eBook readers are “one trick ponies”

Publishers hoping to halt a slide in sales with new electronic reading devices will struggle to get consumers to embrace them until the technology improves, according to experts.

eBook readers are

The gadgets – such as the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s new $259 nook – have created an enormous buzz in the publishing world and marketers hope they will become popular Christmas gifts.

Yet, in some respects the new devices still compare unfavourably to the tactile experience of the printed page and lack multiple functions of more advanced technology such as smartphones, industry experts say.

Joe Wikert of O’Reilly Media, a publishing company and media consultant firm, said eReaders are mostly “one-trick ponies,” an extra device with only one function, in contrast to multifaceted products such as Apple’s iPhone.

eBook reader round-up

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So far, eReaders mostly provide “static reproductions of the print version,” minus the advantages of hard-copy books that readers have grown accustomed to over the years, such as easily being able to pass a book on to a friend, Wikert claims. The nook, however, lets users share books.

Still, 2009 sales of e-readers are expected to reach 3 million units, according to Forrester Research.

Newer devices can store thousands of easily downloadable books at a time and allow access to certain websites, newspapers and magazines.

Missing features

But while most experts praise eInk, a display technology that strives to mimic printed text, the capacity for colour, embedded links, search options and video is still lacking.

These devices are “technologically not advanced enough for most content,” says Paul DeHart, president of BlueToad, a digital publishing company, and do not yet make it worth the effort of lugging around another gadget.

Bob Stein, formerly of the Institute for the Future of the Book, says the technology is still too foreign for most consumers. Until consumers have the control of simple “new tools that enable the creation of multi-modal content,” digital publishing will face obstacles.

Publishers also need to increase the number and variety of eBooks on offer, says Ross Rubin at the NPD group. “Content needs to expand beyond bestsellers,” he says. “Textbooks are a very good direction.”

Amazon says there are more than 350,000 books available for its Kindles, while Barnes and Noble says it has more than a million books.

But for some, this is the right time for e-publishing to reinvigorate the industry, while also addressing shortcomings of the new products.

One venture, Open Road Integrated Media, is already seeking to publish electronic versions of backlist books – augmented with video – as well as new titles on demand.

Meanwhile, news website the Daily Beast, which had 3.9 million unique visitors in September, has launched Beast Books to produce books on current subjects in a shorter time, with the e-version coming out first.

“You can crash out an eBook as soon as you’ve got the final text,” says Caroline Marks of The Daily Beast. “I don’t see the point of waiting for the print book.”

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