To e- or not to e-?
That is the question facing millions of American book-lovers: Will you buy an e-reader to read books electronically? "Never!" cry those devoted to the physical book. "Already!" cry millions who own a Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, iPad, Kobo, or other e-reader.
It's early yet, and the data are churny, but some see an unusual tech trend _ led by mature users, 40 and above. And as in the non-e universe, women buy more books, men newspapers and magazines.
Electronic texts have existed since at least 1971, when Michael Hart began the Gutenberg Project - and you could read them, too, if you could work a multistory, several-ton machine called a computer. For decades, people have been talking about the portable e-reader, and its time may finally be here.
To be sure, as Kelly Gallagher, vice president of publishing services at R.R. Bowker, puts it, "We're still in a 1.0 world with e-books. Fully 50 percent of all downloaded books are still free - but the e-books market is finally starting to be substantial."
Sony debuted its Reader in 2006, and since then has sold 10 million e-books, according to Chris Smythe, director of the Reader Store at Sony. In November 2007 came Kindle by Amazon. About 1.5 million Kindles had sold as of December - and the world took note when Amazon said that on Christmas Day, it sold more e-books than physical books, for the first time.
Maria Hutchinson of Haddonfield, N.J., writes via Facebook that her Barnes & Noble Nook is "easy to use. I get automatic updates that are easy to install. I use it all the time. I find the pricing to be about the same as a book." Faith Paulsen of East Norriton, Pa., writes via Facebook: "I got a Kindle as a gift, liked it so much we bought one for my husband. Lightweight. Easy to use. Great for travel." Mat Kaplan of Long Beach, Calif., e-mails that he bought an Aluratek Libre for US$100: "It came preloaded with 100 public-domain classics, so not a bad deal."
According to the Association of American Publishers, 2009 e-book sales (in a year when plain old book sales ebbed 1.8 percent) increased 176.6 percent over 2008, to US$169.5 million. E-sales rocketed to US$117.8 million through April of this year, at an annual rate double 2009's. Americans now own an estimated 2.8 million e-readers - not counting computers, still the most common kind.
At fewer than 3 percent of all books sold, e-books are still a small corner of the publishing market. But such rapid growth suggests that a new age of reading has begun.
Makers of e-books are stingy with their numbers, and industry watchdogs disagree, but some say a large proportion of early e-book owners - up to 66 percent in some surveys - are older than 40, with a "sweet spot" in the 35-to-54 range.
Smythe of Sony said that "as of now, the whole e-book industry was trending older," and Tony Astarita, vice president of digital products at Barnes & Noble, said that "our initial adoption was skewed to heavy readers and an older demographic." Astarita expects, however, that as e-book prices moderate, "we're going to see a more general audience."
Risa Becker, vice president of research operations for GfK MRI, reports on a survey released in May: "We're not finding the more-mature trend, and only a very slight tendency for men to own e-readers more than women." Yet for certain readers, such as the Kindle, early users are more frequently female. Smythe said, "We're seeing a greater percentage of women than men; a lot of women are taking to this."
Becker said, "Women were 11 percent more likely than men to say they read an e-book, and men were 20 percent more likely to have read a magazine and 19 percent more likely to have read a newspaper."
E-book users, Becker said, tend to earn more than US$100,000 a year, be college-educated, and be very Web and social-media savvy: "These people do everything on the Web. They spend more than 20 hours a week on it."
What are they reading? The e-Top 10 looks pretty much like the non-e. Last week, the top five at Sony Reader Store featured books by James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, and Stieg Larsson. Larsson's "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" trilogy was 1-3 on the Kindle Top 100, and Evanovich and Patterson were in the top 10.
You didn't know libraries offer e-books? "That's what's frustrating," said library consultant Cynthia Orr, from her offices in Cleveland. "It's been around for a while now, and people aren't aware of it." She helped invent the country's first public e-check-out system in 2003. Called Overdrive, it is used at hundreds of libraries across the land, 11,000 worldwide. It checked out a record 1.2 million e-items in June.
"Video and audiobooks are still most popular," Orr said. "But at last, after seven years, e-books are starting to pick up. ... Speaking generally, the users have been older than you might expect. Whatever's hot, whatever's on the best-sellers list, that's what's hot e-wise. Romances circulate like mad."
As a librarian, Orr has met many for whom e-books are nothing less than a godsend. One group is people with disabilities. "One man, who could see a little but was legally blind," she said, "called to say he was so grateful for the service. From his home, he could check out titles himself - and adjust the type size so he could read it."
To e- or not to e-?