Are digital books following the lead of digital music?

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With its release of its Kindle device earlier this month, Amazon took a step towards the digitization of books. The portable reader wirelessly downloads reading materials to a high-resolution electronic display. According to Steve Kessel, SVP of worldwide digital media at Amazon.com, this is a new revolution in how books will be consumed, as now consumers can have access to thousands of books at once through a free wireless connection.

The digital revolution has been slow for the publishing industry, as many are concerned about digital books hurting business, as downloading MP3s hurt the music industry. The Google Book Project, the online giant's endeavor to scan every book ever published, has met with hesitation by publishers weary of copyrights and decreasing sales.

“Amazon's pricing puts New York Times bestsellers at a significant discount,” said James McQuivey, analyst at Forrester Research. “Publishers clearly don't want to send the message that their books aren't worth as much money as they have been charging, but they also don't want to miss any possible transition from paper to digital because they've seen what happened to the music industry over the past five years.”

Earlier this year, at the Google Unbound event, business and technology authors Seth Godin, author of The Dip, Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail and editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and
BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow spoke about the word-of-mouth marketing benefit that comes with offering free PDFs of a book.

The publishers in the audience were wary of the speakers. Each of the latter has a successful career speaking at such events and is less bound to surviving on book sales alone.

However, publishers cannot ignore the fact that consumers adopt new technologies, and do have to prepare for this inevitability.

The Amazon Kindle is available for $399 and lets users download books through Kindle's own wireless delivery system, the Amazon Whispernet, which uses the same nationwide high-speed data network as advanced cell phones. It sells books, which can only be read on Kindle devices — not shared across other formats.

“There's no evidence that consumers want to give up the book which, has been a very effective tool even in the digital age,” said McQuivey. “Books make reading very simple, and the Kindle doesn't actually make reading easier.”

McQuivey went on to say that the device makes books easier to sell, not necessarily improved for the consumer. “I would argue that this isn't something that consumers have been waiting for,” he said.

So will this new device convince the wary publishers whose hearts Google executives are trying to win over? It remains to be seen — and holiday purchase figures might tell an interesting story.

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