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Tote a Small Library to the Beach

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Summertime: Time for the beach, and time for some beach reading.

This year, I did my vacation reading the gadgety way, on Sony's Reader, a device the consumer electronics giant hopes is an early draft of how the world will read books in the future.

Click a button with your left thumb to hop to the next page on the device's screen, which is about the size of the average paperback. After some extensive ocean-side research, I can report that it does a fine job of withstanding sand, suntan lotion and light rain. The battery lasts longer than you'd think; I made it through a Stephen King thriller and the bestseller "Freakonomics" with hardly a dent on the meter.

Getting books onto the Reader works pretty much the way an iPod works for music. Connect the device to your computer, fire up Sony's online bookstore and download away. Instead of carrying just one book on the plane you can now lug about 80, stashed in the Reader's memory.

The "e-publishing" revolution has supposedly been on the way for a decade, but it's never quite hit the mainstream. This is a market that still exists in an uncertain area, embraced mostly by a small audience of early adopters -- sort of like the MP3 player market before Apple entered the scene with the iPod.

Talk to publishing executives and Sony about expectations for this latest attempt to digitize the book business and you get an exercise in carefully worded modesty.

No surprise there. The last time the consumer electronics industry took aim at the bookworms of the world with a specialized device like this, it flopped. A $500 product called the Rocket eBook worked pretty much the same way as this Sony gadget -- and disappeared without a trace, following a much-hyped debut in 1999. Sony launched this new $300 device quietly at the end of last year but has been ramping up the marketing recently, with ads in such magazines as the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

During the heyday of the dot-com era, book e-publishing was the oft-predicted Next Big Thing. A report from research firm Forrester at the end of 2000 forecast that the e-book market would take in $7.8 billion in revenue by 2005.

Whoops. The real numbers came in a little short. In 2006, e-book sales totaled $54 million, up from $44 million a year earlier, according to the Association of American Publishers. That's tiny compared with the massive, though stagnant, traditional book market, which held steady at about $24 billion for both years. Forrester no longer tracks the e-book market.

Theresa Horner, senior director of eBooks at HarperCollins, says the format "has been suffering a lack of respectability" ever since it missed the research firm's predictions from years ago -- and the corresponding hype with those expectations. Still, like many publishing executives I talked with to last week, she said a shift to digital is inevitable.

"I think what will change consumer behavior is a device that allows for a wide spectrum of reading -- newspapers, journals, books, textbooks, what have you," she said. "When you're able to do all your reading material in one place, that's when the idea of a reading device becomes much more appealing to the mass market."

A more affordable device than Sony's wouldn't hurt, either, she said.

For the casual beach reader, there are a few disadvantages to "e-reading." Part of the pleasure of reading a book is lending it to a friend when you're done with it; with this gadget, that isn't possible. Another pleasure of reading, if you're proud of your habit, is seeing your books lined up on a shelf.

Yup, says Ron Hawkins , the vice president of Sony's eBook business: We know that already, thanks. "We've never had the hubris or the aim to say they we're going to supplant the printed book," he said.

Hawkins said the Sony Reader is mainly for commuters and frequent travelers. He declined to share sales figures for the device or for the online Sony Connect store, which sells digital book files.

Some fans of the device say they're ready for the digital era.

"My home library is overstuffed as it is. I have books piled up that I don't have space for," said Michael Thompson, a Philadelphia bookworm who bought the Sony device when it was released last year. Thompson admits he has a conflict of interest here: He's a bookseller at Borders, which sells the device. Still, Thompson buys books online when he can, even though he doesn't get a discount when he shops at Sony's online store, as he does at Borders.

Sony's Connect store carries 15,000 titles. By comparison, the typical Barnes & Noble carries about 200,000 titles. The chances that you're going to find a recent bestseller are decent, but there is a hit-and-miss element here: Harry Potter isn't available in this format, for example.

The downloaded books generally cost 20 to 30 percent less than their dead-tree counterparts. I bought three books for my vacation reading and saved about $4 off the cost at http://Amazon.com, not including shipping. In other words, this device is more attractive for people looking to save shelf space rather than money.

The 1999 Rocket eBook, which I also tested all those years ago, was a well-designed product, though overpriced at $500. The Sony reader is an improvement in every way: It holds more books, has a longer battery life, a better book selection and a better price.

All in all, I'd say the publishing industry's digital revolution has turned a page here, but we're still early in the first chapter.

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