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Make way for the eBook?

By David Kemper

The year is 2005. You’re at home, sitting in a comfortable chair, and in your lap is your favourite book. Nothing too unusual. Except for the book: it does not have the same look and feel of a typical paperback. It has no fancy cover, no spine, no paper smell-heck, no paper! So what kind of book do you have?

The book in your lap is actually a battery-operated gadget that is a little bigger than a schoolbook agenda. It has a display screen and several buttons that read “Turn page” and “Insert Bookmark,” as well as an Internet connection port on its side for downloading novels from online bookstores. This is an electronic book, the new way of reading a book.

Let’s see now…no fancy cover, no book smell, and no paper to turn. Actually, is this really the way you want to read your favourite books in the future?

eBooks enter the Spotlight

Today, the technology to download books and read them through special software or hardware is available and evolving. Online booksellers, such as Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble, are already selling ebooks to consumers. Still, ebooks, discussed by new media publishers as the next wave in publishing occurring in this decade, have yet to capture the public’s imagination. However, all that changed on March 14th, 2000, the day when best-selling novelist Stephen King published a new 66-page short story, Riding the Bullet, solely as an ebook.

King, an author whose name is synonymous with scary supernatural thrillers, wrote Riding the Bullet after his literary agent suggested the idea of doing an ebook instead of a traditional book. Curious about the concept, and pricked with a story idea, King went ahead, writing the story after his near-fatal accident in June 1999. And on March 14, 2000, the story (about a young man hitchhiking across rural Maine to visit his sick mother and the bizarre encounters he makes along the way) was electronically published and sold at $2.50 US. But online bookseller Amazon.com spiced up the deal by offering the ebook for free.

But, alas, every freebie has some strings attached.

Adventures in Downloading

Downloading an ebook from the Web (let alone downloading a free ebook from a very popular author) is, as they say, no walk in the park. According to early news reports, approximately 500,000 thousand people attempted to download the ebook on March 14. The huge demand sent booksellers’ servers crashing as they gasped to process all the orders. For the sake of journalistic integrity, I too joined the half of million in this frantic electronic orgy. Here are some of the high and low points my downloading adventure.


Still Later…

The Aftermath

The big question after one has downloaded an ebook is simply “So how does it feel to read an ebook?” An ebook is to be read via an electronic display, much like the way you are currently reading this Web page, and the PC ebook version of Riding the Bullet that I tested had pages that looked as if they had been scanned directly from a book and neatly packaged for electronic distribution. In other words, the writing is clear and crisp and can be zoomed in an out for further readability. But somehow the digital reader cannot replicate the tactile feel, let alone the smell of page and ink, of a traditional paperback. You can certainly read an ebook, but, personally, I would much rather have the actual book in my hands. It seems so much more natural. The best thing is to give one a try.

Librarians and ebooks

What do ebooks and librarians have in common? I’m still not sure. But what I am sure of is that when ebooks increase in usage (and judging from the massive response to King’s short story, an increase is quite favourable), librarians will have to address patron’s growing interest in testing, reading, and, possibly, borrowing ebooks. And we cannot forget copyright concerns, distribution rules, encryption technology, and many other complex issues. The Internet is here, the Web is here, and the ebook has arrived. Will ebooks explode like the others? It all depends on whether people are willing to part with their dog-eared paperback novels.

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