eBooks: overtaking paper siblings?

“The paperless society” has been promised for decades, but until recently, the technologies have not existed that would make dropping pencil and paper practical. That may be changing, however. The signs are everywhere—the precipitous drop in postal mail usage, high school graduates that never learned to write in cursive…and the sudden rise in popularity of the ebook? Yes, ebooks, digital versions of paper books that can be read on ereaders like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Nobles’ nook, as well as on PCs, smartphones, and tablets like the iPad, are swiftly overtaking their tree-based brethren in sales.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that in July, his online company sold 1.8 ebooks for every hardcover book sold. Barnes & Noble, the chief competitor to Amazon in the ereader and ebook market, hasn’t released figures, but says its share of the digital book market is bigger than its share of the print market, and that sales of its nook, released in late 2009, have exceeded expectations. The brick-and-mortar retailer, which also operates online, plans to add nook boutiques in its stores to promote sales of the nook and ebooks.

It’s not just for-profit retailers who are getting aboard the ebook train. The nation’s public libraries are adding ebooks by the thousands to their collections, using services like Overdrive and NetLibrary. These ebooks, available in both the ubiquitous Adobe pdf format and the industry standard EPUB wrapper, are checked out just like regular library books, downloaded and read on a device like an ereader or PC. Then they’re returned online, or simply allowed to expire when the loan period is up. The Cleveland area library system (CLEVNET) has some 7,000 ebook titles available for loan to area library patrons, while the Philadelphia Free Library offers anyone in the country a $15 a year library card, with which they can check out any of their nearly 3,000 ebooks.

Add to this the hundreds of sites that house free, downloadable ebooks, typically classics whose copyright has expired, government publications, and unpublished books submitted by aspiring authors, and you have have an ebook tsunami on your hands. One of the more well-established free ebook sites, Project Gutenberg, has over 33,000 free books to download—books that “were previously published on paper by bona fide publishers and digitized by us with the help of thousands of volunteers.”

Paperless society? Probably not any time soon. A less paper society? You bet.

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