The news recently has been full of reports that Amazon's e-book reader, the Kindle, is doing better than expected. Analyst Mark Mahaney from Citibank says Amazon is on track to sell about 380,000 Kindles this year, and says the Kindle "is becoming the iPod of the book world," with sales expected to hit $1 billion by 2010.

For it's part, Amazon remains coy about releasing the actual numbers, so it might be best to take these predictions with a grain of salt — and sales of the Kindle haven't come close to the numbers for the iPod. But Amazon has reported that, of titles carried in both paper and electronic form, the e-books comprise 10% of sales, a percentage that is likely to grow.

Steve Jobs said recently that the whole idea of e-book readers was flawed since "people don't read anymore". But for those of us who do read, the e-book elicits skepticism for different reasons. For us, the look and feel, even the smell, of a physical book is part of the joy of reading. Will anyone actually want to curl up with an electronic device for an evening of literary comfort?

But the success of the Kindle suggests that some people will. And digital books bring some advantages that suggest the trend won't disappear any time soon:

  • Ease of access: We have become accustomed to the fact that we can access millions of songs and albums instantaneously online, with a single click. The same is now increasingly possible with books.
  • Ease of sharing: Everyone loves to share a good book with friends. Digital books can be shared as easily as sending an email — and you don't need to give up your copy in order to do so! (Publishers may try to restrict copying with DRM copy protection, but as we saw with MP3 files, this strategy will fail.)
  • Ease of carrying: A single Kindle device can carry at least 200 books. As the technology improves, you will soon be able to carry a copy of your entire library in your bag (and have a back-up at home), just as you now carry your music collection in your pocket.
  • Price: As more people use digital books and as competition increases, the price of digital books will come down, reflecting the real costs of production — no expensive printing, no shipping across country or storing in warehouses.

Skeptics should remember that it wasn't long ago that many predicted that CDs would never replace vinyl, and later that MP3s would never replace CDs. You can still find great record stores that specialize in vinyl, but the trend towards digital music has been steady and unstoppable. And the music industry has paid a huge price for their failure to embrace the new technology. After first ignoring new technologies, they then proceeded to try to sue innovators, restrict users with DRM copy protection and then punish fans with indiscriminate lawsuits, none of which did a thing to stop online sharing of music. Sales are down, illegal filesharing is up, and no one has found a way to unite the industry around monetizing the sharing of digital music (though EFF has suggested a Better Way Forward).

Will the same thing happen to the publishing industry as books become digital? If the trend continues, with better devices promising longer battery life and better screen resolution, digital books will become a force to be reckoned with. Are we doomed to watch the publishing industry run through the same gamut of bad decisions that have plagued the recording industry for the last few years?

Here are some questions the book industry should be asking itself.

  • Will e-book readers be open to content from any source?
    So far, it looks like Amazon's Kindle is limited in the type of file it can read. PDF files, for example, have to be converted before the Kindle can read them (whereas Sony's reader can handle any type of file). Worse, books downloaded from Amazon appear in a proprietary .azw file format, which can't be read on other devices. (The Kindle also bizarrely charges users $1 for each blog or RSS feed they subscribe to.) And if you're trying to read digitally from Canada, you're out of luck. Users should be able to seamlessly move content from their e-book reader to their computer to their cell phone. The winner of the format wars to come will be the one that can provides the greatest interoperability.
  • Will digital books carry DRM?
    After insisting on dysfunctional copy protection for years, the music industry has finally realized that DRM doesn't work. By making legitimately paid content harder to use than content downloaded for free, DRM punishes paying customers by locking up their content. And, since DRM is always circumvented eventually, it does nothing to prevent piracy (the Kindle's DRM has already been cracked). Sellers of digital books and the makers of reading devices can save themselves — and their customers — ongoing headaches by avoiding these attempts to restrict customer rights to their content now.
  • Will the first sale doctrine still apply when books are digital?
    Book readers are accustomed to passing their dog-eared copies of books without thinking about it. In the world of physical books, the first sale doctrine says that a book buyer can transfer the book by loaning, re-selling it, or even renting it out if they like, without infringing on the publisher's rights. What happens when sharing a book with a friend means making an additional, perfect copy? Readers should not be asked to give up their first sale rights, whether their books are digital or made out of paper.
  • Will libraries carry digital books?
    Libraries loan out a limited number of copies of new books for free, and publishers don't complain. But what happens when the number of books on loan is unlimited, and the "loan" makes a perfect copy? Libraries should maintain the right to distribute books, even when books are digital.
  • Will bookstores survive the shift in technology?
    Bookstores have always played an important role as community meeting places and as curators of our literary culture. But even great bookstores, such as Berkeley's Cody's Books, have been closing or are struggling as more people get their content instantly over the web. Bookstores must find a way to interact with digital content and monetize a broader range of goods and services that come attached to "book culture," or they may end up suffering the same fate as the music stores that are rapidly going out of business.
  • Will publishers be open to new business models?
    The music industry tried putting their heads in the sand and hoping digital music would go away, and it didn't work. Now, the major labels are (belatedly) experimenting with a number of delivery options for music, from online radio to subscription services to pay-what-you-like downloads. Book publishers should learn from their friends in the music industry and move aggressively to try out new models.

It might seem understandable if the publishing industry comes to view digital books as a threat, since their business is currently based on the concept of one copy, one sale — a business model that will be obsolete once books go digital. But if we play our cards right, and can convince book sellers and publishers to embrace this new technology, we could end up living in a world where it's actually easier for writers to get paid, and where any book can be accessed instantly from any place on the planet — universal access to knowledge. Hasn't that been the aim of literate people since the invention of the printing press?