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 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 trying one before 2011.
E-reader price wars
When Amazon.com introduced its Kindle in November 2007, 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 an 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 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. The 7-inch device, whose cost has not been announced, looks a lot like Apple's multipurpose iPad, which is currently priced starting 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.
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. Enthusiasts have begun adopting the devices, but now they're positioned for much more casual readers.
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 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.
You can now get John Updike's "Rabbit, Run," Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," and other modern classics for the Kindle. And many 20th century classics that haven't yet been made available as e-books are surfacing, some through new relationships like Odyssey Editions. Major works by William Styron, 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 other classics can be purchased only for one device.
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.
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. How Google proposed to monetize this presentation — and how it planned to compensate rights-holders — became the focus of a class-action lawsuit brought by authors and publishers. The most recent hearing postponed a clear resolution indefinitely.
Nevertheless, Google announced it would move forward with its e-bookstore Google Editions, filled with books whose rights were not under dispute. But we still haven't seen it.
As if Google Editions weren't enough, Google has another big question mark looming: Will it launch an e-reader? It is well-positioned to rival Amazon.com and Apple as a purveyor of e-books — and if it follows their leads, it will pair content with its own tablet.