The Sony ebook read - some final thoughts

I’ve been up and down the land with my little Sony e-book reader now. I know what I think about it. This is a beautiful and innovatory little gadget that will, I think, find a place under many a Christmas tree this year, even with the credit crunch around. But what do the public at large think of it? First of all I asked Cliff, a friend who runs the local pub-hotel, a keen reader, but no geek (he only discovered the iPod this year). Cliff ran his fingers over the Sony and declared, first of all, that he liked the look and feel of it. I showed him the controls and he had the knack of picking a book and moving backwards and forwards very quickly. Then I let him browse through the collection of works on the thing.

His eyes opened wide.

‘You get all this stuff?’

‘Yes. The free stuff is out of copyright which means that…’

‘You get all this stuff!’

God bless the public. They know nothing about copyright, do they? All Cliff saw was a vast collection of old books he hadn’t read in ages, a few he’d always meant to read, and the possibility of going on his cruise in February with a complete library stored in something that will fit into the side pocket of a briefcase. ‘Sold’ did not describe Cliff’s response to the Sony. He was absolutely in love with the thing and checking out its availability online in a flash. This I found deeply interesting because here was someone who is not naturally keen on electronica at all.

My next guinea pig was my daughter, Kate. She graduated from UCL with a first in English earlier this year and is an utter bookaholic. Again, she is not a natural for this thing. She likes writing in longhand, loves pen and paper, and actually buys CDs because she prefers the sound to the thin, compressed audio you get with iTunes.

Kate has done some work experience in publishing and is looking for a job as an editorial assistant somewhere (all vacancies to me at please). So she has a couple of different perspectives on the thing - as a reader and someone who’s seen inside the publishing industry. The reader in her was impressed too. She found the screen and the type excellent, and the device very simple to use. Like everyone she was taken aback by the sheer volume of material it can hold. And she liked it as a piece of equipment too - it felt good to hold and didn’t scream ‘geek’.

Her work experience had given her some insight into handling manuscripts, though, and here the demands are a bit different. Like me, she would have liked some way to make notes or at least name bookmarks in a manuscript, or perhaps even edit text in some way. But that, I guess, is not what the Sony is for. This is an ebook, nothing more, nothing less. If you want email, web access, store browsing and a lot of fancy features you will have to wait for something else.

Will this dent the Sony’s sales? I doubt it somehow. This clever little thing hits most of the buttons it seeks to press as a simple, convenient and very powerful means of carrying your own library along with you. It was a real pleasure to use. The battery life is simply amazing. And I’m sure the next version will be even better - though this one will, I think, do good service for years.

One thing did become clear when I spoke to other people about ebooks though. They are seen as a supplement to the printed word, not a replacement for it. Both Cliff and Kate said very emphatically that they would not stop buying real books if they had a Sony. A simple electronic device, however clever, was no substitute for the physical medium of ink and paper. If something was really precious to you, then both felt that they would go to a book store and buy the ‘real thing’, if you can call it that.

As a mere author, you’ve no idea how reassuring I found that. Ebooks, it seems, are not what iTunes was to the CD market. They’re a new source of sales, not some digital newcomer that will sweep away everything that went before. Well, not for a while anyway.