The Internet may be the world's newest communication medium, and books may be among the oldest, but the two have met in lots of interesting ways.
Electronic book readers, also called e-book readers, are one of the more interesting. They've been around since the 1990s as a way of marrying the portability of books with the search and storage capabilities of personal computers.
The biggest buzz today surrounds the release of the second version of Amazon Kindle, an e-book reader from Amazon.com, which began its life as an online bookstore in 1995 but has since diversified into other product lines.
Kindle was first released in November 2007, with Kindle 2 launching in February 2009. E-book readers haven't yet caught on in a big way in the marketplace, with the multiplicity of e-book formats, or "Tower of eBabel," confusing buyers and the high prices of readers keeping them away.
E-books are far more popular in Japan than the U.S., but Kindle 2 shows promise of attracting more users. It's the size of a paperback book but thinner and lighter -- at 10 ounces more than two pounds lighter than its predecessor.
One Kindle can take the place of hundreds of printed books, which has obvious advantages for students of all ages lugging around knapsacks and anyone who wants easy access to multiple books. You download books, among other ways, using Sprint's wireless broadband network, with more than 230,000 books available from Amazon.com at the time of this writing and other books available through other sources.
You can also download and read newspapers, magazines and blogs. Kindle comes with the New Oxford American Dictionary built in, which lets you quickly look up words. For more information, you can access the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Kindle's search capacity makes it easy to find a word or phrase across all the books and other materials you've downloaded. Unlike a laptop computer, its battery can last for several days of regular use.
At $359, Kindle isn't cheap, which will likely keep many people away. The cost of downloaded books is less than the paper versions, but not that much less. Widespread popularity will no doubt come when the cost of e-books better matches their actual cost. Kindle isn't the only e-book reader in town, with the Sony Reader being its main competition.
For traditionalists who still like paper, the Internet has also opened up a world of new choices. If you buy books but have never shopped at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble's Web site, or other online booksellers, you owe yourself the experience.
Online bookstores let you search for books by title, author and subject, read reviews by professional book reviewers and fellow readers, and often browse through books whose publishers permit the practice online. Online bookstores have a much larger selection of books than any physical bookstore.
Each time you visit, the site recommends books based on your previous choices and the choices of other readers who've bought similar books. Buying is easy. After inputting your credit card information once, you can buy a book with a single click of your mouse. Books typically arrive in a matter of days.
One controversial aspect of online book buying is the easy ability of buying used books from used booksellers as well as fellow readers. In addition to the above sites, used books are available through eBay and Half.com as well as book aggregators such as
Alibris, BookFinder.com, and viaLibri.
The practice is controversial because book authors and publishers don't earn any revenue when you buy a used book rather than a new book still in print. In a phone interview, an Amazon.com spokesperson defended the practice:
"We've found by offering customers lower priced options, it causes them to visit the site more frequently, which in turns leads to higher sales of new books. It also encourages people to try authors and genres that they might not otherwise have tried. Finally, when customers sell used books, they have more 'budget' to buy new books."
The easy availability of used books online, however, is hurting traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores, with more and more shutting down, as well as book publishers.
The Internet is inevitably changing the face of book publishing no less than it's changing newspapers, magazines, film, music, television, education, shopping, dating and virtually every other aspect of society. The Internet is the biggest machine ever built. It's a tool, and as with other tools, we shape it and then it shapes us.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.reidgoldsborough.com.