E-books, has your time come?

Seemingly moribund market gets fresh ink. But analysts remain cautious.

Recent announcements regarding electronic books have breathed fresh life into a seemingly moribund market. But some experts say e-books need to do more than move ink onto digital displays to go mainstream.

Sony announced on Monday that its Sony Reader will be sold at Borders bookstores for between $300 and $400 and texts will be available for download from the Sony Connect online store this summer.

And on Tuesday, Harry Potter publisher Bloomsbury began offering titles for download off the Internet, presumably for reading on PCs. "Although it's not a big area now, it will be in the future," Bloomsbury Chairman Nigel Newton told Reuters. "We want to stake out our territory."

The news raises a question: Is there suddenly a market for what so far has been a novelty act? E-books, which can be downloaded to a special reading device or a traditional PC, got a major push in 2000 when Microsoft partnered with Barnes & Noble on an e-book store for Microsoft Reader software. Three years later, Barnes & Noble discontinued its e-book efforts, citing slow sales.

"Expectations were way out of line with the evolution of these new forms of reading," said Steve Potash, chief executive of Overdrive, a digital media clearinghouse that hosts about 150,000 digital books, music and video titles. "A few years ago we didn't have quite the selection" that's available now. However, major publishers, schools and universities, and public libraries have come around and are jumping on the bandwagon, he said.

But the relative sparsity of selections still vexes, as do other criticisms. Five years ago, in addition to the lack of titles, some customers complained about restrictions in e-book readers on printing, copying, exporting to other types of devices and sharing with other companies' e-book readers. Price, too, has been a factor.

"We don't see a lot of resistance to electronic books per se," said Gregory Newby, director of Project Gutenberg, the first electronic library, which offers 20,000 titles for free. "What we see are limiting factors in specialized readers and difficulty in finding good stuff to read." Plus, "publishers are charging the same amount for an electronic book as for a paper book."

There are other challenges too. With e-book readers, people may be able to store numerous texts in one small device and do things to make reading easier, such as changing type size, something that's impossible with print. But people also like to share books with others, resell them and hand them down to their children, he said.

"When you buy a book, you have it forever," Newby said. "With these electronic books, you often are prevented from doing those things that you can do with regular books. What happens when my device breaks?...Books aren't just words on a page. They are things you can trade, share and store for later."

To be compelling enough to trigger any kind of mass migration away from paper books, e-books will need to have compelling characteristics regular books don't, such as interactivity and mixed-media capabilities, Newby and others said.

Authors could write books that let people read alternate endings or that contain moving pictures and characters that speak aloud, he said. "This would be a pretty exciting change from plain old paper. People like interactive stuff online. Why wouldn't we see that in a book?"

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