Richard Brooks, Arts Editor , The Times.
The publishers have made the move to ebooks to follow the launch of two rival devices due to come on sale in Britain over the next few months – Sony’s Reader and Amazon’s Kindle.
They allow hundreds of novels to be downloaded from publishers’ or retailers’ websites into a lightweight, pocket-sized device costing about £200. Pages are turned by touch rather than by fiddling with buttons, and words consist of black chemical “e-ink” showing through a white surface rather than light glaring from an ordinary computer screen.
“We hope that there will be inter-operability,” said Duggan, “in other words, that the ebook will work on any device.”
Publishers are being cautious about how far ebooks will displace the paper version, partly because of the many false dawns for computerised books. Numerous titles were published on CD-Rom in the 1990s, but the market declined as the technology was superseded by the internet.
Seven years ago the horror writer Stephen King self-published his book The Plant online. He offered it chapter by chapter, but abandoned the project after the sixth instalment.
Some other books have been published online, but they have remained a minority, mainly because the technology has been inconvenient, requiring the viewer to scroll down a computer screen to read a page. But publishers believe the public may at last be willing to accept computerised books following the success of the technology in America.
In America, the Sony Reader (pictured) and Amazon Kindle have been on sale since last autumn and about 90,000 titles are now available on them. Customers can order through Amazon, which then downloads the books from its website to the Kindle. It takes less than a minute to receive an average-length book.
In the longer term, publishers plan to bring out not only most of their new titles but also their back lists in downloadable form. This should effectively end the problem of books going out of print.