The Big Question: Do electronic books threaten the future of traditional publishing?

Why are we asking this now?

Because we are about to see a big step forward in the development of an electronic book that might actually rival the traditional way in which we consume literature. From today Waterstone's is to offer Sony's e-book reader for pre-order from its stores.

While Borders UK became the first UK retailer to start selling the rival iLiad e-book in May, the Waterstone's launch of the Sony Reader will test UK consumer's true appetite for reading books on an electronic device. Every business on which the development will have an impact – from booksellers, publishers and e-tailers – will be watching how UK consumers take to e-book readers, following their launch in the US last year. But after years of anticipation, the e-book has arrived and it looks set to stay. Waterstone's will start selling the books in stores in September, while WHSmith already sells e-readers online.

What are the features of the Sony Reader?

The Reader is smaller than a hardback, comes with 100 classic titles on a CD – including Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectation, as well as 14 pre-loaded excerpts from new and recent books. Users can also store and display personal business documents in formats such as Adobe PDF and Microsoft Word, which are converted to rich text format, and JPEG images, as well as using its USB-storage capability to transfer files. An auto sync feature lets users set up folders with books and documents that can be automatically synchronised when the device is connected to a PC.

The Sony Reader's E Ink electronic display panel means it mimics the traditional book page by being viewable in direct sunlight or at angles of up to nearly 180 degrees. The device also simulates the physical feeling of turning a book page with a touch sensitive area.

How much does the Reader cost and who is likely to buy it?

The Reader costs £199, while the iLiad retails for £399. The e-book is likely to be popular with gadget-hungry consumers, dedicated book readers and those who commute into work. People who travel a lot on business or take long holidays will like being able to hold multiple books, as well as business documents, on a single device instead of ramming their suitcase with novels and paper.

What are the drawbacks?

Many consumers will find £199 prohibitive, when they can often pick up their favourite book for around £5 in Tesco, Asda or Sainsbury's. At a time when consumers are cutting back on discretionary spend, only the well-heeled will want to splash out on an e-book reader. People are unlikely to be able to give an e-book reader as a present in the way they can with a physical book. Consumers will also have to pay an additional fee for their favourite books, which are not on the introductory CD.

The devices at 260 grams is heavier than most books and runs on batteries which, despite boasting a life equal to 6,800 continuous page turns from a single charge, will need to be recharged. When liquids are dropped on books, or they land in a swimming pool, they can be dried out, whereas e-books cannot.

Another major drawback is the fact that Borders UK and other non-Waterstone's chains do not currently offer an online download service for users to add e-books to reader devices. However, Borders UK is thought to be plotting to offer an online download service for the iLiad. Above all, many people don't like reading on a screen.

What has been the Reader's impact in the US?

Last year, online book giant Amazon.com launched its Kindle reader and Sony introduced the Reader, which catapulted e-books into the mainstream consumer environment. Industry experts say that sales growth has been gradual rather than meteoric, but the fact that Amazon now offers more than 140,000 different titles for the Kindle demonstrates the potential.

In the UK, bookseller Borders UK maintains that demand for the devices has been strong, despite the iLiad retailing for £399. James Sneddon, head of store operations at Borders UK, said: "Sales of the iLiad have surpassed all our expectations. We sold out in our Oxford Street, Glasgow and Cambridge stores in the first week alone, and we receive enquiries from customers about it on a daily basis."

Should publishers be worried?

Not in the short term, because sales of e-book readers will only cannibalise a tiny proportion of physical book sales for the foreseeable future. In fact, evidence from the US suggests that dedicated book readers who use the electronic readers also continue to buy books.

The long-term danger for publishers is if they don't invest in digital technology for their content. They could also lose out if they just make classics available for e-book readers and not the most recent popular titles. Henry Volans, head of digital publishing at Faber, said: "There is no reason whey people who have e-books should suddenly only be interested in Dickens. They will want the big new titles as well."

Waterstone's says it is already working with publishers. Waterstone's category manager Toby Bourne said: "It offers a new way of reading that is easy and convenient, and we're working with publishers to develop the best range of e-books we can – classics and brand-new bestsellers – to read on it."

A tipping point for e-books could come when content starts to be made available on the next-generation of mobile phones. the author Toby Young says: "The great thing about electronic books is that in the long run they will benefit writers, creating an easier way to enable first-time authors to get their work in front of the public. That will be a revolutionary change."

Will electronic books match the impact of the MP3 player?

This is unlikely to happen for the foreseeable future. Not only does the price of e-book readers need to come down substantially to around £100 or below, but booksellers will need to offer e-book download services online. Publishers will also need to strike deals with mobile phone companies to make content available on mobile devices. Consumers purchase infinitely more music tracks each year than books, which means that demand for e-books is unlikely to ever reach the same volume of MP3 tracks.

However, some doom merchants will remember saying that the MP3 player would never take off with consumers beyond the younger generation, but most of the population, from children to grandparents, now either use or know someone who has an iPod or similar device.

Is this the end of the book as we know it?

Yes...

* Once the price comes down, gadget lovers and bookworms will ultimately flock to buy ebooks

* Few people like the fact that books take up an inordinate amount of space in their houses and travel bags

* The fact that users can write and perform other desktop tasks on the ebook make them far more convenient

No...

* Few people will want to carry a clunky and expensive device around with them

* Books are cheap, easy to carry and survive being dropped on the floor or in a pool. People also love passing on books to friends

* Many people dislike reading from a screen and prefer to print off documents to read

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