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Ereaders are still growing up

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 20, 2010 - St. Louisan Sean Collins needed a book for research he was doing. Ordinarily, that would mean a trip to the library but as Collins can attest we live in times which are anything but ordinary.

"I looked for Travels with Charley," he said. "John Steinbeck was sitting in my hand four minutes later. I mean, that's kind of incredible."

Indeed, and more than that, it's a kind of incredible that's becoming more and more common. Welcome to the dawning age of the ebook. In one sense this rampart of the electronic frontier is well-traveled territory. The roots of the technology go back to the early 1970s when an effort called Project Gutenberg began digitally archiving printed works. But the real revolution has only been in the past few years with the advent of dedicated ereaders and software on computers or portable electronic devices that allow consumers to download and view electronic versions of tomes that once required a sojourn to the bookstore.

Collins uses his iPad to download works from both iTunes and Left Bank Books, where he's done his literary shopping for three decades. The 50-year-old finds the convenience to be a benefit while traveling as it doesn't force him to struggle over which reading materials to pack.

"I love having 50 books to choose from when I'm on the road," he said. "Sometimes I feel like I want to read poetry. Sometimes I want crime fiction. Sometimes I want a classic. Having that flexibility is really great."

Multiple Platforms

But the iPad is only the beginning. Multiple platforms and devices exist for the electronic bibliophile. The Kindle is one option. Featuring over 750,000 titles for sale and another 1.8 million out-of-copyright classics for free, the popular ereader, powered by online bookselling giant Amazon, is a common choice for many. Dave Cohen, 55, said he loves his Kindle, which he purchased after hearing positive reviews from friends. His model has built-in WiFi and he used it not long ago to read humorous books to his wife to lift her spirits while she was in the hospital.

"I've had it for a couple of months now and I've downloaded both free and paid books," said the Maryland Heights resident. "I find it very easy to use. The ergonomics are very good. The screen contrast is fabulous."

File formats and compatibility issues can still present a challenge for some, though. An array of proprietary formats exists making it important for customers to ask upfront about which types are supported when they purchase a given reader. Amazon's Kindle, for instance, isn't compatible with the frequently used EPUB format. In most cases, this makes it difficult or impossible to read downloaded ebooks from library systems, which generally rely heavily on EPUB. That was the main concern for Charlack resident Steve Ding who purchased the Nook Color ereader instead.

"It seems like we are all trending toward using more and more EPUB books," said the 39-year-old who noted that the St. Louis County Library's ebook selection has expanded greatly over the years. "If you buy a book from Barnes & Noble's ebookstore, you can read it on another device. I can read it on my cell phone as long as it can find an EPUB reader and they are out there."

Ding is a veteran of the ereader marketplace. In addition to his Nook, he still owns a first-generation Sony that was one of the original ereaders offered in the United States. He said that the consumer base is still expanding when it comes to the nascent industry so the dynamics remain fluid.

"The market is not saturated yet. We go through pretty much the same process with everything like cell phones, TVs or game consoles," he said. "I think the whole industry is still in flux and it's not going to be settled anytime soon."

Featured at Barnes and Noble bookstores, the new Nook is backed by more than 2 million titles.

"You just go to Barnes & Noble.com to register the product and it just requires an email, a password, a credit card and a shipping address," said John Meyer, an employee at the Clayton Barnes & Noble. The application, he said, could also be downloaded free to an iPad, PC, Mac or other device.

Ding said that he liked the versatility of the Nook and the "Lend Me" feature, which allows him to share ebooks with others. Still, he felt the technology hasn't changed that much from his original Sony to today's more advanced options.

"The page turning is much, much faster, but if you look at the E Ink page, they look pretty close," he said. "It may be a little bit sharper on the Kindle, not as polished on the old Sony but it's within 10 percent."

Unlike Barnes & Noble, which sells only the Nook, Borders stores carry a variety of different readers from Sony to Aluratek to Velocity to Kobo. They support various formats but like the Nook, they all include EPUB. Sony and Borders each have their own ebookstores as well.

"There's a few different things people look at, whether or not they have WiFi capability, whether or not they're touchscreen," said Tom Schaffner, a sales manager at the Creve Coeur store. "Also you have the difference between the ones that have the E Ink technology which would emulate a printed page so there's no backlight as on a computer screen, as opposed to the Velocity readers or an iPad where it's more like reading a computer screen."

That difference is key. The Kobo and Sony products at Borders use E Ink just like the Kindle. Many find this option more natural and easier on the eyes than a backlit computer screen. Further, it can be read without glare in sunlight. However, at present these don't offer color like the Velocity. E Ink also can't be read in the dark. Barnes & Noble's Nook comes in two versions, E Ink and color.

Media reports from early last month have indicated a Chinese company has developed a color E Ink reader but it's not on shelves here yet.

Google and Independent Bookstores

The latest entry into the ebook market is a significant one. Internet heavyweight Google has launched its own ebookstore, one boasting hundreds of thousands of titles for sale and nearly 3 million more for free.

Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books, said the Google initiative has presented an opportunity for independent booksellers like hers. Via a partnership through the American Booksellers' Association, Left Bank is able to offer Google eBooks for purchase on its website.

She likes the freedom Google's "device-agnostic" format provides. It's compatible with all of the devices mentioned in this story, except for Amazon's proprietary Kindle.

"The other thing I really like about it is that today you hear everyone talking about the cloud," she said. "The cloud is sort of that virtual place where your Google library is stored so whenever you purchase an ebook and log in, it knows you and that you've got this library out there. You don't necessarily have to load every single thing onto your device."

Kleindienst said that while the profit for her store is not particularly impressive, the Google effort does allow her to serve her customers in a way that might keep them from heading to a large chain outlet.

Left Bank does not sell ereaders. Before Google eBooks, the local bookstore did sell ebooks, but Kleindienst said the selection was much more piecemeal.

"What we are really hoping to do is make the service available to our customers because while some are die-hard print media fans and not interested in electronic devices, there are many who are," she said. "What we are seeing, on top of a difficult economy, is this migration away from the store of people who are otherwise very supportive simply because we didn't have this to offer them."

But as Kleindienst indicates, print isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Despite the E Ink, the ease of use and the exciting lure of technology, even some early adopters admit they just don't feel completely comfortable reading it.

"I think it's a convenience and I think it's inevitable," Collins said, "but the fact of the matter is that there's something about holding a book in your hand. I think we're going to have a parallel reading life for probably the rest of my reading career."

Ding and his wife own about a thousand books between them -- the traditional kind. He likes his new ereader and said his wife has indicated she can read faster on it than on paper.

Still, he echoes Collins on this point.

"You can carry thousands of books on a small device but you don't flip the pages and touch the paper," Ding said."It just feels different."

David Baugher is a freelance writer. 

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.

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