On the Lois M Bujold mailing list the talk has turned, somehow, to ebooks and ebook reading devices. I wrote a couple of replies there that probably deserve amalagamating into a single article.
Firstly on the issue of cost, convenence and where we are in the adoption cycle. This in part is inspired by this post at ars.technica.
We are still in the "early adopter" phase of ebooks. However we may well be crossing the chasm* - assuming the price of readers drops. I note that the NY Times, in article about google and amazon apparently going after the cellphone ebook market, made the following interesting statement:
Several book reading programs are already available for the iPhone and other mobile devices, including Stanza from Lexcycle and the eReader from Fictionwise. They are quickly growing in popularity.
But just as camera phones have not replaced digital cameras, smartphones are not likely to replace dedicated e-book readers like the Kindle or the Reader from Sony, analysts said. These specialized devices have screens about the size of a paperback book and use a technology that does not require backlighting, which makes them easier to read in most light conditions. They also have longer battery life.
I think ebooks on kindles etc. have reached the basic acceptance level that means that sales are going to go up. People know what they are, people know how they work (more or less) and keen readers can see the advantages, Ebooks still have teething issues. There's the format mess. there's the DRM pile of manure and there's the price of a reader. All these are being solved which is why I reckon we're crossing the chasm and not falling into it.
Programs like calibre (free) are solving the format issue because they make it easy to convert from one format to another and to manage the ebook library even as we get to a huge number of volumes (currently I'm at somewhere between 500 and 1000 in a mix of formats and I need to organize).
The DRM issue is gradually going away because there are now multiple examples (not just Baen) of publishers successfully selling non-DRMed ebooks and not seeing masses (more) of piracy.
The cost issue ditto. Reading an ebook on a smartphone or a netbook means that you can ignore the reader cost. It doesn't work for everyone and the battery life of an LCD screen means that you do tend to be tied to electrical outlets. Low power dedicated readers like the Kindle, Sony and Cybook are basically three times the price they need to be to get mass market traction but I anticipate prices will drop because the only expensive element is the screen. Everything else is about $10-$20 of bog standard components so once prices of screens fall (and they will because there are competing lower power technologies) the ebook reader prices will also fall. Of course in order for it to make sense for people to buy ebooks the book price also has to fall. Morons like Harper Collins who charge hard cover prices simply lose my business.
A note about payback, using myself as an example. I buy - primarily - books from Webscriptions. I just checked and I bought about 120 books last year (depending on how you count duplicates and eARCs) for a total of $381 which works out at less than $3.20 per book**. If I bought all those in paperback for the standard $6.99 - and some would be HC only or more expensive trade paperback - I'd be paying $838.80 for the privilege. The nominal $458 I saved easily paid for my Cybook. I mentioned eARCs above; I was able to read a bunch of books in eARC form (six at $15 each in 2008) before they became available anywhere else. Excluding the eARCs my expenditure fell to under $300 for 120 books, an average of $2.50 each.
[Wandering off topic slightly. All the eARCs save David Weber's Storm from the Shadows are now published. At the Pirate Bay a search for David Weber (who has we not most of his work available for free) in the ebook section displays a miserable dozen or so hits, none of which are for the eARC. Said eARC has NO DRM so it would be trivial for someone to seed a torrent of it but no one has. I'm positive that the eARC has sold in the hundreds if not thousands]
I actually bought about 20 paper books last year and I have sufficient book shelf issues that fitting them in was a trick. I have no idea where I'd actually PUT these 120 ebooks if I'd bought them in paper!
Moving on to comparisons with the traiditonal book. I note that a lot of people (mostly of the snootier sort) mumble about the dead three experience - the smell of paper, the cool typographical layout yadda yadda - but I think this is the same as the folks 100 years ago complaining about horse experience compared to those nasty smelly automobile things. There are some books (art books for example) that won't work well in a non paper version but the average piece of fiction is just fine. I have all of Lois M Bujold's Sharing Knife books, apart from Horizon, in e and hardcover formats and I agree that HC did a lovely job with the physical layout of them. The covers. The flowers and other thingies on the chapter start pages. The typeface. etc. But I actually read the e-versions more. Even though, since I had to hand deDRM them and convert them to my prefered ebook format, the layout is less than ideal.
When it comes to Lois' Baen books.. I only have Falling Free and Spirit Ring as a paperbacks because they weren't available in electronic form for ages (Spirit Ring still isn't IIRC). I don't think a $6.99 pbk edition has any benefit compared to the nice Baen ebook versions other than that I can in emergency use it for toilet paper or fire lighter (oh and I can resell it). A cheaply bound massmarket paperback is the sort of thing that falls to pieces after a few years of reading and rouses very few emotions about smell, layout etc.
Indeed when it comes to rereading it is worth noting that I have Lois' Chalion books in paperback for the first 2 and hc for the last one and I flat out don't read them as often as I read my other LMB books. I'm guessing that in part this is because they aren't available on my reader for those times when i've just finished a book and decide I want to read something else.
To go back to the paperback vs ebook. The e-ink screen on a Cybook/Kindle/Sony give you (at the font size I prefer to read at) 23 lines per page vs 35 for a mass market paperback (i.e. 2/3rds) with each line approx 90% of the mass market paperback length. So yes you don't get as many words per page. But we're not talking massively fewer.
The ebook screen itself is about 3 quarters the size as the print area of a mass market paperback while the entire device is slightly larger (but MUCH thinner) than a mass market paperback. It is basically book sized and gives you slightly fewer words per page.
The screen is dimmer (less contrast) than a paper one but not by much. In reasonable light I find it just as easy as paper and it there is none of the flicker of an LCD screen. Indeed as the illustration above shows the ebook has the distinct advantage of not needing to be held open.
*Crossing the chasm is techno marketing speak for when a product goes from being rare to being common. The chasm is what catches all those products that never make it to mainstream. It originates in a book by Geoff Moore of that name.
**I had no idea how many I'd bought until I did the sums here - I'm shocked!!