Will books as we know them soon be a thing of the past? A new generation of digital "e-readers" has the German publishing industry gearing up for a fast-moving digital future.
Are ink and paper a thing of the past?
Electronic books were announced as the "next big thing" a decade ago. But the technology that came out at the time failed to impress consumers, and made few inroads into the market.
Now some new e-readers, predicted to be put on the market in Europe in the near future, have publishing industry insiders preparing for major changes. Lightweight devices like Amazon's Kindle and the Sony Reader have been the focus of intense interest since they celebrated their German coming-out party at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which runs through Oct. 19.
E-books -- stars of the Frankfurt fair
The press toasted the new readers as the "true stars" of this year's fair. But considering the changes they could represent for the staid publishing industry, players are eyeing them with a mixture of fascination and fear.
"Overall, I think German publishers are very enthusiastic about e-books," said Thomas Wilking, editor in chief of the German publishing trade magazine Buchreport. "They are just waiting for a device they think is attractive enough for a wide public."
Sony is hoping its Reader will impress Europeans
Book Fair organizers took an unscientific survey of 1,000 industry players on the future of the new technology, and published it just before the fair opened. Unfortunately, the data failed to paint any clear road map for the future.
More than 70 percent of respondents said they were ready for the digital challenge -- but 60 percent of them had neither used e-readers nor downloaded e-books themselves. Meanwhile, a full 40 percent said they expect e-content to dominate the market by 2018 -- compared with one-third of respondents who said e-books will never take over. 12 percent thought the new e-readers would be a short-lived flash in the pan.
'You could take 50 books to the beach'
Jak Boumans, a Dutch media-content consultant who runs his own firm, Electronic Media Reporting, is convinced e-books are here to stay. But he estimates it will be at least 2030 before they are in wide usage, considering how many details still need to be ironed out, and how ingrained peoples' attitudes are towards reading.
"This has been a topic for the last 30 years, but the mentality is still trying to catch up with the technology," Boumans said. "E-readers mean people could go on holiday without packing a stack of heavy books -- they can take 50 books with them in one device and still read it on the beach."
Observers praise the Kindle and Reader as being significantly improved from the last devices that tried to storm the market but failed. The new devices have extended their battery life and traded the backlit computer screen for a paper-simulating "e-paper" that is less hard on the eyes.
The ritual of turning pages
Some book lovers wonder if an electronic device will ever really replace paper books, however. Johann Schumandl, owner of a small independent book store in Cologne, said he thinks people might accept e-readers for reading work documents. But printed books will never disappear completely:
"When you read a book you have the sense of touch, the haptic value," he said. "There is something ritualistic about reading a book, turning the pages."
Which e-reader will capture the market?
Boumans agrees that casual readers -- who he refers to as "ink sniffers" -- will be the last group to make the switch. But he believes a new generation of people who grew up using iPods will see things differently.
"The only question they are going to have is, 'How many functions will this device combine for me?'" he said.
People have been predicting the demise of the bookstore for a long time now, and many now think e-books and e-readers could deliver the coup de grace. Twenty-five percent of respondents to the Book Fair study thought bookstores would largely disappear within half a century, with online distribution of paper books by firms such as Amazon taking over.
Some European bookstores seem to be trying to get ahead of the curve by being the first to promote e-books. Top German chain bookstore Thalia struck a deal with Sony to sell content for its Reader devices in Thalia stores and online.
Assuming e-books do take hold, there are still many questions to be answered. Which reader -- Amazon's, Sony's, or perhaps one from a European competitor, like the Netherlands' iLiad -- will capture the public's fancy? Each one has slightly different technical specifications, and is based on different technical platforms.
Another big question is how the industry will deal with copyright protection. Some employ digital rights management (DRM,) a kind of software lock on downloadable books, with the aim of avoiding the music industry's fate. Since the advent of digital music, record companies have famously seen profits decimated by piracy and illegal downloading.
Boumans opposes technological protection on content. He supports the concept of a "social DRM," which would operate under a "name and shame" system: When a person buys electronic data, his or her name is attached to the file so anyone can see how it is passed around after that. Social pressure would correct the market.
'The iPod principle'
Amazon's Kindle is a big seller in the US
Ultimately, Boumans says four things need to be in place before e-books really take off: a device, a portfolio of downloadable material, the download service -- and the right price for content.
"That's when you get what I call the iPod principle," he said. "People start downloading things and they are willing to pay for it."
Clearly it is difficult to imagine exactly what shape the digital-literature future will take. According to Buchreport editor Wilking, the future may be even more unrecognizable than we can imagine. For one thing, books may cease to be a collection of words on paper -- or even e-paper.
"There are a lot of possibilities when it comes to e-publishing," Wilking said. "People will be able to build in films and interactive elements. Things we can't even imagine yet."
Once these technical possibilities are there, he says, then the authors might start taking them into consideration, and writing for multimedia instead of just the page.