.

Authors wanted the higher sales that e-books promised, with the added lure of knowing your book would never go out of print—but they were also afraid of being ripped off by e-book pirates.

As of 2006, none of these groups have got what they wanted, even though the Sony Reader, Google’s online publishing ambitions, Amazon’s forthcoming e-book store and other initiatives indicate a slow return of interest in the e-bookwagon.

Before we get down to specifics, here are two things the publishing industry might want to consider. The first is the proliferation of file-sharing networks such as Limewire, where users trade music and video files—and increasingly, share scanned or e-text versions of books. Limewire grapples with copyright (and computer virus!) issues in the same way that the music-sharing network Napster did before it and that the video-sharing network YouTube does today. You can find pirated books on Limewire—I’ve found everything from Jonathan Franzen’s latest to the newest Harry Potter, available for illegal, free download—but users who perpetrate piracy are often reported and shut down.

Publishers need to worry far more about those users who put up scanned, pirated copies of books on bulletin boards and underground networks. If you know your way around the net, you can locate almost every major bestseller via one of these sites, though I would strongly advise against downloading pirated books on moral grounds.

In addition, the publishing industry might be forced to reconsider its old, paper-and-bookstore driven way of doing business when the current generation of computer users, used to reading on screen, uncomfortable with print books that can’t be hyperlinked or plugged into the web, becomes the book buyers of the future.

It’s a myth, if a well-established one, that this group of users don’t read. They do, but they’re choosy about how they read in a way that people over 30 find hard to comprehend. What this demographic wants is the e-reader equivalent of the i-Pod: a cheap, searchable, portable, easy-to-use device that offers an almost unlimited selection of books from a global library.

As of 2006, none of these groups have got what they wanted, even though the Sony Reader, Google’s online publishing ambitions, Amazon’s forthcoming e-book store and other initiatives indicate a slow return of interest in the e-bookwagon.

The closest the industry has come to delivering on this is the Sony Reader, which excited considerable interest at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair. I played with one of these gizmos and came away with mixed feelings.

In terms of look and feel, the Sony Reader scores high—it’s leatherbound, book-sized, a comfortable fit in your handbag, and the specially developed e-Ink it uses is much closer to the paperback reading experience than the eye-straining computer screen reading experience.

But the only reason it even remotely resembles the i-Pod of the publishing industry is because it has no competition. The Amazon Kindle, the giant online bookstore’s e-reader, looks clunky, old-fashioned and nothing like a book in comparison.

But the Sony Reader has an irritating lag-time while pages refresh; it doesn’t allow readers to skip ahead to specific numbers, doesn’t allow annotations or marginalia and its search function is a joke at present (a future version should allow word search, Sony says). At $350, it’s far too expensive given its limited features and almost deliberately awkward controls, even for a hardcore reading addict and e-book evangelist like me.

What the Sony Reader does, however, is bring readers tantalisingly close to the Holy Grail of the e-book that’s even better than the real thing. With a few significant tweaks, any one of the big guys—Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Sony itself—could create an e-book that actually works. That would rewrite the blue-pencilled early history of electronic publishing, but will they get their act together before book pirates do?





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