VOA Special English: E-Books Are the Future

The book industry is trying to get a good read on its future.

These days, instead of turning paper pages, many readers reach for handheld devices. These electronic readers not only store books to show on a screen, they can also read them out loud.

In July, Amazon lowered the price of its Kindle reader by sixty dollars to just under three hundred dollars. The device can download books wirelessly from a store on Amazon’s Web site. Most new releases and bestsellers cost nine dollars and ninety-nine cents. Newspapers, magazines and other services are available for a monthly charge.

Buyers of e-books get a good deal. Traditional hardcover books often cost around twenty-five dollars. But what about book publishers and writers? Their concerns about profits are like the ones voiced as the Internet began to change the music industry. Many e-books are already selling for ninety-nine cents. Books printed on paper are easily shared and resold by anyone. But e-books can act more like computer software licensed only to the user who buys them.

And some Kindle users got a shock in July. They were surprised to find that copies of two books disappeared from their devices. These were ninety-nine cent versions of George Orwell’s “1984″ and “Animal Farm.”

Bloggers have had fun pointing out that “1984″ is largely about censorship — the suppression of information in a society led by Big Brother. Amazon explained that it did not have the rights to the books, so it erased them and returned the people’s money.

Also in July, Barnes & Noble, the worlds largest bookseller, launched what it calls the world’s largest e-bookstore. People can read the books on the Apple iPhone and other handheld devices and personal computers. They can also download over half a million books available free from Google. The Internet search company is putting books online that are no longer protected by copyright.

But last October, Google reached a one hundred twenty-five million dollar legal settlement to also make parts of some copyrighted books available. That deal with two groups of writers and publishers has raised competition issues. The Justice Department is now investigating. Also, the European Commission plans hearings in September on how European writers might be affected.

(Adapted from a radio program broadcast 24 July 2009)