The e-book club

 

WHAT'S THE STORY WITH ELECTRONIC READERS?

BOOKS HAVE ALWAYS been remarkably resilient at staying the advances of technology and are largely unchanged since Don Quixote first tilted at windmills nearly 400 years ago. While music has hopped from cylinders to vinyl to cassettes to CDs to a collection of ones and zeros stored on your computer's hard drive, the book has always been just so.

Until now. The technology behind electronic books has improved dramatically in recent years, and the e-book has entered the mainstream, which could - if the digital music experience of the last decade is anything to go by - see book prices fall as ease of access rises.

"The question is, can you improve upon something as highly evolved and well-suited to its task as the book? And if so, how?" asked Amazon.com's chief executive Jeff Bezos last year as he launched his company's Kindle e-book. It has taken the US by storm and, with its wireless access to thousands of low-cost downloadable books and newspapers (including The Irish Times) as well as its web browser, it is, Bezos claims, well equipped to see off "the last bastion of analog".

It will be released in the UK in time for Christmas but, because of Amazon's long-standing refusal to sell electronics in the Republic due to what it describes as restrictive recycling regulations, it may be some time before the Kindle gets here, if it ever does.

This has allowed its principal rival, the Sony Reader, to establish a toehold in the Irish market. Sony's e-book is priced at around €249 and has the capacity to hold around 160 books digitally - many retailers are selling it pre-loaded with 100 classics.

It has a battery which will see you through five complete readings of War and Peacebefore it needs to be recharged and has a variable font size, making it appealing to the visually impaired. And instead of having to pack 16 books when heading off on your holidays - and then face excess baggage charges as a result - you can pack just the one electronic book, weighing no more than an average-sized hardback.

SINCE ITS LAUNCHin Ireland last month, the Sony Reader has been flying off the shelves. "People seem to be taking to it more than you would imagine," says Ann Geraghty of Waterstone's. A self-confessed luddite, Geraghty was unconvinced by the Reader's potential ahead of its launch and reckoned it wouldn't be the sort of thing "you'd curl up in bed with".

She's changed her tune since laying her hands on the device. "It has a really nice feel and the screen has a wonderful matt finish which is easy on the eye. It doesn't feel like an alien thing at all."

Tony Hetherington is the Digital Media Manager with Gill & Macmillan and he is overseeing a trial project in Dublin which has seen 18 first-year students in Caritas College in Ballyfermot get an e-book pre-loaded with their text books. Developed by Dutch-based iRex technologies, the iLiad reader - which costs a hefty €599 - weighs just 500 grams, around one twelfth the combined weight of their textbooks.

"The e-book is obviously great for people who need to carry a lot of books or whose job involves a whole lot of paper" says Hetherington. "I see real potential for it in academia and in the legal profession. I think that they are going to enter the mainstream market through these channels rather than through the consumer market." He says there is "a good chance" that children starting primary school now "will see e-books become common before they leave the system. It could also be sooner than that, of course."

Given the e-book's absence of printing, distribution and storage costs, presumably book prices will fall for the consumer? Unsurprisingly perhaps, given his business, Hetherington says no. "There are still significant editorial costs," he pleads. And there is tax. Books have long had a zero Vat rating, but the Revenue Commissioner defines books very rigidly and, like audio books, e-books attract the full rate of Vat. "One of the biggest obstacles to e-books is that they are not considered to be books when it comes to Vat."

READERS ASIDE, THEpeople who stand to be most affected by the electronic book revolution are writers. Novelist Julian Gough is pretty tech-savvy - he writes an excellent blog at www.juliangough.com - and is eagerly anticipating the electronic book going mainstream.

"The strong border between a book and a magazine and a blog will start to blur, between a novel, a novella and a short story too," says Gough. "All these formats are industrial categories, not natural lengths just as the old library system led to three-volume novels in Jane Austen's day so that a book could make three times the money for the library." He believes technology has brought writers closer to their readers, "which is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, it's just a thing. Readers e-mail you with their responses, talk about your books on blogs. It is, if you want it to be, a conversation.

"Will writers benefit financially? I doubt it," says Gough. "The good stuff will find a bigger readership but writers are unlikely to earn more per reader. I can't see how you can control the distribution of words. Good writers could end up with huge readership but they will probably have to find new ways of earning a living from it, which is fine. Good writers were never likely to make much money. Yeats never made more than £200 a year from his writing until he won the Nobel Prize."

He says readings and literary festivals will become much bigger "as books dematerialise". He believes paper books "will continue to exist but in parallel with the new electronic versions. I think what will vanish is the ordinary, boring, somewhat expensive paperback. Digital will eat that market as soon as they can develop a good, flexible, single-page screen that you can fold or roll up and that's as easy on the eye as paper. But at the bottom end you'll get ultra-cheap, disposable paper books. At the top end you'll get expensive, luxury editions, acid-free paper, leather binding, gilt spines. Signed, numbered limited editions will become a big, big thing. At the top end the physical material will become the point of the book.

"What is really interesting is that once the book goes digital a new type of 'book' will emerge that plays with and explores the new technology. I know digital ink is black and white right now but it will evolve into colour very fast and, obviously, as books merge with the infinite sea of the internet, strange and wonderful hybrids will form."