Will eBooks attract readers?

Flying cars and robot maids are still a far off fantasy. But one futuristic product-the electronic book-is here now. Will eBooks ever replace paperbacks? The answer depends on how successful writers, publishers and high tech companies are in surmounting a number of challenges.

The number one challenge is consumer acceptance. Ideally, eBooks should be portable, capable of storing several large novels, and readable in even the strongest light, just like a real book. Yet somehow, curling up with a good eBook just doesn’t have the appeal of the print version.

You can read eBooks on your desktop computer, your laptop, or on hand held devices. There are programs to soften the glare and ragged pixel edges of script on the screen. The software for Microsoft Reader and Acrobat eBook Reader can be downloaded free. The Acrobat program is also available for Macintosh users.

Pocket readers
There are several hand held readers for eBooks. These Pocket PCs range in price from two hundred to five hundred dollars. The electronics company RCA/Thomson has already produced a couple of generations of eBook readers. The latest are the RCA Reb 1100 and Reb 1200.&t;p>

The Reb 1100 is the size of a paperback, with a built-in dictionary, word search and touch screen for notes, highlighting and bookmarks. It holds 150 books. The Hewlett Packard Jornada is a 32 MB RAM portable reader with eight hours of battery life and other accessories.

People who are comfortable with a Palm Pilot will adapt to these devices. But until the price of portable readers comes down, regular computers will be the source of support for eBooks for most readers tempted to try the new reading style.

What advantages?
The important question is what advantages do eBooks offer readers. There are several. With an e-book reader you can:

  • Download books, magazines, or newspapers over the Internet or a telephone line.
  • Download material in just a couple of minutes, any time of the day or night.
  • Hold all the novels you’ll need for your entire vacation in one portable reader.
  • Use rechargeable batteries for eight to 40 hours of reading time, depending on the model.
  • Search easily for a favourite passage, and leave an electronic ‘bookmark’ for later.
  • Set the type size to suit your own eyes. 
  • Pay about a third to half the cost of regular print books.

Copyright issues
The issue of writer and publisher copyright protection is a big one in the eBook world.
Because of copyright restrictions, you cannot print a copy of most eBooks. You buy the right to download the book one or two times only. Publishers have created powerful encryption protection for eBook titles. Their nightmare is a situation like Napster, which allowed consumers to exchange music online at no cost.

Free books
Yet there are many free eBook titles currently available. Much of this material is older or standard fare where copyright is in the public domain. Many fictional classics are in this category. As well, publishers offer free titles as part of the promotion of eBooks.

Barnes&Noble, the big American bookseller, offers free eBooks such as Frankenstein and A Tale of Two Cities. Kids can read free eBook versions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and other children’s classics.

For present day authors, there are some enticements for publishing eBook editions. Last fall, Random House announced a royalties deal that gives authors half of the revenue from digital sales. And Time Warner Books has also introduced an eBook line, with a special site dedicated to publishing current and new writers in eBook format. 

Reader training
Barnes&Noble also offers a free summer course called ‘eBooks: The Future of Reading’ with their eBook editor. Course requirements include reading the free online version of Jack Kerouac’s book, Orpheus Emerged and a discussion of such eBook topics as how they work and their future.

But the mass acceptance of eBooks may ride on the technology that improves on reading from a screen. Xerox and several other companies are currently developing ‘e-paper’. It combines the best qualities of paper-portability, no buttons or keyboards-with advanced technology.
New paper technology
The e-paper is a 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’ll pay for your copy online, and encoding will prevent you from sending a free copy to all of your friends.

Potential enormous
You then put the e-paper in pocket or purse for reading on the bus, on the beach, or in bed. The original downloaded copy is stored in 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. You can lend your e-paper version to a friend, just like a real book.

Xerox has not announced a timetable for use, but clearly, the potential for eBooks is enormous.
Electronic paper could be the printing press equivalent for electronic publishing.

With files from Paul LeBel.