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E-reader revolution?

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Imagine that you’re nearly finished packing for a well-earned rest at the lake and it strikes you to bring a book along. Should you bring something light and fun, or deeply spiritual? Unable to anticipate what you’ll be in the mood for, you grab a half dozen books, most of which go unread, and every title weighs you down a little bit more.

Amazon, Sony, and other companies are trying to solve that problem with electronic books (e-readers). These devices are as small and light as one book, yet can hold an entire library. Most e-readers use a special black and white display that’s much easier on the eyes than a computer screen. It’s called e-ink and looks like a high-resolution Etch A Sketch.

Amazon monopoly

The 800-pound gorilla of the e-reader world is the Amazon Kindle. Currently, some 400,000 titles are available through the Amazon Kindle store for prices much lower than their hardcover cousins, and there are no shipping fees. Rounding out Kindle’s selection are magazines, newspapers, and even blogs. You can wirelessly order and download books directly to the device.

Some in the publishing industry are worried that Amazon will become to books what Apple is to digital music. Apple came to dominate the realm of digital music by creating the iPod and tying it exclusively to their digital music store. This allowed them to dictate pricing to the recording industry.

Amazon is using the same model. The only place you can buy a book for the Kindle is in the Amazon store. If Amazon becomes the dominant player, they will be able to dictate prices to publishers. A recent spat between Amazon and Macmillan Publishers underscores the tension. Macmillan wanted to sell their books at a higher price through another company, so Amazon took all Macmillan’s books offline for a time.

O’Reilly is one publisher that has chosen not to sell through Amazon and is releasing its e-books using the EPUB format, which is compatible with e-readers made by Sony and Barnes & Noble. Some industry commentators suggest Amazon’s biggest threat stems from Apple, which launched their iPad, a 10-inch portable computer with a built-in e-reader, in the U.S. in January. [Note: Citing strong demand for the iPad in the U.S., Apple announced it will delay the product’s international launch (including Canada) to the end of May.]

Will e-books become a revolution in publishing? If the music industry is any indication, the answer is yes, given enough time for consumers to catch on.

Pros and cons

A couple things need to happen first. The cost of entry must come down. Most e-readers are priced at about $250, which is a sizeable investment for some. The devices must prove durable. If your shiny new e-reader stops working after two years, you may consider going back to the safety of ink and paper.

Not everyone is a fan of this new gadget. E-readers lack the tactile satisfaction of a paper book and they are not something you’d take in the tub. The digital rights management built into these devices will make it difficult or impossible to lend out a book. And the experience of shopping in a fine bookstore is something I would lament losing. I love to wander through a well-stocked bookstore, select an interesting title, and settle into a comfy chair for a 15-minute preview.

Yet, I find the advantages of e-readers compelling. I love being able to read a book with one hand. For those who buy a lot of books, the e-reader will pay for itself even at today’s hefty price. Copying and moving information digitally is far less resource-intensive than traditional publishing, which ships boxes of books to stores across the country. The convenience of having a whole library full of books on one device is alluring.

What do e-readers mean for the church? These devices take us further along the path the internet has already brought us. For some churches, the impact is negligible, but for others it is significant.

The e-reader holds the promise of making information more accessible to more people. Authors could publish and distribute their own works without the need of a publishing company. Denominations and even local churches could have their own publishing department or expand the one they already have. What they publish would only be constrained by time and creativity, not by the cost of printing and postage.

Each new communication medium presents unique opportunities and challenges. E-readers provide an opportunity for the church to enter new realms of discussion, and a challenge to equip Christians to be discerning and to think critically.

Leighton Tebay is information technology specialist at Bethany College, Hepburn, Sask., and is the leader of a house church network in Saskatoon.

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