A MAJOR breakthrough has recently made electronic books more pleasurable to read. Instead of the usual blur and vague font clarity on the screen, a new enabling technology called ClearType has emerged from the Microsoft dungeons.

Invented by Bill Hill, a Scotsman with a propensity for wearing kilts at technical conferences, ClearType hugely improves word recognition on the screen to a level equal to ink's legibility on printed paper.

ClearType uses the red, green and blue sub-elements of each pixel, so characters can be sharpened to mimic the quality of the print book. That means you can lie on the sofa with your e-book and still achieve a quality reading experience even with the lights dimmed. Microsoft Press is already publishing computer books for e-book applications, and Bill Hill hinted recently that, since the research phase is complete, ClearType is ready to move the market.

Combined with a new magazine-sized freestanding Web device called Qubit (http://www.qubit.com), ClearType looks like it may have a good shot at making the portable e-book a reality. If you use Qubit, as long as you remember to charge the batteries you can get and read any book anywhere - a radical concept that will put into question the future of the libraries as well as bookshops.

However, making books downloadable, reading devices portable and the quality of electronic print better is only one way of second-guessing the future trends. While Microsoft is slaving away at making screen-reading more fun, the publishing industry has been hailing the arrival of a completely different approach. Back at the farm in California, Xerox gurus have been busy making the printed book more available. Their view is that there is nothing wrong with the book in the printed format. The real issue is the distribution - you can't get any book anywhere. Even with online shops that promise overnight delivery, that's still 24 hours you have to wait for the book to get to you. The other problem is that many books have a very tiny distribution, and in many cases publishers will not publish a book unless they can sell 2,000 or more copies.

Now Xerox has come up with a great solution to both problems. Imagine downloading a book from the Internet, saving it nicely to a disk and trotting along to the nearest Prontaprint to get it printed, folded, bound and labelled with a personalised cover. With the new Xerox magic, your book- on-demand press will take a minute to print 180 pages. For a book of 300 pages, the whole process, including cover, should take no longer than 30 minutes. That beats Amazon's delivery time by 23.5 hours.

The Xerox invention is a combination of a photocopier with a mini-printing press, and will be sold at a price affordable to small corner print shop operations. The bit I like most is that the author's work is stored digitally, so if the readers' feedback is that the book needs more chapters, then the author can simply write more and put them on the Net for the readers to download. This is pretty cool, particularly for student textbooks, manuals, anthologies and other work that for good reasons may require extensions.

This technology will make many more new authors available to wider audiences. It always bugs me that there are so many talented writers out there, but their talents require a publisher to take a gamble and give them that first break. Needless to say, there is a bit of a bottleneck here. Of 1,000 manuscripts submitted, a typical publisher would only select five or six. Therefore many interesting stories are never told, particularly if they concern only minorities or special interest groups. The Xerox breakthrough with book-on-demand technology signifies the beginning of books being more similar to websites, where there is a strong self-publishing element and wide choice available.

In future, to have your book published, all you will need is a website where you can store the digital version, pictures, cover and other assets. This costs nothing, as most ISPs give free Web space. Then the interested reader will simply chose what they find relevant, download, take it to their local print shop and hey presto!

The Xerox invention is very promising but how many books we are reading these days anyway? The latest reports from the book industry point out that the market is growing in the gift category but not in the category of people buying for themselves. This is particularly true for the online retailers like Amazon or BOL, as they both sell a high percentage of books as gifts, delivered to a different address than that of the buyer. So books are becoming popular as gifts, but is the giftee reading them, or simply putting the present on the shelf and having warm feelings about the sender?

In the age of increasing working hours, the bullet point culture and controlled publishing market, the future of reading as a leisure activity is highly uncertain. Let's hope that Xerox's invention will bring the book back to the readers and make more interesting authors able to tell their stories.