Nokia 770 with bookIf a real market exists for a non-PDA handheld — see “A computer you can use standing up” and “The non-PDA handheld future” — it may be time to assess the reality of e-books coming into our lives.

The e-book market still has three uncertainties. The first is suitable devices. The second is publishers releasing books, and the third is library lending. Before e-books can take off, these issues need resolution.

Devices: Carry-around devices are beginning to appear that meet several key criteria. Their screens are large enough to display video and large-enough chunks of text (say, 10 words a line and 300 words a screen), they run a full, mainstream, desktop OS (which would mean Linux or Windows or MacOS, but not WInCE), and they are “affordable.” I don’t know what that last really means, by the way. It could mean $300-$400, it could mean half that. So maybe we’re only approaching this criterion. (OTOH, Bill Gates thinks it means $800, so maybe we’ve passed it.)

I think the hardware manufacturers believe Web browsing, video and some version of streaming music — Internet radio? — are desirable in a second or third unit in a household (or office — that would be Bill Gates’ vision). And that this device would of necessity be a touchscreen tablet with WiFi. Nokia believes a hard-drive is superfluous, Motion Computing that the screen needs to be at least 8 inches. So there’s some uncertainty as to just where the sweetspot is.

The Nokia 770 Internet Tablet is due sometime in the next two months. Gates promises the Ultra Mobile 2007 in, well, 2007. Probably they won’t use that name and deliver it in 2006. Still I say 2006 is when we will see devices satisfactory and satisfying for reading e-books arrive, led by Nokia but followed by other manufacturers using Linux.

Books: Five years we in e-books have spent in the wilderness and much of that time has been spent searching for a DRM solution that works for readers, publishers and authors (well, for the last we might say “authors’ agents” — DRM, of course, stands for Hey, that’s my money you’ve got ahold of!).

The book business is much like the music business, being just as fragmented and rapacious, with perhaps the significant difference that in general music buyers are younger and more attuned to the electronic era, which impacts marketing somewhat, as well as adaptability to change. Is there an Apple on the horizon that will introduce an overwhelmingly popular distribution model and sweep aside the objections holding us up now? I don’t see one, do you? But then who anticipated Apple would play the role it did even a month before iTunes Music Store appeared?

Still, there’s a glimmer of hope. The VCR catastrophe of the 1970s—in which actors, directors and other creators were denied all benefits of a film’s being released on video — steeled agents’ and publishers’ positions lest e-book-rights negotiations lopsidedly benefit one side or the other. The result was a stalemate as to e-book pricing and royalties, and rigidity regarding copyright protection.

But music downloads, from the eagerness with which listeners embraced digital distribution to iTunes’ success (now over 500 million songs sold), also serve to illuminate what might happen in publishing. I expect it won’t take much success to start a landslide in e-books. Some publishers will say, Gee, a dollar a book ain’t bad if I sell 5,000 copies a month on a book that’s selling 2,000 copies a year in paperback. And think of the readers we’re building for the author’s new book!. And thus some good backlists will appear, and then the demand for the frontlist titles will bring everybody but J.K. Rowling to the table.

I grant that there’s less evidence to support this scenario than with what’s happening in hardware. Still, I feel hopeful.

Lending: As for library distribution, eBooks.com has a library model that allows multiple concurrent access, what it calls “non-linear lending.” That means if a library has a book, more than one person can read it at the same time. The library licenses the number of total days’ reading per year for that title in this model. This is the closest encounter with common sense I have had in my entire e-book experience. Perhaps even more sensible models will flower once devices and demand show up in force. It doesn’t mean everyone will get to read the e-books they want on any devices they own (see “Cross-platform e-reading”), but we’ll be closer.

Maybe I don’t have the best record around in prognostication, but I’d say all the planets are aligning to make next year the breakout year for e-books. Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.