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Editorial May 2001
E-Reading Experiences

By Hilary Williamson

BookLoons reviewers have been reading e-books lately, partly because we have had submissions, and also out of interest to see what is available. It has been educational, since none of us own special e-reading devices. I started by going back to paper. The reams that resulted stressed my printer, were unwieldy to manage and I discovered that I am very used to the exact amount of page that a traditional book presents to me. However the paper approach did have the advantage of allowing me to scribble notes in the margins.

Next I considered investing in an e-book reader and had a look at what is available. At first glance, the Franklin eBookman and RCA E-Book Readers seem promising. A closer look shows that their screens are still quite small and that they support proprietary formats, which limits the available book selection to their own libraries and those developed by associates. Cost is between US $100 and $700, which seems high, given the ongoing investment in batteries and the limited book availability.

An alternative is to use a Palm organizer to read e-books. The screen is still fairly small but at least many people already have this device for other purposes and do not then need to purchase a dedicated reader (a Pocket PC would provide a similar alternative). I tried to read on a borrowed Palm, but it was an early model and I was unable to download the e-book. So I went back to my computer and discovered that it's exhausting to read for long at one time in front of a big screen.

I would love to own a good e-book reader, but I can't find one that meets my requirements. I want a legible screen that can display a paperback page worth of words, and (speaking from experience with my kids' Gameboys) I don't want to have to squint or get it at just the right angle to be readable. It's important that the device accept the common text standards, that is RTF and HTML formats, so that I can read what's already freely available from libraries like Project Gutenberg. It would be nice to have support for additional media. Customization features like control of text size, automatic scrolling options and scrolling speed would be handy. And, oh yes, price should be the magic $100 or less. I think I'll have to wait a while.

By the way, there are activities in progress towards open e-book standards. For example, the Open eBook Forum has as its objective 'to establish common specifications for electronic book systems, applications and products that will benefit creators of content, makers of reading systems and, most importantly, consumers ...'. I hope they succeed, but standardization can be a long and slow process, which is often overtaken by events.

Aside from the devices, consumers need e-books to read on them. Since Stephen King started the trend, some of the big publishers have begun to bite the bullet of e-publishing. For example Time Warner have launched iPublish and Simon & Schuster also offer e-books - in various formats. The number of books in digital format by big name authors has been increasing steadily. Recent offerings include Drowning Ruth, Speaking in Tongues and Shadow of the Hegemon. In addition micro publishers are showing up all over the Internet, for example LTDBooks.

In addition to getting the reading devices right, it seems to me that the acceptance of e-books needs a critical mass, very similar to what was required for widespread use of e-mail. In the early days of the development of 'electronic messaging', it was obvious that it required a critical mass of people who could send and receive messages, before it would become popular. Similarly for e-books, their acceptance awaits the emergence of a large volume of easily accessed digital books, both new releases and classics ... and this is just beginning.
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.