Technology & Science

Latest e-books win over paperback die-hards

The latest generation of e-books is making converts of die-hard paperback readers, including CBC's Fred Langan

The latest generation of e-books is making converts of die-hard paperback readers, including CBC's Fred Langan

Fred Langan, host of CBC News: Business

Toronto literary agent Beverly Slopen travelled to the London book fair in April with 26 manuscripts, but her luggage wasn't weighed down with pounds of prose. It all went into her purse, stored on her electronic book, known as an e-book.

Slopen now prefers that her stable of Canadian writers submit all their manuscripts in digital form, saving her the trouble and cost of printing them out. She then transfers the various computer files to her e-book.

"I can carry it all on my Sony Reader and there's a lot of room left over," says Slopen.

It makes it easy to take her work with her, and she can read any of the manuscripts anywhere, anytime — whether she's in the office, on a plane or in a hotel room. "It means I can read them in bed and not have the place covered with paper."

Electronic books have been around for more than a decade, but it is only in the past couple of years they have started to catch on. There are two things driving the e-book phenomenon: Portable technology that makes the words easier to read, and the availability of more books online.

"Electronic books have been driven by the publishers. They want to get rid of the mountains of paper manuscripts," Slopen says. "I first saw an e-book in a publisher's office in New York and I've never wanted something so much in my life."


Over the past couple of weeks I tried a Sony PRS505, the same kind of e-book reader hardware Slopen uses. Like many people, I thought the experience of a real book couldn't be replaced. I had seen e-books several years ago and was not impressed.

Literary agent Beverly Slopen behind a stack of some of the manuscripts that are stored on the Sony Reader e-book in her hand. ((Courtesy Peter Rehak))
The e-book came loaded with a few earnest 19th-century novels, such as Wuthering Heights. I decided to try downloading a book from Sony's site, and picked The Reader ($11.95). I had seen the movie and thought it would be interesting to see how true it was to the book.

Figuring out how to work the e-book was easy; I started reading it at an airport and then continued on a plane. Soon I forgot it was an e-book and was into the story. Maybe it's infatuation, but for reading in places like an airport or a plane, the e-book seems easier than the real thing.

Patrick Loubert is also a big fan of the e-book for the same reason. "It's perfect for reading in the doctor's waiting room or on a plane."

He uses a different model, Amazon's Kindle, which despite its popularity in the U.S., cannot be purchased in Canada. Loubert, a film producer and entrepreneur, reads three to four books a week — everything from fiction to biographies and history. When he goes on long holidays in the winter he reads up to six books a week.

"I used to pack a box of books and ship them ahead of time. Now I can bring everything on the Kindle," Loubert says.

He adds that now he can also get additional reading material easily if he's on a trip and decides he wants something new. When he was in the Caribbean, for example, he was able to order books online and have them delivered directly to his Kindle.

"E-books would be great for students. They could load up an entire year's course instead of lugging around all that paper," suggests Loubert.

Comfort level

Still, not everyone is embracing e-books, despite their convenience. Jackie Arntfield is a waitress who plans to return to graduate school in the fall. She looked briefly at both the Kindle and the Sony Reader and didn't feel comfortable with them.

Amazon's Kindle 2. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

"I don't like the idea," said Arntfield, who is studying philosophy. "Physically every book is different and distinct. An e-book isn't. It takes away from the meaning of the book."

Some also say a screen can't replace the printed page from the point of view of sheer readability, especially when reading in direct sunlight. The day I tried the Kindle it was outdoors and there was bright sunshine. The page was just as clear as the Sony Reader was in a plane. Both e-book readers have screens with no glare.

Still, there are big differences between the Kindle and Reader.

The Kindle has a wireless connection and a keyboard so you can order a book from anywhere. It's a convenience, but it also makes it feel a bit more like holding a computer than a book.

With the Sony Reader there's no keyboard — you have to order books on your computer and then transfer them to the Reader via a USB cable.

The two readers also have a different approach to content, and they're battling it out in the U.S. for market share. The Kindle is owned by, and the company sells electronic book files for the reader. Amazon is encouraging publishers to come out with more electronic editions, though publishers don't need much encouragement, according to Slopen. It's easier for them to make and sell e-book files than to print and ship hard copies of books.

With the Sony Reader you have to order from Sony's bookshop to your computer and then transfer via a USB cable. However, the Sony Reader has a more 'open architecture' that reads various types of files, so you can import Word, RTF, PDF and other types of documents.

Along with books, you can download newspapers and magazines on both machines. Each has the capacity to hold hundreds of books.

Both models weigh just a shade over 10 ounces and are about the same size as a trade paperback, though a lot thinner. Battery life ranges from a week to a month per charge, depending on how much you read and what features are used (wireless, memory card ports, and so on). Amazon doesn't get specific when it comes to the Kindle's battery life, but Sony estimates that its Reader battery will deliver 7,500 page views.  (Both the Kindle and the Sony Reader have recently introduced new models with updated features, such as extended storage and battery life. A number of reports  have said this week that Amazon will soon launch a new Kindle featuring a large screen for reading magazines and newspapers.)

The main difference for Canadians is that you can't buy the Kindle in Canada yet. And even if you own one, you can't buy books for it online with a Canadian credit card. Mr. Loubert's wife bought his in the United States and he uses a friend's U.S. credit card to buy books.

As for me, I've been seduced by the latest e-book readers. They're an easy way to read books, and an even easier way to buy them. The ideas are still there as you flip the pages, if not the feel of the book. I think the prices for the readers are still too steep, but when they come down I'll get one (or maybe suggest it as a birthday present).

Fred Langan is host of CBC News: Business.

Sony, Amazon e-books at a glance

 Model Specifications Availability Suggested Retail Price
 Sony Reader PRS505RHolds about 160 books; expandable storage through memory cards; battery rated for about 7,500 page views; 4.9-by-3.6-inch screen showing eight levels of grey; weighs 9 ounces and measures 6.9 inches by 4.8 inches by 0.3 inches thick. Books and reader available in Canada $349.99 (Cdn.)
 Sony Reader PRS700

Holds about 320 books; expandable storage through memory cards; battery rated for about 7,500 pages views; 4.9-by-3.6-inch screen showing 8 levels of grey; weighs 10 ounces and measures 7 inches by 5 inches by 0.4 inches deep.

 Books and reader available in Canada $449.99 (Cdn.)
 Amazon KindleHolds about 200 books; expandable storage through memory cards; built-in keyboard; battery life not specified; 4.9-by-3.6-inch screen showing four shades of grey; weighs 10.3 ounces and measures 7.5 inches by 5.3 inches by 0.7 inch deep. Books and reader available from U.S.Selling used for around $250 (Cdn.)
 Amazon Kindle 2Holds about 1,500 books; no memory card expansion slot; 4.9-by-3.6-inch screen showing 16 shades of grey; battery life not specified, but Amazon says it can be used 25 per cent longer than the original Kindle; built-in keyboard; weighs 10.2 ounces and measures 8 inches by 5.3 inches by 0.4 inches deep. Books and reader available from U.S. $359 (US)
 Amazon Kindle 2 (widescreen)Few details available at the time this list was published; some sources reporting it will have a very large screen, similar to the viewing area of a magazine or small newspaper. It may be rolled out in partnership with newspaper publishers. Expected be announced in U.S. in early May. Not yet announced