Why isn't there an iPod for electronic books (eBooks)? And where's the eBook equivalent of an iTunes store? Last month Sony launched two products in the US that it hopes will address both issues.
The Sony Reader is a paperback-sized device with a 15cm screen that can store about 80 eBooks, or hundreds on a plug-in memory card. The US$350 Reader is joined by a new online service, Connect, which offers more than 10,000 eBooks from publishers such as Simon & Schuster, Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins and Harlequin.
So is the eBook market finally coming of age?
Nick Bogaty, executive director of the International Digital Publishers Forum (IDPF), says: "I've always said that four factors need to be in place for the market to take off. You need a device that makes reading pleasurable, content at the right price, a great selection of content and eBooks that are easy to use. We're definitely getting closer to these goals."
On the face of it, an eBook is an attractive proposition, not least because it can offer features difficult or impossible to find in a printed book, such as hyperlinks, multimedia content, cut and paste, high degrees of interactivity and updated content. It can be downloaded and read instantly, and publishers don't have to transport huge volumes of books around the country and store them in warehouses. It can be read on a PC, a PDA, a smartphone or a dedicated device, like Sony's Reader.
But despite these benefits, even Bogaty admits that eBooks are still a cottage industry. The US market was worth about US$15 million last year and sales for the first half of the year totaled only 907,000. In 2004, US firms published 2.3 billion books worldwide; only 0.1 percent of them were eBooks.
The eBook sector has faced four major hurdles: construction, cost, content and culture. Constructing a reading device is much more challenging than making a digital music player, says Bill McCoy, general manager of Adobe's e-publishing business.
"Music has been digital since the CD, so it's quite simple to do. And digital players use a very simple interface -- headphones. An eBook reader needs sophisticated display technology and a long battery life."
Paper remains the best medium for text reading, and until recently it has been hard to offer similar clarity on a screen. But the development of e-ink technology, which uses millions of black and white microcapsules on a screen from the E-ink Corporation, has dramatically improved text on a screen. Sony's Reader uses e-ink and the company says its battery will last for up to 7,500 page turns.
Dutch electronics giant Philips has developed a prototype rollable electronic display and a Philips spinoff, Irex Technologies, markets a rival eBook device, iLiad (at about US$830), which includes Wi-Fi.
So far, Apple has not made the iPod an eBook reader as well. When asked if it had eBook plans, the company said: "We don't discuss unannounced products. Our iTunes store offers thousands of audio books."
Daniel Duris has developed iPod eBook Creator, an unofficial tool for converting text files into iPod eBooks, while iPrePPress publishes iPod eBooks for students.
The eBook sector is also trying to address one of the biggest issues -- standardization. There is a plethora of eBook file formats (Adobe, Sony, Microsoft, Mobipocket and eReader all use proprietary file formats), reader software and digital rights management (DRM) systems. The latter is used by the book publisher to control how the eBook is used, for instance, restricting its use to a unique device or offering limited copying facilities.
The IDPF, an international trade and standards forum, has members from the publishing, software, retail and electronics markets, including Adobe, Amazon, Microsoft, Sony and Random House. In the spring, it plans to release a new open file format, .obe, and a standard Zip-based file container, which Bogaty believes will help drive the eBook industry. Adobe's McCoy thinks the market will shake down to two file formats: Adobe's .pdf and .obe.
However, few expect there to be a common DRM.
"There are just too many patents involved in DRM technology," notes McCoy.
What is more important is how eBook publishers implement DRM technology. Sony's previous eBook device, the Librie, was panned for using a DRM system that deleted commercial books after 60 days.
"Consumers will be looking for a more flexible DRM so they can move content around," McCoy says.
Kevin McKiernan, director of business development at US textbook distributor MBS Direct, says: "Textbook publishers have put a lot of added value material into books, and they can't see how that transcribes to a comparable digital product. There's also concern about the Napster effect [before Napster became a legitimate online music service]."
Publishers are likely to err on the side of caution and some form of time limit -- to allow for browsing before purchasing or library loans -- is likely to be implemented. Sony's Reader allows eBooks to be read on up to six different devices and the company says there are currently no plans for releasing time-limited eBooks.
So who's using eBooks?
Leaving aside database-type products and technical manuals, the answer is a wide range of readers.
"All major publishers have eBooks, and that includes front catalogue as well as back catalogue. Around 60 percent to 70 percent of the New York Times bestseller list is available in eBook form," says Bogaty.
Romantic novel publisher Harlequin (Mills & Boon in the UK) is a strong supporter of eBooks.
"Although they're a tiny portion of our business now, we see it as a growing and relevant area to our customers," says Malle Vallik, editorial director of new business development.
"Our customers are women and women don't embrace technology because it is cool. They choose technology when it benefits them -- and our eBook readers are embracing this format because there are benefits: selection, convenience, immediacy," Vallik says.
Textbooks are seen as a major growth market. Only 900 of the 150,000 titles MBS Direct handles are eBooks at present, but McKiernan says there's a lot of interest, not least in the distance learning market.
"Students are very mobile and it's easier to store books on a laptop than carry them around," he says.
Most eBooks are the same price as the printed version or lower, in some cases 50 percent cheaper.
It used to be said the printed book was such a part of our culture that eBooks would never catch on, but Bogaty disagrees.
"People read so much electronic text now -- most of my newspaper reading is done online -- that this argument no longer holds water."
But even the most ardent eBook fan doesn't expect paper books to become obsolete.
"They'll co-exist and we'll see publishers offering combined packages, so customers get the best of both worlds," McKiernan says.
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