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P-books and e-books

The Saskatchewan Book Awards, honoring the best books by Saskatchewan writers, is coming up on November 30.

The short-listed nominees are all worthy, but they’re also all a little old-fashioned, in that they’re all printed on paper.

“Paper?” I hear you say. “What else would they be printed on?”

To which I reply, who says they have to be printed at all?

At the recent Saskatchewan Writers Guild annual conference, I moderated a panel discussion on the future of publishing. The panel, which included representatives of both large and small publishing houses, felt that e-books would amount to “about 15 percent” of the book market within a few years.

“E-books?” I now hear you say. (I hear voices a lot while I’m writing.) “What’s an e-book?”

An e-book is an “electronic book,” a book in a computer file format so it can be read on an electronic device.

E-books have advantages for both publishers (no warehousing or shipping costs, no limits on the number of pages or graphics) and authors (higher royalties, more opportunity to write books that serve niche markets hitherto uneconomical). So how come we’re not all reading e-books? (Especially after the big splash of publicity about the topic a few months ago when Stephen King began selling a serialized story, Riding the Bullet, on-line, a step that some media hailed as the death-knell of traditional publishing.)

There are a number of reasons e-books haven’t proven as popular as publishers hoped. Many readers claim they’re not interested because “you can’t curl up in bed with a computer” or “you can’t read an e-book in the bathtub.”

Another concern beyond aesthetics has been the ease with which e-books can be pirated. As Napster has shown, people prefer free entertainment to paid entertainment, no matter who owns the copyright. (Stephen King abandoned the serialization of Riding the Bullet because not enough people were paying for it–he was operating on the honor system.) Hackers delight in cracking the security built into e-book formats. Publishers are therefore reluctant to release their top titles in e-book format

Still another concern has been a lack of technical standards. E-books can be read on many different devices, from desktops to laptops to handhelds to dedicated e-book readers, but there are different, mutually exclusive formats for all of those devices.

So are e-books doomed? No way. They’re just in their infancy. Someday, I fully believe, they will challenge or even usurp print books, to the relief of trees everywhere. (My own experimental foray into e-book publishing, a young adult fantasy novel, Spirit Singer, will be published by Awe-Struck E-Books this coming spring.)

The cost advantages, to begin with, are too enormous for publishers not to continue to pursue e-books. Second, “you can’t curl up in bed with a computer” is, even now, not a not a real concern. You certainly can curl up in bed with a Palm Pilot or a dedicated e-book reader such as the new Hiebook. (You could take either into the bathtub, too. Sure, you wouldn’t want to drop it, but you wouldn’t want to drop a print book in the bath, either, especially not a $30 or $40 hardcover.)

Dedicated e-book readers are still expensive–the Hiebook is around $250 U.S–but they can contain hundreds of books. Eventually, their prices will drop.

Another concern has been the display. Many people dislike reading on a screen, which can’t match the detail of ink on paper. But many people today, especially young people, are perfectly comfortable with on-screen reading. And screen resolution is improving all the time.

The ultimate e-book may even recreate the tactile feel of a p-book, right down to the pages. Imagine a book that looks like a book of blank paper, but that can display any text from any book you download into it.

That’s the future promised by a technology called either electronic ink or electronic paper (depending on whose talking), which consists of millions of tiny microcapsules, positively charged white ones and negatively charged black ones, suspended in a liquid. By applying a negative or electronic charge to the ink, you can make it show either white or black. Electronic ink/paper is already being used in big plastic sheets for easily changeable store signs–and on November 6, 2001, a company called E-Ink unveiled a prototype e-book reader that is the most book-like of any computer display device yet. It offers sharp black letters at a resolution of at least 150 dots per inch (twice the resolution of the typical computer display) on a vivid white background. It’s also very easy on batteries, because it uses current only when the display changes; in between page flips, the display takes no electricity at all.

The prototype is only one centimetre thick, weighs just nine ounces and runs on two AA batteries. It’s expected to cost $300 U.S.–but it’s just the first one. As with all electronic technology, prices should fall with time (probably just after you’ve shelled out big bucks for yours).

Right now, the most popular e-book titles are non-fiction (think of being able to carry all your school textbooks in one small device instead of a back-breaking backpack), science fiction (because SF readers are naturally willing to experiment with new technology) and romance (because romance readers are always hungry for more romance, no matter what format it’s in). But other genres of writing will inevitably catch up.

Many libraries are beginning to experiment with e-books, offering e-book readers that can be loaded with selected titles and taken out just like a p-book. Other libraries are experimenting with Internet lending of e-book titles.

Print books (will we someday call them p-books?) won’t go away any time soon, but e-books are going to be a bigger and bigger part of your future…whether you read in the bathtub or not.

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