Phones, PCs put eBooks within easy reach

Eight percent of adults bought an eBook in 2008, according to national surveys.
Eight percent of adults bought an eBook in 2008, according to national surveys.

Thanks largely to Inc.’s Kindle, eBook sales are finally zooming after more than a decade in the doldrums–and students at five campuses this fall will pilot Amazon’s textbook-friendly Kindle DX to read electronic versions of their textbooks. But students without Kindles also have an increasing number of options for reading electronic books–and campus officials say the proliferation of eBooks will accelerate even further as the use of color and embedded video become paramount for eBook makers.

eBook sales reported to the Association of American Publishers have been rising sharply since the beginning of 2008, just after the release of the Kindle. It’s the best sustained growth the industry has seen since the International Digital Publishing Forum began tracking sales in 2002–a sign that eBooks finally could be about to break into the mainstream.

But many phones are now sophisticated enough, and have good enough screens, to be used as eBook reading devices. In addition, eBook reading on computers is already surprisingly popular–and Amazon faces growing competition from rival Sony Corp. and other eBook reader manufacturers.

California-based CourseSmart began offering electronic textbooks in 2007 and reportedly has sold copies to students in more than 5,900 schools. The company says it works with a dozen major textbook publishers to supply electronic versions of their books and claims its prices are typically about half that of print versions.

Students have used CourseSmart texts to read electronic versions of their textbooks on a computer, but last month CourseSmart announced a free application that makes digitized forms of college textbooks available on Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone or iPod Touch devices.

“We’ve seen significant demand from student customers for the ability to get required textbook content in electronic form on an iPhone or iPod Touch,” said CourseSmart Executive Vice President Frank Lyman. “It’s important to students to be able to access textbook content in color with the same page layout as a printed textbook, and now the eTextbooks App allows them to do that.”

CourseSmart’s iPhone program is available for downloading free of charge from Apple’s online App Store, and it could help make electronic textbooks even more popular on campus.

Shanna Vaughn, a university worker and voracious reader in Orange County, Calif., has been reading eBooks on a computer or handheld organizer for at least ten years, but it was only an occasional habit until she got an iPhone last year. It’s mainly the convenience that has won her over: Because Vaughn can buy and download books nearly instantly to her phone, she doesn’t need to plan a trip to the book store.

“I never really wanted something that was a single-function device. I just couldn’t see spending … $300 for a device where I’m sort of locked in to one retailer. Whereas my phone, that does everything,” she said.

Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps said that while the Kindle has sparked interest in eBooks, downloads of eReading applications for smart phones have far outnumbered the Kindles sold.

“There will be a market for dedicated reading devices, but there’s potentially an even bigger market for reading on devices that people already own, like smart phones,” she said.

According to a survey of 2,600 adults by research firm Simba Information this spring, the most common way to read eBooks is on another general-purpose device: the personal computer. It found that 8 percent of adults had bought an eBook last year, a high figure considering that Kindle sales were less than half a percent of the adult population.

Still, analysts credit the Kindle and other eBook reader devices with helping to spur the growth of the eBook market in the last 18 months.

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