- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

Electronic books at last? Maybe. Sony is shortly to launch its Librie electronic book in the United States. Similar “books” have been tried before and haven’t found a market. I wonder why and whether Sony knows why.

An electronic book is a device about the size of a book with some form of memory to hold the book being read, a screen on which to read it and a means of downloading books from the Internet. Simple buttons allow the reader to “turn the page” and so on. The various forms of computer memory being cheap, such readers can hold a lot of books — about eighty in the case of the Librie, says Sony.

Surely it would be desirable to carry a dozen books on vacation in the space of one. The idea is simple, and so are the devices. Yet they have been commercial duds. Why? Often the reason is said to be poor hardware, high price and barely readable screens.

By all accounts, the Sony Librie solves most of these problems, except price. For example, it uses something called “electronic ink” that works by arranging huge numbers of black-and-white particles to give clear print that doesn’t need a back light. Fine. I don’t doubt that Sony can make a good-quality gadget.

The Librie was released in Japan in 2004 and sold poorly — chiefly, to judge by reviews on the Web, because it carried digital rights management software that made downloaded books erase themselves after sixty days. Once again, anti-piracy measures made the thing so disagreeable to use that people didn’t buy it.

Another problem has been that earlier manufacturers tried to get people to pay close to full price for electronic downloads of best-sellers. Given that the price to the publisher of distributing a book electronically is virtually zero, the idea was insulting to the reader’s intelligence.

Do Sony and the book publishers understand the market? They didn’t before. The Librie is going to cost, depending on who you believe, between $300 to $500. Split the difference and call it $400. That’s the price of 15 new hardbacks or 100 books bought in a used-book store.

Putting it another way, buying the Librie would be equivalent to adding four bucks each to the price of your first hundred books. That’s a deal? What would be a deal is to have an electronic reader optimized for downloading out-of-copyright books free.

Various organizations, such as Project Gutenberg (Gutenberg.org) and the Online Books Page (http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/) offer tens of thousands of books that would appeal those of academic or literary bent.

Sony intends to sell content through its Connect online store, as Apple’s ITunes sells music. Business Week quotes Jane Friedman, chief executive officer of HarperCollins, as saying that she plans to digitize about 25,000 titles to be sold through Sony’s store.

Random House plans to do much the same. That will ensure that plenty of books are available. But, unless manufacturers reduce prices to reflect the lack of a physical book and let people download books, including free ones, from sources of their choice, they risk another failure.

Unfortunately, the companies involved seem to see the electronic book as a way to sell downloads, instead of a device to benefit the purchaser. This puts them in a trap. If manufacturers of electronic books make it easy to download free books, they will undercut sales of copyright books or, in the case of Sony, of sales by its own store. But if they insist on high prices for downloads, they may sell neither content nor electronic books.

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