E-books promise flexibility

It’s way past ‘the year 2000’ that many of us fantasized about as kids. But like the flying car and the robot maid we’d hoped for, electronic books (or e-books) are still the stuff of futuristic dreams.That’s about to change in the next couple of years. Writers, publishers, and high tech companies will co-operate to give us a true electronic book. It will be portable, capable of storing several large novels, and readable in even the strongest light, just like a real book. 

Stephen King’s recent adventures in electronic publishing illustrate some of the challenges. Last year, the best-selling author made a novella available for download on the Internet. Bypassing the publisher, King set up his own system of payment, asking readers to voluntarily pay for each installment of the book.

Copyright worries
To protect himself from online piracy, he also warned that unless a certain number of readers actually paid for his work, he would cancel the experiment. The project got off to a flying start, then quickly fizzled when many readers failed to pay.

The music industry learned a sad lesson when millions of people downloaded free muc via Napster-copyright protection is a must. The publishing industry is still working on developing standards of encryption. These will defeat all but the most dedicated of hackers determined to pirate electronic books. That problem will soon be solved.

E-book advantages
However, do e-books offer any real advantages to you, the reader?  Most definitely. With an e-book reader you can:

  • Download books, magazines, or newspapers over the Internet or a telephone line.
  • Download material anytime of the day or night.
  • One portable reader can hold all the novels you’ll need for your entire vacation.
  • Rechargeable batteries will give you several hours of reading time.
  • You can easily search for a favourite passage, and leave an electronic ‘bookmark’ for later.
  • You can set the type size to suit your own eyes. (Most important for those 50-plus.)

E-book readers have been around in various incarnations for years now. Remember the Apple Newton? But none has yet achieved any degree of mass popularity.

In the U.S., the Rocket eBook is quite popular, and may be about to become the electronic book of choice for Canadians. Publishers are attracted to its new encryption technology to prevent piracy.  The current model is the size of a large paperback, and comes in a leather binder.

Like its competitors, it sells for several hundred dollars, a fact that many observers believe is the real reason electronic books have yet to take off. 

Marketing push
Things may be about to change. The Rocket eBook now has the marketing and technological muscle of electronics giant Thomson RCA behind it. This alone may be the final push that makes e-books affordable and reasonably secure from piracy.

Authors are also about to get their due. Last November, publishing giant Random House announced a new royalties deal that will give authors half of the revenue from digital sales.

Now, U.S. bookseller Barnes and Noble says it will launch an “electronic publishing imprint” and pay higher royalties to attract authors. Developments like these should encourage popular authors like Stephen King to give e-books another chance.

‘E-paper’ technology
The reader is the last vital link in the process. And many of us simply can’t see the advantage of an ‘e-book reader’ over a good old paperback or hard cover.  The mass use of e-books may still be in the near future, when a new medium called ‘e-paper’ is perfected.

Imagine a single plastic ‘page’, the size of a paper book or magazine page. This e-paper, which is currently under development at Xerox and several other companies, will contain the text of an entire novel, newspaper, or magazine.

Combining the best qualities of paper (portability, user-friendliness, no buttons or keyboards) with advanced technology, e-paper will give us the ‘look and feel’ of a book and all the advantages of electronic publishing.

How it works
Here’s how it works. The e-paper is a very thin sheet of transparent plastic containing millions of tiny beads floating in oil. Each bead is white on one side, black on the other, and free to rotate.

When a positive electrical charge is applied to a bead, the black side displays. A negative charge produces “white space”, and the result is electronic text that is readable in bright light. To ‘turn’ the page, the reader simply touches a spot on the e-paper.

To read the latest John Irving novel, you’ll simply hook up a piece of e-paper to a port on your computer, go to an online ‘bookstore’ and download the text into your personal copy. You’ve paid for your copy online, and encoding will prevent you from sending a free copy to all of your friends.

You then put the e-paper in pocket or purse for reading on the bus, on a break at work, on the beach, or in bed. The original downloaded copy is stored on the ‘library’ on your home computer’s hard drive.

It’s available for you to re-read on e-paper at any time in the future, and you can lend your e-paper to a friend if you like. Just like a real book, without the paper.