Give us an 'e'

With newspaper, magazine and book sales flagging - has the e-book's time finally come? E&T investigates.

The death of the printed page has been prophesised for many years. Even before the intro-duction of the World Wide Web, so-called experts were claiming that radio and television meant that print publishing would become increasingly unviable.

However, the print industry continues - although the current recession has meant a steep drop in advertising revenues, which many publications - especially those that occupy the newsstand - rely upon.

All the major newspapers are providing their Web portals free of charge, without pay-walls or other barriers for viewing content that is also available, at a cost, in their printed versions.

Even the book publishing industry is now feeling the pinch - with a great deal of reference material now available on various wikis, blogs and reference portals such as About.com.

Yet the sheer convenience and portability of paper gives it a cachet that reading from a laptop screen or mobile phone cannot compete with. E-book readers, from companies such as Amazon and Sony, now hope to provide the same usability as paper.

Electronic books have been talked about for years, but it's only recently that manufacturers have come up with the technology that can come close to matching the feel and comfort of a real printed book.

Most recently, Amazon unveiled the latest version of its Kindle e-book reader at a special event in New York last month. Chief executive Jeff Bezos showed off the new device, along with an expanded catalogue of books and news content for both the new and original Kindle.

The Kindle Store service offers some 230,000 titles, along with a larger selection of newspapers and magazines available for monthly subscription costs to North American customers.

A number of leading US papers and magazines are now available on subscription for reading on the Kindle. But best-selling books tend to be much the same price whether bought in physical or digital form - something that will surely change with time.

Kindle sales reached 500,000 in the first year, according to Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney, who pointed out that that is 32 per cent more than Apple's iPod in its debut year.

Kindle killers: The PRS-505 and PRS-700

In addition to The Kindle, Sony's PRS-505 and PRS-700 reader devices have been available for more than three years.

As you'd expect from Sony, the reader is good-looking. It's the size of a paperback, with a discreet faux-leather cover. It comes with 100 classic books on a CD, and more books can be downloaded from the Internet.

"We have focused our efforts on offering an open platform and making it easy to find as much content as possible, from our store or others, whether that content is purchased, borrowed or free," says Steve Haber, president of Sony's digital reading business division.

"Working with Google, we can offer book lovers another avenue for free books while still providing a seamless experience from our store."

Sony's reader and subscription books are available in North America, Japan, France and the UK. In contrast, Amazon still has no plans to bring its Kindle e-book reader to Britain.

But the biggest issue that e-books face is digital rights management (DRM). This is an issue that has dogged the music industry for many years. The issue of author rights is already becoming a hot potato.

Toby Young, author of the bestselling 'How to Lose Friends and Alienate People' predicted in an interview that e-books will very quickly overtake paper printing. He claimed that the change will come about because the electronic format allows established authors to publish the books themselves.

"They can upload them onto their websites and charge people to download them onto their e-book readers," he said.

"And instead of taking 10 to 15 per cent of the purchase price, which is the position authors are in at the moment, they will be able to take 100 per cent of the retail price and cut publishers and agents out of the equation completely."

Young also predicted a YouTube-style writing community where anyone with talent could post their work online and rise to the top.

"It could have the same effect on the world of publishing that blogging had on the world of journalism," he said. "Essentially you are cutting out the filtering device whereby only established voices are able to speak.

Ebook opposition

However, 'Harry Potter' author JK Rowling - long a powerful voice in the politic of publishing - has to date resisted pressure to allow her books to be published in electronic form. This is thought to be not so much because Rowling is waiting for a device to surpass the Kindle, or the Sony Reader. Her objection would appear to be more philosophical than mechanical. All of her books have been written in longhand and she has long favoured having them read unplugged as well.

Thus the book industry is driving up to the cross roads - which the movie industry already parked. The music industry has been here, but the jury is out as to whether it has taken the wrong turn.

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