- The Washington Times - Friday, February 6, 2009

Amazon will hold a press conference Monday at New York City’s Morgan Library. The online retailer is keeping mum on the topic, but industry observers predict the company will unveil a new version of the Kindle, its 15-month-old electronic book reader, with design changes making it easier to use.

But is the device whose first batch sold out in just 5½ hours already obsolete?

Readers who own Apple iPhones and iPod Touches have downloaded Stanza in droves. The free program is an e-reader that enables users to download free classics and buy contemporary e-books by authors from Stephen King to Cormac McCarthy. Since it became available when Apple’s App Store opened in June, Stanza has been downloaded more than 1.2 million times by users in 60 countries. At least 5 million books have been downloaded.

Amazon won’t release data on its Kindle, but Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney estimates it has sold 500,000. Sony Reader, as of December, had sales of 300,000 since its debut in October 2006. Stanza’s e-reader has much more potential: More than 17 million iPhones are in use and a few million more iPod Touches, which, like the iPhone, have wireless access.

Mr. Mahaney has called Kindle the “iPod of the book world,” but it now appears the iPod could be the iPod of the book world.

Apple, without even trying, might end up revolutionizing the publishing industry the way it did the music industry.

The Kindle killer?

Stanza is the most popular and most elegant of iPhone e-readers. You can easily change font typeface, size and color and flip pages back and forth with a single touch. A new version coming out in days will make it easier to dim the device. That backlighting is one advantage Stanza has over the Kindle you don’t need a light to read.

With the iPhone’s wireless capability and the fact that users carry them wherever they go, owners have a virtual world of knowledge constantly at their fingertips. Somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 distinct titles, from Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” to Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” are available.

Lexcycle, the company behind Stanza, was started by three developers just a year ago. Marc Prud’hommeaux, the 35-year-old chief executive, had been interested in developing a reading application for desktop computers and mobile devices for a while and formed the company at the same time Apple opened up the iPhone to developers.

“We knew the profile of the iPhone was significantly different from other devices. It had a much more pleasant reading experience than other phones previously had,” Mr. Prud’hommeaux says. It wasn’t just the iPhone’s larger screen, but the way it rendered fonts and displayed high-resolution graphics. That’s one reason reading has taken off on it the way it never did on previous smartphones, like Palms and Pocket PCs.

Stanza is free, and so are about 50,000 of its books, most published before 1923 and so no longer under copyright. “We intend to keep it free,” Mr. Prud’hommeaux reports. “We’re dedicated to an open network. It drives adoption of the software.”

The company doesn’t make money on free books or books sold through third-party catalogs on the Web. “Basically, we take a cut of any book sold through the Stanza interface if it’s sold through our built-in online catalog.”

“We knew it would be big, but we’ve been stunned by the uptake,” says Mr. Prud’hommeaux, who also owns a Kindle and is reading “Revolutionary Road” through Stanza.

Stanza has gotten kudos from PC Magazine and Wired, and consumers voted it best free app in the 2008 Best App Ever Awards.

A device-driven revolution

Mobile electronic reading has been around for a decade, but it’s taken off in the past few months. Mr. Prud’hommeaux puts it down to “the high-quality display and size of devices as well as dramatic growth in the availability of content, tied together with the next generation of mobile devices with networking support, so wherever you are, you can find a book you want to read and start reading it in a few minutes.”

It doesn’t hurt that arbiter Oprah Winfrey promoted the Kindle on her show last year.

Jason Boog, an editor at publishing blog Galleycat.com, still does most of his reading the old-fashioned way, but he’s also a Stanza user. He thinks Kindle and Stanza can co-exist but predicts Amazon will have to step up its game. Kindle costs $359, while you can buy an iPhone for just $199, and the iPhone has the advantage of being fully Internet-capable.

“There’s a rumor, though no one’s come close to confirming it, that there’s going to be a larger iPod Touch coming out. If that comes out and has a screen comparable to Kindle, that’s going to be big trouble,” he says.

He’s heartened by Kindle sales estimates. “That’s a lot of people spending a fair amount of money to have this device. I think it bodes well for the future of the digital book. You might say yes, the digital book has already arrived,” he says. “Most people that I talk to are very positive about digital books right now. If you look at the O’Reilly Tools of Change, the big publishing conference taking place next week, all they’re talking about is digital books. It’s on everybody’s mind.”

Pricing the nonphysical

The only thing that could slow down the e-books trend is pricing, not of the devices, but the books. They tend to be priced the same as physical versions. “Our readers of GalleyCat are very, very passionate about that,” Mr. Boog says. “A lot of readers get upset when an e-book goes over about $10.”

Even the guy helping to sell e-books thinks they cost too much for the average consumer. However, Mr. Prud’hommeaux points out, “From a publisher’s standpoint, the production of an electronic book costs not much less than a printed book. You’re still doing promotion on it.”

Consumers, though, don’t want to pay the same price for something they can’t put on their bookshelf or lend to a friend.

Random House is giving away some of its best titles, however. Alan Furst’s acclaimed novel “The Foreign Correspondent” and Simon Rich’s highbrow humor title “Free-Range Chickens,” are just two of nine available free on Stanza, Kindle and Sony Reader.

“The e-book market is growing rapidly, and we’re definitely optimistic about it,” says Matt Schwartz, the company’s director of digital strategy and business development, who uses all three readers. He calls the promotion “an investment in building the authors’ entire fan base.”

The free books include excerpts of forthcoming books by the same authors. “With the explosion in social networking, you get readers who read these books for free and then talk about how much they enjoyed them on blogs, Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, and recommending them. It could translate into physical sales from their friends and acquaintances.” He says it’s too early to say how much that is happening, but he has seen “a burst of activity.”

Rekindling reading?

Perhaps the very technology that has led people to read less might get them reading again. Dana Gioia, a poet who just ended a five-year term as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and is now at the Aspen Institute, isn’t sure. He says that when you introduce the Internet into a household, 45 minutes out of every hour a person spends on it is taken from interaction between family members and from reading.

The NEA’s most recent survey of American reading habits was released last month. It found that for the first time in more than 25 years, American adults are reading more literature.

Mr. Gioia’s not sure e-readers will help in continuing to reverse what had been a steady decline. “E-books are a healthy and promising trend, but at present, they remain a marginal factor in national reading,” he says. The frequent traveler notes that among the mostly professional and affluent people he sees on airplanes, only one or two tend to be using Kindles.

The NEA’s study is good news, but “a very precarious success,” he says. “But it is the first success in recent history and proves that the dumbing down of our culture is not inevitable. I hope we have every technological advantage to keep reading alive.”

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