Holiday sales could launch e-book readers as mass-market must-haves

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

Technology is stalking your bookcase.

It has already taken over your photo albums and emptied your film canisters. It overwhelmed your music collection and flooded Goodwill with CD towers. It canceled your newspaper subscription. (Sniff, tear.)

And now, digital evangelicals believe technology is on the verge of supplanting those dusty, yellowed tomes that weigh three times more than an iPod and don't even come with any cool free apps.

Sales of electronic books jumped 68.4 percent last year and skyrocketed 177 percent to $96.6 million for the year through August, according to the Association of American Publishers. That's not counting the millions downloaded for free at public libraries, where e-books are fast becoming one of the most popular features. And Amazon has said that its e-book reader, the Kindle, has become the best-selling product on its Web site.

But despite the staggering growth, e-books remain just a sliver of the overall publishing industry, at 1.5 percent of the $6.8 billion in sales this year -- about on par with audiobooks. And some experts believe that the $200-plus price tag for e-book readers will keep the market from exploding the way MP3s did.

Holiday hopes

This holiday season will be a crucial test of whether e-books can cross over from geeky novelty to mass-market must-have. Major retailers are pushing the format -- and, of course, the gadgets they've developed to display it. Barnes & Noble unveiled its first electronic book reader last month, with access to all of the retailer's titles and then some. Amazon and Sony, which make the two best-selling e-readers in the country, have introduced new versions just in time to stuff your stocking. And this holiday, for the first time, Best Buy is devoting store space to educating shoppers about e-readers.

All told, about 1.2 million e-readers are expected to be sold in the last three months of the year -- roughly 40 percent of the entire year's stock. By the end of 2010, industry experts predict, 10 million people will be carrying e-readers. As for the number of e-books that people have read, they've lost track.

Steve Haber, president of Sony's digital reading division, can hear his grandkids' grandkids now: You printed 1,000 pages and you made a million copies of those? Why did you do that?

"To me, it's just inevitable," says Haber, who knew printed books were goners when people told him they liked to touch and feel them. "I heard the same thing from LPs and CDs. The mass market, they want convenience and experience."

Already, we buy roughly as many printed books online as we do at chain bookstores. Each claims more than 20 percent of the market and alternates at the top spot, while independent sellers claim just 5 percent of the market, according to PubTrack, a survey conducted by publishing industry research firm Bowker. If it only takes one click to buy a book, why should we have to wait to read it?

The Amazon effect

Amazon executives have made near-instantaneous content a company goal. The latest Kindle, which began shipping last month, holds 1,500 titles and can wirelessly download books in 60 seconds. The company envisions a day when any book ever printed in any language can be downloaded in one minute.

Ginny Wolfe, 51, of Alexandria brought her Kindle to Afghanistan, where she is working for a few weeks as a private contractor; the device is loaded with 350 books, including "White Ghost Girls" by Alice Greenway and "The Invisible Mountain" by Carolina De Robertis. In the old days -- like, pre-2007, before the Kindle was released -- Wolfe would pack an extra suitcase on her work trips, just for books.

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