Friday, February 15, 2008, the online seller of books (and practically everything else) has done something almost right, and perhaps almost cut its own throat at the same time.

For years, we have been hearing about e-readers. These are electronic boxes about the size and shape of a book, but with a screen. One way or another, you downloaded a book into the thing, and read it on the screen.

The idea never took off, and still hasn’t. There are at least two reasons. First, although the idea was good, the execution wasn’t. Early screens were difficult to read anywhere, and impossible in sunlight. Downloading books required a computer and cables.

Second, the buyer was forced to buy books only from the seller’s online store. It was the old principle of sell the printer cheap and force the user to buy proprietary ink at high prices.

Amazon’s Kindle reader solves a couple of the major problems. (It has teething trouble: Don’t buy it without reading the reviews.) The screen uses electronic-ink technology that is sharp and readable even in sunlight. Brilliantly, the Kindle downloads books fast using a built-in cell phone: You don’t need a computer or hot spot. No subscription fee. Your books are backed up online in your name. If you accidentally delete one, you can download it again for free.

Kindle is close to being mass marketable. However, the economics seem hazardous for Amazon. The company makes money, legitimately enough, by selling physical books that are out of copyright. If you want your child to read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Amazon will sell you a copy. I don’t know what proportion of a bookseller’s income derives from the sale of books in the public domain, but it has to be considerable — the Bible, the classics and so on.

There are Web sites, such as, that make large numbers of out-of-copyright books available online. At present, these are no threat to publishers. Reading online is disagreeable. Printing out a whole book — say, “War and Peace” — is ridiculous. E-book readers have been geeky things, requiring a computer, and they have been tied to the company store.

What happens if e-readers actually become pleasant to use? What if Project Gutenberg and others standardize on a format that the e-readers can all use? This would change the economics of publishing drastically.

Right now, when you buy a Kindle, you are paying $400 for the right to buy e-books at a discount. Not much of a deal, that. If you had seamless, easy access to the Gutenberg-like sites, it would be $400 for very large numbers of free books — a very different thing. And you would never again buy any of them from Amazon. Or Borders. But there is worse. Until recently, online piracy of books has been limited because there has been no easy way to read them. But if digital readers become common, hoo-boy. The instant a new best-seller came out, someone, somewhere, would scan it, digitize it and put it online. Then, we will see the same piracy-vs.-anti-piracy war that we now have with music.

This would be serious for publishers.

Note that this could also be done with textbooks, which now are a cash-cow scam for publishers. You don’t suppose a college student would pirate a book to save $90, do you?

When the second-generation, debugged Kindle appears, I’ll buy it — if I can read public-domain books with it. That would be great for me but maybe not for Amazon.

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