January 5, 2006
eBooks: Has their time come?

Gizmodo reports from CES that Sony's new reader (which is based off of E-Ink's e-paper technology) is looking very nice:

To give you an idea of just how good this display looks... I walked up to the counter, looked at the text on the screen and asked, "So when will you have working units to play with?" The reply: "This is a working reader." I mistakenly though the text on the screen was some kind of plastic overlay--that's how ink-like it looked. Then the PR rep increased the text size, searched through the table of contents and showed me some Manga comics. It is the first e-reader that seemed like I could sit down and spend hours on without experiencing eye strain.

Other notable features: There's no backlight, and no visible flicker. It's small and lightweight, accepts Memory Sticks and SD flash memory cards, has a USB port, and can be used to view downloaded websites. Sony asserts that the battery can support 7,500 page turns.

If all the above is true, and if Sony releases this at an affordable price point with decent third-party support, the long-promised age of eBooks may be at hand.

Assuming that happens, the publishing industry will have to deal with the same kinds of piracy issues that the music, film, and games industries are facing. There may be a way around this problem, however. Several science fiction authors (notably Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing) have released electronic versions of their novels under the creative commons license. These books (Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Eastern Standard Tribe, and Accelerando being a few examples) have enjoyed much higher hardcopy sales than books by comparable authors with comparable promotion budgets.

Like in the anime industry (and *ahem* the music industry during Peak Napster) audience exposure to free content has served as a promotional vehicle and driven sales of the "premium" hardcopy versions of these books. While hardcopy may be on its way out, the idea of a two-tiered publishing system, where people who really like an author's work can either donate to the author or purchase some kind of premium eBook edition might well be the wave of the future in publishing.