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E-Books: The Next Chapter

The plot thickens as readers increasingly turn to electronic books and away from printed versions. The convenience of having hundreds of books at your fingertips is alluring, but the rush to e-books isn’t without its obstacles, as questions arise about compatibility, sharing and pricing.

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The transformation of reading since the first Sumerian scratched legible marks into a clay tablet 6,000 years ago has been a rather leisurely evolution. That’s no longer the case.

Make no mistake: Traditional ink-on-paper printed material still is king. However, in just 7 months between summer 2011 and February 2012, the number of U.S. adults who used an e-book reader increased to 28 percent from 15 percent, according to The Harris Poll. Further, consulting firm Deloitte in a survey that it released in January 2012 found that 36 percent of consumers who were surveyed preferred to download books, magazines and newspapers to an electronic device, such as a computer, tablet computer, e-book reader or smartphone, rather than read a printed version. That’s up from 23 percent in 2007.

Phil Asmundson, who is vice chairman of Deloitte, says the expansion of e-books and the devices that consumers use to access them has the potential to increase the amount of reading overall. “That’s a wonderful feature,” he says.

Within 3 years, most industry observers agree, more than 90 percent of all of the books that are published by mainstream publishers, including backlist titles—older editions that are still in print—will be available in digital editions, too. The exception will be illustrated works, such as cookbooks, which aren’t well-suited for the black-and-white display that’s typical of e-book readers. Experts say you should expect prices to be equal to or lower than the price of current e-books.

Although the expansion of e-books is changing the way that we buy, borrow and pay for books, not all of the changes are for the better. Among the hassles that plague readers as e-books increasingly make up a larger part of the picture are compatibility and sharing. Whether the future of e-books is a story that has a happy ending for consumers is unknown.

OWN DEVICES. Although everybody might love a good story, the device that you buy to read an e-book loves only the stories that are compatible with its design. The two dominant e-book readers, Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, sport incompatible formats. This means that if you buy an e-book for the Kindle, that e-book can’t be loaded and read on the Nook, and vice versa. Similar issues affect alternate platforms—most notably Apple’s iPad tablet.

That incompatibility is bothersome for e-book consumers. “You can’t lend them to all your friends,” Mike Shatzkin, who is a consultant to publishers, complains. “You often can’t even lend them to one friend—or your wife, if she doesn’t share the Kindle account with you.”

Fine Print: Clock Ticking on Traditional Books?

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That’s because of the digital-rights-management (DRM) protections that publishers typically place on their new e-book releases and bestsellers. DRM controls how often, how long or even whether you can loan an e-book. You pay less for an e-book than you do a printed version, Shatzkin says, “but you’re getting less flexibility in your use. And that is a trade-off that people will have to start getting used to.”

If you want to just pass around an e-book that you purchased among your own compatible devices, say, so you can leave your e-book reader at home and catch up on your reading via your smartphone during your commute, the outlook is brighter. Amazon, Barnes & Noble and third-party app creators have apps, many of which are free, that are designed to allow compatible smartphones and tablets to share the e-books that you purchase. These apps typically remember where you stopped reading on one device and open to the same page on another device.

RIGHTS FIGHT. If you can’t find an e-book version of an old favorite title, it likely is because a publisher can’t get the publishing rights. But your rights, or lack thereof, as a reader are quite another issue.

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