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E-Books: A Good Read

Published: August 26, 2009

If you haven’t gone to the bookstore lately, it might be a good idea to call before heading over. That’s because if your favorite bookseller is, say, Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Shaman Drum Bookshop, or even just your local Borders, it may have just gone out of business.

The Shaman Drum wasn’t just a store, but, to one Ann Arbor bibliophile, part of the community’s “intellectual life.” For readers of all ages, the bookstore is a cultural touchstone. Its gradual disappearance seems cause for alarm and even panic. What is a country without its books?

Yet reading, paradoxically, is more popular than ever. Books are sold everywhere, including on the Internet. Hit books — such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series — sell millions more copies than bestsellers did just a decade ago. We are still a reading nation. What’s changing is the very definition of what a book is.

“I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve gone from a lifelong hoarder of books to a profligate book-dumper,” says my friend Bob, a voracious reader. He’s figuring out what to put on his bookshelves, and whether to even call them that anymore, thanks to the rise of the electronic book reader. In the short time they’ve been widely available, about a million readers have purchased one and downloaded millions more books to read. It’s no stretch to say e-book readers are already the equivalent of a New York Times bestseller.

It was 1997 when MIT professor Joseph Jacobson founded E Ink Corporation. E Ink displays are nearly as flat as an ordinary piece of paper and draw very little power. It’s these traits that make E Ink displays nearly perfect as a reading medium.E Ink instantly captured the attention of futurists, but it would take several more years and technological breakthroughs to turn E Ink into something that would feel and act like a computerized book.

That’s why Amazon’s Kindle family, at the forefront of e-book innovation, is barely two years old. Amazon, founded by Jeff Bezos, a Princeton educated hedge fund manager turned entrepreneur, has made a business out of disrupting established industries, even his own.

Bezos made Amazon the world’s largest bookstore, even while Borders, Barnes & Noble, and the Shaman Drum Bookshop were all going strong. Today, Amazon sells thousands of other items. It turns out that bookselling was how Bezos perfected a new type of shopping: an Internet-based, home-delivered, customer service-oriented model that changed the way millions of Americans buy the things they want and need.

Customers could buy the latest James Patterson book on Monday and be reading it on Tuesday. It seemed perfect. But Bezos, knowing the book business was in trouble, thanks to high costs and slim profits, decided to reinvent it himself. “Bezos looked at this and said, ‘We have to do this now because no one else will,’ ” says Marion Maneker, former publisher of HarperBusiness and writer for TheBigMoney.com’s “The Kindle Chronicles.”

Sony has two e-book readers—Reader Pocket Edition and Reader Touch Edition (shown here in red) that must be plugged into a computer, for those who enjoy such tinkering. Photo courtesy Sony Electronics, Inc.

Sony has two e-book readers—Reader Pocket Edition and Reader Touch Edition (shown here in red) that must be plugged into a computer, for those who enjoy such tinkering. Photo courtesy Sony Electronics, Inc.

Amazon’s Kindle uses a wireless service called Whispernet to connect to the Kindle bookstore, where many of the 300,000 books are just $9.99, and thousands of classics are free. Of course, they’re not books — they’re files wirelessly sent to your Kindle. “You can think of a book and have it 60 seconds later,” says Bezos.
You can also buy subscriptions to newspapers, magazines, and favorite Web sites. The latest Kindle, the DX ($489 as of June 2009), has the largest screen of any reader, almost as big as a sheet of letter paper. It holds over 3,500 books in memory. There is also the smaller Kindle 2 ($299 as of July 2009), which has a paperback-sized screen. Both are about as thick as a weekly newsmagazine and a little heavier. The battery lasts up to two weeks on one charge.

The Kindle will never be the same as a book. But as Bob says, “The Kindle makes reading easier, faster, more enjoyable and yes, cheaper.” Bob, I should note, is a midcareer editor as addicted to the printed word as anyone I know. His adoption of the Kindle makes me think that I, who grew up on the cusp of the Internet Revolution, almost missed the boat! But the more time I spend with the Kindle, the more I agree with him when he says, “I thought I loved books. After I bought my Kindle, I realized that what I really loved was reading.”

Even though you can plug the Kindle into your computer, it’s simpler to use it as a stand-alone device. But Sony has two e-book readers—Reader Pocket Edition ($199.99 as of August 09) and Reader Touch Edition ($299.99 as of August 09) that must be plugged into a computer, for those who enjoy such tinkering.

Whether you bought Eat, Pray, Love from Sony’s online bookstore or downloaded War and Peace free from Project Gutenberg, using Sony’s software, you can transfer both onto the Sony Readers, which can each store 350 books.

Amazon and Sony, with their brand recognition, claim the largest market share of e-readers, but that could change. Hearst, the magazine and newspaper publisher, is developing a competing device. And a company called Plastic Logic has teamed up with Barnes & Noble. Don’t worry; the reader you pick won’t limit your reading material, says Matt Shatz, vice president of digital operations for Random House. “We want to enable authors to be read by as many people as possible,” a view shared by all major publishers.

Best of all, you may not even have to buy a device in order to use one. The next time you stay in a high-end hotel or fly on a plane, a reader preloaded with your favorite newspapers and magazines might be waiting for you as a courtesy. Or, your son or granddaughter could bring one home from school: Amazon is conducting five college trials with students whose textbooks are all on the Kindle.

Think of the millions of pages of saved paper, the thousands of idle trucks, the barrels of unspilt ink: It’s clear that e-book readers are not just black and white, but green, as in good for the environment.

Amazon, Sony, and others want voracious readers of every age and technical ability to be their customers, so they are focused on usability. Their devices are so new it’s unfair to say none are perfect. But they are always usable and sometimes brilliant. All the companies I spoke with say their readers are meant for anybody who loves the printed word.

If you’re not in any rush to buy one, the next generation of readers could sport color screens in less than a year. And Apple is preparing to launch an “iTablet” — part iPod, part reader — as soon as this Christmas. The more big companies competing, the cheaper and better e-books will become.

The biggest hurdle e-readers face is the suspension of disbelief. No one, says Andrew Sivori of Sony, ever thinks an e-book reader is going to be as good as a book. Then they try one. Like a monk holding a Gutenberg Bible, they realize everything changes.

More: Amazon Kindle 2 Review by Dr. Earl Conn

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  • Francesco Levato

    I have the same issues with the Kindle, and another problem is the lack of formatting options. This makes publishing poetry, which often requires special formatting, almost impossible. When seeking a format to publish poetry eBooks I went with PDF as it is universal, and allows for books to be viewed as the author intended. Plastique Press publishes enhanced eBooks that can be distributed online or at readings and bookstores on plastic download cards. These cards attempt to give a physical presence to an otherwise intangible digital product.

  • Dana Diaz

    I love my Kindle DX! Having millions of books (many of them free) at my fingertips and downloaded in seconds has been a major excitement for me. I’m 66 and love to read. The Kindle DX is easy to read, and the font size can be increased for comfort. I don’t have any problems finding my place in a book, and especially love having the instant dictionary ready and willing to give me a word’s meaning just by putting the curser in front of the word. There are too many positives associated with my Kindle DX to worry about the black and white artwork or poor illustrations. I only care about that story or essay that makes its way to me so effortlessly. Another plus has been the ability to surf the web for news and take care of email on the Kindle. All for free! I travel often, and won’t go anywhere without my Kindle DX. As far as I’m concerned, the e-book reader is the third greatest thing ever invented after the clothes washer and dishwasher.

  • Michael Johnston

    I loved the idea of the Kindle. Then I used one. Initially, I was very excited. So many books, all available instantly – no need to wait for the UPS man or make a trip to the bookstore. But then reality set it. Everything seems set in more or less the same typeface; the contrast of the screen makes for a poor reading experience; flipping through the book is harder and takes longer; the quality of illustrations is just terrible; everything is in black-and-white, even the cover artwork. In the end, I sold mine and developed a newfound appreciation for just how good – and how hard to improve upon – an old-fashioned paper book really is.

    I have no doubt that e-book readers will one day surpass dead-tree books, but if it happens before major strides are made in the technology I will lament the book’s premature passing.