- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

We creep closer and closer to having genuinely useful online libraries, but we just aren’t there yet. For more than a decade the literate and technologically savvy have yearned for a day when people could download any book from the Web and read it on an “electronic book.”

What a victory it would be, they said, for culture, literacy, and so on. It hasn’t happened. One reason has been that the electronic books (book-sized boxes with screens and a connection to allow downloads of books from the Web) have been too hard to read.

OK, Sony’s new Reader looks to be a solution . I haven’t got my hands on one yet, but it uses a digital-ink technology that appears to give a crisp, very printlike screen that can be read in sunlight. It will hold hundreds of books, says Sony, which is easy enough to do, and costs $350.

Next, you need books to download. Sources of books fall into two categories. Some are commercial: You download the book and pay for it. A growing number offer free downloads of books out of copyright.

A fair few exist now: Google Book Search, the Open-Access Text Archive, Windows Live Search Books, being developed by Microsoft, and Project Gutenberg. Other specialized sites exist, devoted to such things as Shakespeare’s works.

So you’ve got an electronic reader and yoou’ve got books available. What’s the problem?

The problem is that the people who could best make this happen don’t want it to. Every time a new reader appears, the manufacturer tries to tie it to a proprietary or at least commercial download service.

For example, Sony’s site says, “The Sony Reader will allow you to search, browse and discover thousands of popular electronic book titles from Connect EBooks. You can then purchase and download these titles to your PC and easily transfer to your Sony Reader.”

Judging by books displayed at Connect, prices will be about $14.

Reliance on proprietary sites is economically understandable — for Sony. Making a book available for paid download costs virtually nothing. The sales price is almost entirely profit. But if on the other hand people read Huck Finn, downloaded for free from the Gutenberg Project, no profits ensue. Not good.

Note that more is at stake for manufacturers of electronic books than a few bucks. Should we see a popular reader and easy access to books in the public domain, the publishing industry would take a major hit. “Moby Dick” is in the public domain, but publishers still print it and sell it for a profit. Bookstores would be left selling only copyright books, which might or might not keep them in business.

Libraries would suffer a massive dropoff in the number of visitors and perhaps disappear. In fact, if people chose to download and pay for books in as well as out of copyright, there would be no reason for libraries to exist. Nor, again, bookstores. That’s a lot of jobs.

At the moment, digital piracy of books barely exists because people have no comfortable way to read a digitized Tom Clancy thriller. Nobody wants to peer at a computer screen for a week. But if an electronic book were widely used, someone would scan Mr. Clancy. Turning the scan into text is easy with optical character recognition software, the kind that is bundled with scanners now. At that point best-sellers would be as piratable as music is today.

A lot of money is potentially in play here. Wait a few years.

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