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Should Your Next Book Be An E-book?

As electronic book readers catch on, will the paperback become a thing of the past?

By Bill Camarda

Is paper toast? After 500 years, is it time to junk printed books, and replace them with electronic books? Are today’s hugely hyped electronic book readers really better than good, old-fashioned ink and paper? Let’s take a look at how far e-books and e-book readers have come – and how far they still have to go.

First of all, electronic books have been around for years: the Web’s Project Gutenberg, for instance, offers more than 25,000 free titles for download, including virtually every imaginable classic that’s old enough to be freed from copyright. Need Joyce’s Ulysses, or Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, or anything from Shakespeare, or Homer, or Twain? They’re all available, free: just download ‘em and read to your heart’s content on your PC, or notebook.

If that’s what you want to do. But most folks, of course, don’t love reading books on their PCs. And, for better or worse, most folks prefer reading material that’s a little more modern, too. In response, some of the world’s leading companies are building devices specifically for reading electronic books – as well as e-commerce sites where you can purchase and download many of today’s hottest best-sellers in electronic format.
Right now, the two leaders in the field are Amazon, with its $359 Kindle, and Sony, with the $299 Sony Reader. (Right: e-book readers are not cheap!) We’ll use the Kindle and Sony Reader as examples, but keep in mind that there are other e-Book readers out there – for instance, the iRex iLiad and Bookeen’s Cybook Gen3.

Like reading a regular book, only better
Does reading an e-book feel like reading a regular book? More than you might expect, thanks to the advanced “e-ink” electronic paper displays most of today’s e-books use. Unlike typical LCD screens, these displays can easily be read in bright sunlight, and they can be viewed at virtually any angle, much like paper. They’re also very sharp, and offer far longer battery life than, for example, your typical notebook PC.
The downside? E-ink is black-and-white, so you won’t be reading any of those gorgeous “coffee-table” photo books on your e-book reader just yet. (Rumor has it color e-ink is a year or two away.) Also, these screens respond slowly when you turn pages – too slow for some folks.
On the other hand, once you “electronify” books, they can do all sorts of things they couldn’t do before. For example, if you’re reading your Kindle and come across a word you don’t know, you can do an instant lookup from Kindle’s built-in dictionary. (Or, for that matter, look something up via Kindle’s free online connection to the Wikipedia encyclopedia.

And, of course, your e-books take up absolutely no space: in fact, you can store dozens – or even hundreds – of e-books in your reader, and browse to your heart’s content. (That’s going to be great for your kids when textbooks start appearing in e-book formats, which – rumor has it – will happen soon.)

Which books, and where do you get them?
What about the books themselves? Generally, you buy them online, from online bookstores such as Sony’s eBook Store (for the Sony Reader), or Amazon itself (for the Kindle). Typically, you make your purchases from a PC or notebook, then download and transfer them to your e-book reader. There’s one big exception: the Kindle. Its built-in wireless capabilities let you choose and download books at will, wherever Sprint’s wireless data network operates (which is to say, in most areas of the U.S., but not all).

This means books become a truly “impulse” purchase. If you’re getting on a plane and have nothing to read, you needn’t settle for the paperbacks in the airport newspaper store anymore: whip out your Kindle and in a minute or two you can have something you actually want to read.
So, what’s available in e-book format? Plenty, but not everything. By most accounts, Amazon’s selection is the largest: more than 180,000 books and periodicals at last count (Amazon claims to make available more than 98 of 112 current New York Times best-sellers, and currently charges only $9.99 for many of those titles.) By one recent estimate, Sony offers roughly 45,000 titles in its own private format. However, the company has recently agreed to support the EPUB format that will be used by many publishers. This means the number of books available for the Sony Reader could soon grow dramatically.

As with most electronic devices that are only just becoming popular, format issues can be an aggravation, or worse. The Kindle can’t read e-books created for the Sony Reader, and vice versa. So if you buy a bunch of books for the Kindle and then decide you want your next e-book reader to be a Sony, you’re out of luck. (Eventually, the EPUB standard might help with that. We hope.)
You won’t be surprised to hear that book publishers are just as afraid of electronic piracy as the music and movie industries are. They’re afraid you’ll share your e-books with everyone in sight, costing them sales. As a result, most of the e-books you’ll buy will be “protected” against unlimited copying. If you buy an e-book for Amazon’s Kindle, it’s licensed only to you, though you can move it among up to six Kindles you already own. (It’s safe to say you won’t be selling e-books at your next yard sale!)

First on your block?
So are e-books taking the world by storm? Not quite yet. By one estimate, e-book sales were up 40% last year – but they still represent less than 1% of the entire book market. But make no mistake, this is one electronic device that is not going away.  So if you get an e-book reader for the holidays this year, you may be the first person on your block to own one…but you won’t be the last!

Bill Camarda has been writing about technology for families, kids, and others for 25 years, starting as an editor for Scholastic's Family Computing Magazine. His 18 computer books include Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies and The Cheapskate's Guide to Bargain Computing. He lives in Ramsey, NJ with his wife and 14-year old son.

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