From time to time, I’ll give an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and take action. I’ve already covered Twitter, citizen journalism, alternative models for newspapers and other topics. This week I’ll look at e-books.

Background

E-books are electronic books, or books you can read on your computer or on handheld devices such as e-readers or smartphones. The first e-book was likely created by Michael Hart at the University of Illinois in 1971, when he typed in the text of the U.S. Declaration of Independence onto an early version of the Internet. Hart founded the Gutenberg Project, an online collection of e-books that are taken from public domain books. The collection has grown into more than 27,000 e-books, available for free download, along with audio books and digitized sheet music.

In the ’90s, there was a proliferation of e-book reader devices, such as the $500 RocketBook from NuvoMedia. The problem was that many of these devices read e-books only in certain file formats, had short battery life and had screens that you couldn’t read in bright light — at the beach, for instance. On a parallel track, companies such as Peanut Press were offering up e-books for people to read on devices they already owned, such as Palm Pilots and other personal digital assistants (PDAs).

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RocketBook

Most people remained resistant to the charms of e-books, though, and most e-book devices failed; in time,even PDAs were replaced, for the most part, by smartphones. In the last few years, however, there’s been a new wave of interest in e-readers and e-books, with people reading books on their iPhones and new devices with so-called “E-Ink technology,” like the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle. E-Ink screens look more like pen on paper, have little glare and use much less power than the LCD screens of previous e-reader devices. Still, there are plenty of hurdles standing between e-books and mass popularity from high priced e-readers and e-books to lack of file format standards.

For one thing, people are reading fewer books, period. Apple CEO Steve Jobs has been skeptical of a need for e-readers. In his widely circulated comments about the Kindle at the Macworld show in 2008, Jobs said:

It doesn’t matter how good or bad the [Kindle] is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

Perhaps people don’t read books as much, but if they had access to many more e-books at cheaper prices (or for free), they might start reading more of them — just like people started listening to a wider range of music when they were able to share music on peer-to-peer networks. Plus, people might be reading less books, but they are certainly reading a lot of online texts, from blogs to social networking updates to Twitter feeds.

E-Ink Changes the Game

While early e-reader proprietors were struggling to find customers outside of gadget lovers and early adopters, the startup E-Ink (born from the MIT Media Lab) came up with breakthrough technology that put computer displays on thin sheets of plastic. The displays use less power than normal handheld screens and look more like paper. The problem with the E-Ink displays, though, is that they refresh much slower than LCD monitors, causing a long lag time when someone “turns” an electronic page.

Still, Sony took a chance on E-Ink with its first Sony Reader in 2005, which brought in the company’s first revenues after years of glitches and tests. In December 2008, Sony said it had sold 300,000 Readers in the life of the product, and more than 3 million e-books. Amazon won’t share the number of Kindles it has sold, but analysts estimate that somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 units sold in its first year on the market alone.

While both readers use E-Ink technology, the Kindle also offers wireless uploads to its device, so you can buy a book and be reading it within minutes — as long as you are on a Sprint cell network. The Kindle also requires that you either purchase books in its proprietary format, through Amazon, or send files in other formats to a special email address for conversion. Sony, on the other hand, requires that you connect to a PC to upload e-books to the Reader.

In the latest round of e-reader battles, Sony has released a new Reader with a backlight display if you want to read in the dark, along with a touchscreen. And Amazon announced the new Kindle 2, due out in late February, with a more ergonomic display, a new joystick controller, and text-to-voice feature that will turn any text into an audio book automatically. Despite these upgrades, the problem remains that both devices are pricey — around $300. The Kindle ends up being more expensive, though, since it charges not only for access to public domain works, but also for access to newspapers or blogs.

As Michael Hickins complained on his InformationWeek blog:

When you buy the Kindle, you’re becoming a prisoner. You’re paying close to the same thing for an e-book as you would for a paperback, and you’re locked into the hardware vendor’s own library…So you want to buy a Kindle? And then you want to pay almost as much for the electronic books it stores as you would for the real things, based on the premise that you don’t want to have to carry too many books when you’re traveling?

Difficulty Giving Up Print

So far, despite technological advances, e-readers and e-books have sold most among people who travel and commute for much of their lives — people who clearly value the convenience of carrying around lots of reading material in a small package, and the ability to easily download new reading material. But selling the masses on e-books is a trickier proposition. For one thing, most people are happy with the current format of books: print on paper. Plus, the economics of e-reader pricing doesn’t add up for most readers.

According to Jason Perlow at ZDNet:

We took a look at twelve New York Times best sellers, and totaled up the prices, assuming mostly hardcover with some paperbacks — this came to $168.15 if we bought them on Amazon. The Kindle cost would have been $109.11. In other words, if you read one book per month, and you subtract the cost of the Kindle, your net savings per year is approximately $59.04. To wipe out the cost of the Kindle completely, you have to buy and read six books per month to wipe out the Kindle’s cost over the course of one year. That’s a pretty voracious reading schedule — and if you’re reading that many books, you’re probably spending most of your time in a library and not purchasing them on Amazon.

Which brings us to another problem for e-books, and e-readers, especially: In printed form, books are readily available for free on loan from friends and family or public libraries. Not so with e-books. Other advantages of print books include:

> Eternal battery life
> No glare or screens
> Ability to write in margin or highlight passages
> Table of contents and index for quick searches

In one interesting argument against e-books, Bobbie Johnson at the Guardian wrote that the Kindle couldn’t become the “iPod of books” because people weren’t pirating books anywhere. Johnson says that the iPod and iTunes sprung up in response to the popularity of sharing digital songs online, and that there is no parallel of that happening in the book world to spur publishers to sell e-books at cheap, reasonable prices.

“Unlike the music business — who saw those lost customers head straight to Napster, Kazaa or Gnutella — the average book reader isn’t turning to legally dubious sources for their novels, or meeting up with book dealers on street corners to pick up copies of the latest bestseller,” Johnson wrote.

And yet, there is still a good chance that e-books will prevail in the end, due to the long-term environmental issues around printing on dead trees and the simple convenience factor. John Siracusa, who used to work at Peanut Press back in the day, explained just how the e-book would be an inevitable part of our daily lives:

Convenience: One thousand songs in your pocket? One million books in your pocket. Carry your entire reading list with you at all times. No loose bookmarks. No dog-eared pages. No rips, tears, or smudges. No shelf space required. No trip to the store. Purchase and start reading in seconds. Read anywhere, any time, using only one hand. Stop reading at a moment’s notice without fear of losing your place.

Power: Search the text instantly. Look up the definition of any word with a single tap or click. Add and remove highlighting an infinite number of times without degrading the text. Annotate without being constrained by the size of the margins. Create multiple bookmarks and links from one part of the text to another.

Potential: Consume, share, and remix all of the above with anyone, an unlimited number of times.

Google Print and Booksearch

Another player in the e-book space is search giant Google, with its plans to try to digitize all published books. Google made deals with many public libraries to digitize their collections, but ran afoul of book publishers and authors, who believed that they should get a cut of revenues from Google for ads it serves on those pages. Eventually the two sides settled the lawsuit out of court, with Google agreeing to set up a special registry where authors and publishers could get a cut of the settlement money.

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Google says that it has already scanned more than 1.5 million books into its online book search directory. For the books that are in the public domain, you can read them entirely online at Google’s site. For books that are under copyright, Google only includes brief descriptions of the books and possibly links to places where you can buy the book or borrow it at a nearby library. Throughout its discussionswith publishers, Google made this argument:

So why has such a universally useful tool become so controversial? Because some in the publishing community question whether any third party should be able to copy and index copyrighted works so that users can search through them, even if all a user sees is the bibliographic information and a few snippets of text, and even if the result is to make those books widely discoverable online and help the authors and publishers sell more of them.

Some of our critics believe that somehow Google Book Search will become a substitute for the printed word. To the contrary, our goal is to improve access to books — not to replace them. Indeed, we’re working closely with publishers to develop new tools and opportunities for selling books online.

Now that the issue is settled, it will be interesting to see how influential Google Book Search becomes, both as a reading and discovery tool.

iPhone and Mobile Reading

Just before Amazon announced theKindle 2 , Google made its own news in the e-book arena: It was making its Book Search service available on iPhones and phones like the G1 that run the Google Android operating system. You don’t need a special app to read the books, you just need to point your mobile browser to http://books.google.com/m.

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It’s hard to imagine anyone spending money on a dedicated e-reader if they can read e-books on hardware they already own, especially in a tough economy — even if the screens are much smaller.

Last fall, Forbes magazine made the argument that the iPhone was now a more popular e-reader than the Kindle because a free iPhone app called Stanza had been downloaded more times (1.2 million) than Kindle units sold. Stanza offers mainly public domain content, but book publishers are starting to test out selling titles through mobile phones and have been pleased with early results. (Amazon recently announced that it would eventually allow people with Kindles to share their content with mobile phones, but didn’t detail those plans.)

Another advantage of iPhones and other smartphones is that they have color screens, while the Kindle screen is black and white. Still, don’t rule out the Kindle, not only for those without smartphones that support e-books, but also for those who value its larger screen and access to Amazon’s large catalog. But if the iPhone or other smartphones come out with larger screens and services such as Stanza and Google Book Search continue their push for more mobile content, the e-readers might be in trouble.

Resources

Check out these blog posts and articles about e-readers and e-books for more reading on the subject:

Google Brings 1.5 Million Free Books to Android, iPhone at Dallas Morning News’ Technology blog

Five Reasons the iPhone Trumps the Kindle at PC World

Is E Ink Publishing’s Savior? at Forbes

Is the iPhone the Ultimate E-Book Reader? at ReadWriteWeb

The Kindle Is a Swindle at InformationWeek blog

Kindle’s New Challenger Brings E-Books to iPhones at PC World

The once and future e-book: on reading in the digital age at Ars Technica

A New Chapter for Digital Books at the Globe and Mail

Review Roundup: Amazon Kindle 2 at CSMonitor.com

Turns Out Sony E-Book Readers Sell After All at WSJ Business Technology blog

The Plot Thickens For E-Books: Google And Amazon Putting More Titles On Mobile Phones at PaidContent

Textbooks go digital: Appeal of e-books increasing at the Spartan Daily

Will the iPhone Kill the Kindle? No Way. at PC World

What do you think about e-books? Do you use a dedicated e-reader, and what are its advantages and disadvantages? Do you think e-books will find widespread adoption or remain a niche pursuit? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of Kindle 2 by Phillip Torrone via Flickr.