Imagine a world in which dog-eared paperbacks have been replaced by hand-held electronic reading devices offering instant access to a wide range of titles at the click of a button.
While the technology is already in place, predictions that readers will eschew traditional paper books in favour of ebooks have until now proved wide of the mark.
But advances in hardware, coupled with figures showing a growth in sales, suggest that more than a decade after ebooks first came on to the market the concept could finally be about to take off.
Between April and May, worldwide sales of ebooks rose by 5 per cent to 389,882, while revenue from sales grew by 23 per cent to $3m (£1.7m) compared with the second quarter of 2003, according to newly released figures from the New York-based Open eBook Forum. The figures were even better for the first quarter of 2004, leaping by 46 per cent.
The numbers involved are still tiny compared to paper books, but the top-selling titles have now broadened out from technical and niche works to mainstream fiction such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.
"If you compare it to the print industry it's minuscule. However, with these rates of growth we're going to reach a point of huge size before too long," said Nick Bogaty, executive director of Open eBook Forum. An increasing awareness that ebooks exist and of the wide range of titles now available electronically was driving this growth.
Ebooks can be read on ordinary laptop and desktop computers and on hand held PDAs (personal digital assistants), but one of the big challenges is to lure readers who prefer the physical feeling of a book between their hands.
Sony's Librié electronic book reader launched in Japan earlier this year in conjunction with Philips and E-Ink, costing around £200, is the first product to offer an ink-on-paper look, in a package that weighs about the same as a thick paperback.
The Librié has 10Mb of built-in memory and runs on four standard AA batteries supposed to last 10,000 page turns, but drawbacks include a restrictive 60-day expiry period and a limited selection of titles.
Mike Violano, vice-president of eReader.com, a leading seller of ebooks for Palm handheld PCs, said his company is seeing a "strong and steady growth in sales", with 7,000 or 8,000 new customers each month.
"You can purchase your digital titles at any time day or night - we never close - and you can start reading instantly," Mr Violano said. "There is no waiting for the postman to arrive or for the corner bookstore to open."
But Nigel Cohen, the director of ebooks.uk.net, which publishes mainly niche and specialist titles, was more cautious. "The bottom line is people love reading paper."
BEST-SELLING BOOKS ... ON A SCREEN NEAR YOU
The Da Vinci Code
Dan Brown, Doubleday, $9.95 (£5.55)
Brown's best-selling thriller combines the esoteric with an action-packed murder mystery in a plot that links the Mona Lisa with the Holy Grail.
Isaac Asimov, Spectra $6.99 (£3.90)
The classic collection of robot stories has now been made into a big-budget Hollywood film starring Will Smith.
Greg Bear, Del Rey $4.99 (£2.80)
A sci fi thriller about a virus called Sheva, which causes pregnant women to miscarry.
Dan Brown, St Martin's Press $5.99 (£3.33)
The US government's invincible code-breaking machine comes under threat from an unbreakable code.
The Immortal Highlander
Karen Marie Moning, Dell Publishing $9.95 (£5.52)
A dark mesmerising Faery and a mortal law student fall in love, in the latest instalment in the Highlander series.
Angels and Demons
Dan Brown, PocketBooks $6.99 (£3.88)
Robert Langdon is in Vatican City, pitted against the legendary secret society, the Illuminati, in a race against time to save lives and ancient treasures.
Dan Brown, Pocketbooks $6.99 (£3.90)
Nasa finds a rare object buried in the Arctic, but intelligence expert Rachel Sexton and academic Michael Tolland discover evidence of scientific trickery.
The Rule of Four
Ian Caldwell/ Dustin Thomason, Dell Publishing $17.95 (£9.98)
A thriller described as The Da Vinci Code with brains, about two students and an authorship mystery.
Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Time Warner $16.95 (£9.43)
In a series of bizarre murders with apparent links to the supernatural, claw prints are found next to each victim.
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition
Merriam-Webster $14.98 (£8.30)
America's best-selling desk dictionary is the lexicographical heir of Noah Webster's first American dictionary.
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