E-Books on the Rise Again?

Just a few years ago, people were touting e-books as the future of the publishing industry. Through these portable electronic devices, individuals could read entire books without amassing a large collection of tattered paperbacks. Despite all the hoopla, e-books never really took off. Now, one company is hoping to take the technology to the next level.

Just this past month, Discovery Communications (the company behind the Discovery Channel and TLC) was awarded a US patent for a new e-book invention. Though Discovery has been mum on the details, the patent application describes the device as “a new way to distribute books and other textual information to bookstores, libraries and consumers”. The patent is not just for the book-shaped electronic reader itself, but also for an entire electronic library system. Discovery notes in the patent information: ”Not since the introduction of Gutenberg’s movable typeset printing has the world stood on the brink of such a revolution in the distribution of text material. The definition of the word ‘book’ will change drastically in the near future.”

The news of Discovery’s patent certainly perked the ears of Amazon, the maker of the Kindle, a portable electronic device that enables users to get book, magazine and newspaper content instantly. The device was released this past fall after three years in development, and it features a display that resembles real paper. It also offers a large selection of books, giving users access to about 80 percent of current New York Times bestsellers (which cost $9.99 each to download). A keyboard allows users to make notes, highlight text and bookmark pages. Of course, the downside of the Kindle is its price tag of $399 – not exactly attractive to readers used to buying books for around $10 or borrowing them from the library.

The other major obstacle faced by e-books is the question of whether people really want to let go of books. So far, the question remains unanswered. While e-books haven’t thus far lit the industry on fire, they have seen their sales figures increase exponentially in the past few years. But books still have several benefits e-books haven’t been able to match. For one thing, they’re durable. A paperback can get buried in the sand and simply be brushed off, while a $400 electronic device filled with sand could be catastrophic. Secondly, books remain a reflection of personality. Personal libraries remind people of books they’ve read and may want to return to – just like record or movie collections.

Still, e-books do offer intriguing possibilities all their own. For one thing, they give people the ability to get new books in minutes while lying in bed or riding the bus. Secondly, they save space and paper. For the frequent traveler the e-book is much more convenient than lugging around a dozen paperbacks or stopping at each airport book store to add another couple pounds to a carry-on. With e-books, content is instant, bulk is minimal and travel is easy. Ultimately, the widespread acceptance of e-books comes down to whether the benefits of the new technology will outweigh the old. Certainly, e-books must become more affordable and the content available must become limitless. But perhaps Discovery will be the company to make that happen.