Visitors to Amazon's UK website yesterday were confronted not by the usual gaudy array of book covers, but by a simple letter from its founder, Jeff Bezos. He outlined his belief in the "transformative power of reading", before announcing the launch in the UK of the Kindle, an e-reading device that has been Amazon's best-selling product in the US for two years, and has transformed its book market: digital books outsell hardbacks on Amazon's US store by nearly 3 to 2.
The British book industry is braced to see if our hitherto small appetite for digital books will be similarly whetted, and perhaps change forever the way we read .
The only other e-reading devices to gain much recognition in the UK have been produced by Sony, with the book titles themselves sold by Waterstone's. But consumer sales in 2009 were just £5m – less than 1 per cent of the market – and a KPMG survey in October revealed that only 4 per cent of respondents had recently read a digital book. The most frequently voiced objection to e-readers has been: "Why would I need one?" It appears we still have an emotional attachment to the traditional book format.
The recent launch of the iPad and its related iBookstore was heralded as a moment where we might finally lose our e-book inhibitions. But the cost, size and weight of Apple's tablet computer have all been cited as reasons why displaying books is not necessarily its forte. The new Kindle, by contrast, is just 247g – lighter than an average paperback – and is thinner than a newspaper. It costs £109 for the bottom-end model – the iPad is £429. It has a surprisingly long battery life of one month, and a high-contrast screen whose anti-glare properties make it look more like a pristine sheet of card. So, what's the catch? In an era when most gadgets are almost absurdly multi-functional, the Kindle is unusual is that it enables us to do only one thing: read text in black and white.
The iPad's launch caused much debate over whether electronic versions of books, magazines and newspapers would henceforth have to incorporate audio and video to add value and take advantage of new technology. But Amazon seems to see all this as a distraction. The simpler Kindle allows us instead to "become lost in the author's words".
The device will have access to a store featuring 400,000 books, along with 1 million additional titles available for free, and subscriptions to newspaper titles from across the globe, including The Independent. The thing that makes it a potentially game-changing device, according to the publishing commentator James Bridle, is the ease with which it is possible to get hold of all this material. "This way of downloading books directly to an e-reading device via WiFi or a 3G mobile network just hasn't been available over here," he says. "It removes all the barriers between the idea of buying a book and actually getting hold of it, exactly the way that Apple have succeeded in selling us music."
Whether this marks a reversal in the decline of the book industry is another question. Technology firms clearly see Amazon's move as a reason to push ahead with their own e-reading plans (both Microsoft and Sharp have thrown their hats in the ring in recent weeks). But while all these devices undoubtedly encourage purchases of the written word, these words tend to be priced very cheaply.
"Amazon are not particularly great friends with publishers," says Mr Bridle. "They've been pushing for higher discounts for years, and they're getting them, particularly with the Kindle store. The e-book pricing war hasn't been resolved, but it's unlikely to end happily for publishers."
The book-loving customer will, however, be spoilt rotten come the arrival of the gadget on 27 August. Exactly as Jeff Bezos hoped they would be.