E-readers: the iPods of the printed word?

Will the e-reader become to books what the iPod is to CDs? The bookshop Borders has rolled out its new ebook service in the UK and Amazon has released a supersize version of its Kindle DX e-reader, just three months after the original release. The new larger Kindle has a 9.7 inch screen and can store up to 3,500 books.

Borders, which has more than 1,000 stores around the world, said it had been waiting until enough digital content was available to launch its ebook service in the UK. (The service has already been established in America.) Meanwhile, the British Library is coming close to the end of a two year project to digitise more than 100,000 books from the 19th Century.

Films, TV and music can all be downloaded online and watched on portable devices, so it’s logical that books should follow. The difference, however, is that people enjoy browsing in bookshops. The iPod may have killed the CD, but it seems unlikely the printed book will suffer the same fate at the hands of the e-reader. Julie Howkins from Borders told BBC News today that “Publishers are beginning to take notice [of ebooks] but I don’t think we have reached the music iPod moment for books at all. You would never get the same experience browsing through the shelves and being able to see books that you didn’t know existed. I can’t see Borders being a huge bank of computers, that’s not the way it’s going to go.”

That said, internet giant Google is about to make its foray into the e-book market with Google Book Search, a project that will dwarf the British Library’s efforts. The firm is currently in negotiations with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers to obtain a court agreement to allow Google to scan books that may still be in copyright.

At the moment, the printed word has a substantial cost advantage over the ebook: not only do e-readers cost several hundred pounds; the ebooks themselves can often be more expensive than their paper equivalents. Nevertheless, when prices come down and ebook content becomes widely available, we may yet witness the decline of the printed word.