Author meets the future: how electronic is it?

We invited one of our fave authors, David Hewson, to blog his experiences using a Sony Reader over the next week or so. David's hardly a technophobe, but on the other hand he ain't no geek. Here's the first of his guest posts as he begins his journey into 'digital reading.' Back in the mists of time when I wrote about technology for the Sunday Times I once asked Bill Gates about ebooks. It was at a press event in a house in Gramercy Park New York, circa 1995 when the Microsofties were trying to prove to the world that they were family-friendly by launching a bunch of products, some successful, some disastrous, aimed at the home, not the office.

Mr Gates (who had allegedly somewhat ruined the atmosphere by referring to children in one interview as ‘basic subsets of the family entity’) was, for once, up for any question I could think of. So I wondered if he thought we would all be abandoning paper to read books and newspapers on screen before long, fully expecting a technophiliac answer predicting the death of print everywhere.

‘No,’ he said, confounding all expectations. ‘We don’t have the technology and we don’t have the need, not for a long time.’

Is thirteen years long enough? On my desk now is Sony’s newly-released PRS-505 ‘portable reader system’, available at Waterstones and a variety of other outfits - if you can find one in stock - for £199. These things have been thrust at journalist, publishers and lucky readers for a little while. But Sony very kindly thought they would shove one at an author too to see what one of us thinks, and I am the lucky scribe.

I’ll be taking it on the road for some promotional events up north this week, and showing it around to people I know to get their opinions too. So look for a couple more posts when I am more familiar with the beast. But first impressions count - as do first prejudices.

To be honest I’ve always felt a little sympathy with Mr Gates’ initial view. I spent a lot of my time staring at computer screens. All of my books are written using a very nifty piece of software specially aimed at authors, Scrivener. Even so I will print out drafts of the manuscript repeatedly and read them with a pen in hand because, let’s say it out loud, reading on screen just isn’t the same.

At least not on a conventional flat screen, which the Sony very much does not have. I won’t bore you with the technology but it is nothing like the flat screen in your TV or computer monitor. This is a kind of electronic ink. A tedious fact in itself were it not for two things: it actually looks very good indeed, sharp and very much like real text. And it has no backlight so the Sony uses no power whatsoever when you are simply reading a page - only when you ‘turn’ to a new one.

How close to paper is it? Very close, particularly in bright daylight (when most electronic screens are utterly readable). The background isn’t as white a you’d expect, and you can’t see much in dark situations where a laptop would be very readable. But it’s a lot better than I expected, and I was quite happy flicking through books very quickly with it indeed.

So there’s the first lesson I learned about the Sony. You need to see it to believe it. Prejudices, for or again, really don’t count for much because this is quite unlike anything else you’ve ever encountered before.

Here’s the second big surprise: the size and feel of the thing. It’s tiny, little bigger than a paperback book, beautifully made, with a sturdy and expensive-looking satin metal shell encased in a cover that feels very like brown leather (which it isn’t). I’ve seen other book readers and they all, let’s be frank, look like calculators that have spent too long in McDonalds. The Sony isn’t plasticky, doesn’t shout ‘geek’ and feels very, very nice in the hand. It’s also, perhaps deliberately, under-featured compared to something like Amazon’s Kindle (which isn’t available in the UK and won’t be for some time). The Kindle has a keyboard, wireless internet and a lot of possibilities.

The PRS-505 is pretty much an ebook reader plain and simple. You can load mp3 files on it (using an external memory card since the built-in memory is aimed at book storage, not music). You can even load your favourite photos and look at them in black and white, though quite why I don’t know. But this is about reading books really, and I rather like that idea. You don’t get distracted by thinking, ‘Let’s just check the email’. It’s also dead easy to use - with buttons for moving forward and backwards in a book, a bookmark button that ‘turns’ the corner of the page to store a location, and some other buttons on the side that let you browse your library (and, a little tip, allow you to go to a page number if you type them in).

The thing comes with a hundred free out of copyright classics such as Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, and Dracula. You buy ebooks online from the Waterstones site, download them to your computer, then transfer them to the reader via a simple USB cable. There’s special software to automate this on Windows, though you have to do it manually if you’re a Mac user like me - which isn’t hard. You can also load pdf and Word files on it too.

So first impressions are good, better, to be honest, than I expected. I shall be climbing on board the train to Newcastle with more than a hundred books on this thing, including one of my own, and the first 25,000 words of the book I’m writing now (which you lot won’t see till 2010). Supposedly I can turn 6,800 pages before needing a recharge which ought to set me up for a four-day trip I’d hope.

Next week some time I’ll tell you what it feels like after a couple of days.