Not that long ago, e-books were an oddity: Devices were expensive, and those who invested in them struggled to find something good to read. But the age of preferring paperbacks is starting to look like the late era of CDs — e-books are ascendant. This summer, Amazon.com announced that shoppers on its site purchased more e-books for the Kindle than hardcovers in its spring quarter. If you're not already carrying around an e-reader, you might find yourself giving one a try before the year is out.
E-reader price wars
When Amazon.com introduced its Kindle in November 2007, enthusiastic consumers snapped it up despite the $399 price tag. In the years since, the cost dropped gradually — until recent months, when, in a flurry, Kindle prices were slashed and slashed again. Now you can buy a new entry-level Kindle for $139.
The reason, of course, is competition. Barnes & Noble's e-reader, the Nook, combines a black-on-gray e-Ink screen like the Kindle's with a full-color navigation touch screen. This past spring, Borders became the latest entrant into the market with its e-reader, the Kobo, which has a black-in-gray e-Ink screen.The Kobo was priced low — at $149 — prompting price drops from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. Now the Nook costs $149, and the Kobo has fallen to $129.
Kobo software will power the e-reader component of Samsung's forthcoming Galaxy tablet, which will debut in Europe before it appears here. The 7-inch device, whose cost has not been announced, looks a lot like Apple's multipurpose iPad, which is currently priced, at its lowest, at $499.
Electronics giant Sony was early out of the gate with its e-reader and in early September introduced its latest line without joining the price wars. The smallest Sony Reader, which has no wireless connectivity, retails for $179 — for now anyway.
As fall quickly segues into the holiday season, e-readers are entering a new phase: Prices are dropping from luxury level to something you might spend on a nice pair of boots. Devoted enthusiasts have begun adopting the devices, but now they're positioned to be available to much more casual readers. Once only a wry joke, $99 can now buy an e-reader — the 5-inch Libre at Borders. Others may not be far behind.
E-reading the classics
This fall, for the first time, you'll be able to cuddle up with "Lolita" on your Kindle. It's just one of two dozen classics not previously available as an e-book that for a time this summer looked to stay that way.
The books were at the center of a tussle this summer between Andrew Wylie, a powerful literary agent, and Random House, the books' print publisher. Wylie launched a partnership with Amazon.com — Odyssey Editions — that left Random House out of the picture, which didn't go over well with the publisher. Threats and negotiations ensued, but the parties agreed that the e-books would come out — published by Random House.
The good news: You can now get John Updike's "Rabbit, Run," Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," "The Stories of John Cheever" and other modern classics for the Kindle.
Many 20th century classics that haven't been made available as e-books are surfacing, some through unusual new relationships like Odyssey Editions. Major works by William Styron ("Sophie's Choice"), Iris Murdoch and Pat Conroy are available through Open Road Integrated Media, an e-book-focused venture launched by publishing veterans.
Open Road's books are available for Kindle, iPad, Nook and the Sony Reader. But some classics can be purchased only for one device — which means that new e-reader owners may be surprised that they can't buy electronic versions of books readily available in hardcover, on a library or bookstore shelf.
Although this fall there will be more classics than ever available as e-books, most Random House titles can be found only on the Kindle. So if you're looking for "Lolita" on the iPad, you'll wind up watching the movie instead.
The big question: Google
In the world of e-books this fall, Google is the elephant in two rooms.
First, there is the long-delayed resolution of the Google Books Settlement. After the details are worked out, Google stands to present what may be the most easily accessible, most vast e-book store we've seen.
That's because several years ago, Google scanned the holdings of major university libraries to present an online repository of something aspiring ambitiously toward the West's entire body of knowledge. As the scanning concluded and launch neared, exactly how Google proposed to monetize this presentation — and how it planned to compensate holders of the rights — became the focus of a class-action lawsuit brought by authors and publishers. The most recent hearing, in February, which was expected to deliver a final decision, postponed a clear resolution indefinitely.
Nevertheless, Google announced it would move forward with its e-bookstore Google Editions, filling it with books whose rights were not under dispute. In May, Chris Palma, Google's manager for strategic-partner development, announced that Google Editions would be launched in June or July — but we haven't seen it. Which means it's almost here. Probably.
As if Google Editions weren't enough, Google has another big question mark looming this season: Will it launch an e-reader? It is well positioned to rival Amazon.com and Apple as a major purveyor of e-books — and if it follows their leads, it will pair content with device and launch its own e-reader.
The most recent rumors say that Google will launch a tablet manufactured either by HTC or Motorola, based on either Chrome or Android. Everyone seems to agree that Verizon is the likely wireless partner. But rumors are just rumors: When it comes to Google's possible e-reader device and the Google Editions e-book store, only time will tell. All that's left to do is wait.