Marc Steuben is hooked on electronic books. "I love the e-reading experience," says the 37-year-old programmer from Boulder, Colorado. "I like the search functionality, I like that I can resize text to make it bigger and I like the fact that it's backlit, so I can read at night without the lights on." He feels no different about his e-book, he says, than another reader might feel about a well-worn copy of "The Catcher in the Rye." "People say there's something sensual about books that they love. But you can get that same connection and experience from an e-book."
E-books? Most of us haven't given them a second thought since Stephen King's digitally published "Riding the Bullet" was supposed to relegate paperbacks to the status of stone tablets. That was back in March 2000. After 400,000 fans ordered the novella in a single day, publishers like Time Warner and Random House raced to set up e-divisions of their own. But King's book never translated to the rest of the industry.
Nevertheless, there are signs that e-books are slowly springing to life. Simon & Schuster has seen double-digit growth in its online division since last year, as has PerfectBound, the e-publishing division of Harper-Collins. Fictionwise.com, a popular online retailer of e-books, expects to see its first profitable quarter either this summer or next fall.
As they grow, publishers are continually experimenting with and enhancing the e-reading experience. Which means that, if you haven't read an e-book yet, it's not a bad time to try. HarperCollins has added special features to all its digital offerings. The electronic version of Marcus Borg's "Reading the Bible for the First Time" comes with lengthy excerpts from the Bible--something that in print format would have taken hundreds of pages to reproduce. Other companies, like Fictionwise.com, have started snapping up rights to out-of-print books. A popular site with parents is Nightkitchen.com, which offers free and low-cost children's e-books that come with colorful animation and streaming video.
The main problem with e-books has been that readers must choose between small PDA screens, cumbersome laptops and pricey dedicated readers like the REB 1200. Later this year, though, companies like Compaq and Toshiba will start rolling out Tablet PCs, clipboard-size computers with wireless technology. A little farther in the future is a concept called electronic paper, which has a resolution twice as sharp as that of an LCD screen, uses less power and can be viewed in direct sunlight. And it is flexible, providing some of the tactile experience you get from that old copy of J. D. Salinger's classic.