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Electronic readers: not just for techies

Forget bodice-rippers and celebrity memoirs. Something far more sci-fi is set to top the best-seller list this Christmas – the electronic book. Rob Sharp reports on the latest chapter in literature

Wednesday 17 December 2008 01:00 GMT

Bookworms who enjoy browsing through dusty tomes in second-hand shops might balk at them, but electronic readers are fast becoming the must-have gadget for literature lovers. Those who have made the switch from conventional books to their sexier, electronic cousins have until now been operating ahead of the curve. But with a spate of new product releases in the pipeline, 2009 could prove to be the year that electronic books, or e-books, cross over from being the sole preserve of techies to a must-have for everyone.

Currently, the Sony Reader leads the pack. When the product launched through Waterstone's stores in September, it quickly sold out, and the devices are flying off shelves ahead of Christmas. But there is some tough competition on the horizon. Amazon is finally set to launch its Kindle e-book, which allows users the opportunity to download hundreds of books wirelessly from the internet on the move, in the UK next year. Like the Reader, its reputation is formidable, with almost 400,000 of the product already sold in the US.

In partnership with the publisher HarperCollins, Nintendo is launching its "100 Classic Book Collection", which includes 21 Shakespeare plays and 13 Dickens novels, for its handheld DS games console on Boxing Day. There are also a range of applications available to allow users to read e-books on an iPhone, the current favourite being the free-to-download and simple-to-use Stanza, as well as hundreds of classic books that can be downloaded straight to the phone for 59p. These new products will join the Reader's current competition, iRex Technologies' iLiad portable electronic reader, which launched in the UK in April. However, the iLiad is almost twice as expensive as the Reader and less popular.

Publishers are responding to the trend towards electronic readers, too. Penguin's digital business is complex, involving online marketing, distribution through new channels, such as mobile phones, and e-books' rise to prominence. The group is currently digitising 5,000 titles from its backlist and, by 2010, almost all its 18,000 titles will be made available in electronic form. It will join the likes of Project Gutenberg, an online project that has been creating a digital archive of classic texts since 1971 and now has 24,000 books available for free from its website (

So what is the appeal of the Reader? Well, it is smaller than a hardback, comes with 100 classic titles on a CD – including Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations – as well as 14 pre-loaded excerpts from new and recent books. Users can store and display personal business documents in formats such as Adobe PDF and Microsoft Word, which are converted into 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. But the really neat thing – which is where electronic book technology comes into its own – is its use of electronic ink technology (which the iLiad shares). The display on the e-reader mimics the traditional book page by being viewable in direct sunlight or at angles of up to 180 degrees. By teaming up with Waterstone's to launch the product from its stores, Sony had the advantage of appealing to those who love books, as well as using the store's relationship with publishers.

Needless, to say, Sony is in a buoyant mood. It is No 1 in the marketplace – with a 90 per cent share of the market – and hopes to stay there even after Kindle is launched. "We are in restraint at the moment; namely, we don't have as much stock as we need to supply everywhere we would like," says Wes Dearing, the Reader's UK product manager. "At the moment we are conducting research to gain an insight into who is actually buying it. While there would definitely be a percentage of gadget aficionados getting hold of them, there are also those who love books buying it, and I would argue that we are already reaching the mass market. But to pull in as many people as we can, our product strategy will now be to open up our range of colours, and implementing new technology to get people interested. A lot is also driven by the content available."

Sony needs to continue investing in its product if it is to see off the various competitors set to flood the market. Nintendo is a great example of a non-traditional book company trying to get in on the act. "Ultimately, it has been Nintendo's mission to expand audiences beyond the normal gaming arena," says Nintendo's senior product manager, James Honeywell. "It is a vibrant market for us and we want to try to bring in new consumers. The movie industry does not just appeal to one area of the population – everyone goes to see films. That's the same as we are doing with video games."

The gaming firm tries to appeal to adults through its Touch Generations of titles, which includes the fabulously popular "brain training" games (the most famous of which is Dr Kawashima's Brain Training: How Old is Your Brain?). Crucially, however, the DS operates using a backlit screen, which means that sustained reading could cause eye strain. "Everyone is working towards a book in an electronic format, and we would never position the DS and Reader as directly competing," continues Honeywell. "The two machines offer very different things. The Reader is more specialised in this area, whereas the DS offers various kinds of entertainment. If it does turn into a more established thing, then maybe Nintendo can develop more products. We are going to launch it and see what happens."

The Kindle was initially supposed to be on sale in Britain in time for Christmas, but the delay is partly because the Kindle uses a free wireless service called Whispernet, which enables users to download books, and signing up networks in Europe is "a complex operation", say Amazon's business leaders. This is good news for Sony, which can use the time to develop its own "on the move" download service.

At the moment, in the US, Kindle is quite well known for its use of wireless technology, specifically 3G advanced telephone networks," continues Dearing. "That's something we are considering, though it's an area we are looking at to see if consumers really want it. Potentially, we could team up with a mobile phone network to do that. We will look at that moving forward."

Sony is also presumably going to try to get its price down, as £200 is a lot to shell out before any reading has actually been done. This might not be as big a problem as one might normally expect. The Reader has proved popular with older consumers, who are benefiting from its ability to increase text size and thereby reduce eye strain.

And what of traditional books? Does this mean that 2009 will see their covers closed for the last time? "We are strongly identified with Sony, and while we have been pleased with sales, there were supply issues," said a Waterstone's spokesperson. "The original stock we had sold out in three days. But what we have always said about Readers is they offer another element of choice on how people can read. With other forms of entertainment, such as movies, you can watch them on DVD or your phone or iPod. People expect that now. We see them as different way of reading. We see them more as an extension of the market. We have 7,000 titles on our website at the moment. We are working with publishers to get their books converted into new formats as quickly as possible."

Where to browse: On the web

The high street giant has thousands of books available in electronic format and supplies Sony's Reader with 100 pre-loaded classics for £194. However, prices can be higher than paper equivalents.

This American site offers 130,000 different titles and prices are in dollars, so can often be cheaper than its British counterparts.

The first publisher of free e-books stocks over 100,000 in connection with online partners.

Penguin's e-book catalogue will be available by early 2009, with a choice of several thousand titles compatible with Adobe software. Until then, it's down to individual book searches to find your desired e-read.

The WHSmith e-books website has a detailed FAQ section to help those technophobes who are taking their first steps into the realms of electronic reading.

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