more books, less trees

Charlie Stross explains “Why the commercial ebook market is broken” in detail. This has been percolating since I read it and I have been researching what the state of the hardware market is for this kind of thing.

I’m interested in something like this to gain access to a lot of the books on Project Gutenberg or other free book sites but I don’t want to read them on a computer screen. There is too much other stuff going on and the form factor is not convenient.

A Palm makes the most sense, as far as devices go: cheap and ubiquitous, though a bit small. I’m not sure I want to read a book on a 160×160 screen. There are used/discontinued 320×480 ones out there, but they often come encrusted with features like cameras, video recorders, WiFi, etc. that would be distracting. I can see BlueTooth, as a way of loading the thing with books, since it’s a short-range protocol.

But the real Holy Grail is the e-ink book reader, like what Sony has put together with Philips. All it does is display text on a screen and it only draws power when you refresh the page. Displaying the page doesn’t require any power, so the battery life is measured in pages read, not minutes used. By all accounts the text clarity rivals paper, even high-gloss magazine printing, so you wouldn’t see any of the computer-esque rendering artifacts you see on computer-derived devices. But it’s expensive.

Alas, it may be some time before these things are available at a reasonable price, unless as Charlie mentions, they get subsidized by a book club. I can see that happening if the book clubs (and authors) get over their fear that the books will end being distributed by pirates, yarrr. First off, the presence of an eBook for free download shouldn’t scare anyone: it doesn’t impact the sales of the physical book until someone reads it and decides the eBook version is equivalent and that they don’t need to buy a copy. It’s not clear to me that the eBook will completely eliminate the physical book: I can see some people wanting both, one to carry around, the other to annotate or refer to for different needs.

But given the physical costs of making and shipping books — both ways, given how many books are remaindered — I suspect there is a market for distributing books electronically where the reduced costs offset any subsidies or other inducements.

The Seattle PI, one of our two daily newspapers, may be going all-digital, and one of the two competing free weeklies is as well. What will book publishers and readers get from these developments? Would you be willing to read a book on one of these? Are mainstream fiction books going to work on this? How about tech books (when I consider books with a short but active shelf life, they top my list)?