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The e-book wars - starting soon?

11 August 2008

It looks as if this autumn will finally see the worldwide availability of e-book readers, and then at last we'll find out exactly what difference this is going to make to book-buying and the publishing world. The e-book reader story has been running for some time. News Review's headline on 18 February this year was 'The e-book arrives - or does it?' and on 26 November 2007 we asked: 'Is the Kindle the future of the book?'

There are still three devices available, although others are thought to be in development. The Dutch-originated iRex iLiad has been available in the UK since May 2007, selling exclusively in Borders for £399 ($767), and does not seem, to the wider world, to have made much impact, although it may be of special appeal to academics.

Then there's the Sony Reader, launching with much fanfare in the UK in Waterstone's stores on 4 September at a price of £199 ($382). It is slightly smaller than a hardback and weighs 260 grams (just over 9 ounces). It can store up to 160 e-books and has been selling in the US since September 2006, currently at $299, although there doesn't seem to be much information about how successful it has been. Joe Svetlik, news editor of gadget magazine T3, said: 'It does have the potential to be massive, to have hundreds of books on something the size of a notebook is appealing.'

Finally, there's the Kindle, which currently costs $359 (£182) in America, and has built-in free wireless Internet connection, allowing users to download titles direct from Amazon's website. It can store 200 titles and weighs 10.3 ounces (292 grams). Other firms' readers require ebooks to be downloaded onto a computer and then transferred. Amazon have been selling it in the States since November 2007. On launch the online retailer went instantly out of stock in five and a half hours and did not make the Kindle available again until April 2008. This looks very much like laying down a marker to scare off the opposition, whilst waiting for the market to develop.

In June 2008 Jeff Bezos of Amazon said that the e-book version was taking 6% of the sales of books available in both paper and e-book formats. There are now more than 145,000 titles available and many observers think that Amazon will dominate this market when they launch internationally, which is widely expected to be this autumn. It's a bit of a puzzle why Waterstone's should go with the Sony Reader, except that Amazon is now just too threatening a competitor for them to go with their Kindle.

The big question is going to be whether readers will actually want to read books on a gadget at all, and how many of them adopt it. Richard Charkin, Executive Director of Bloomsbury says:'There will continue to be a market for printed books for a very long time. I believe the bulk of people will still prefer to hold, feel, treasure, give, receive, display and read a printed book. Unlike CDs, I do not think books will be displaced by downloads.'

It could be a very interesting autumn.