Electronic books have traditionally gone straight from the manufacturer to the remainders bin — but the market has never gone away entirely, despite years of tepid sales and failed predictions.

Now a new device from Sony is generating buzz worthy of a Stephen King novel. Some people are even wondering whether the Sony Reader might be just the ticket to kick the e-book market into high gear.

Scheduled to go on sale this spring for between $300 and $400, the Reader is a compact slab about the size of a small paperback book (5-by-7 inches, and a half-inch thick). But it’s the 3.5-by-4.8-inch display that made it the buzz of the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month in Las Vegas.

The screen uses E Ink technology developed by a Cambridge, Massachusetts, company. It consists of 480,000 tiny “microcapsules,” each of which contains positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles suspended in a clear fluid. When current is applied to electrodes underneath these capsules, they turn black or white, depending on the polarity of the current.

The result is a display that looks far more like ordinary paper than a liquid crystal display, because the pixels reflect ambient light rather than transmit light from behind. There’s no flicker, because the pixels are completely static (in an LCD or a cathode-ray tube display, by contrast, pixels need to be “refreshed” 60 times per second or more).

The E Ink technology also conserves batteries because current is used only when pixels need to change their color — between virtual page turns, the Reader consumes no current at all. Its batteries will last for about 7,500 pages, according to Sony.

Publishers are excited. Random House and Simon & Schuster said they’ll have 3,000 titles apiece available through Sony Connect for the Reader’s spring debut.

But will consumers take the bait? Even though an estimated 65 percent of new books are already available in electronic form, e-book sales still lag far behind those of printed books. According to the trade group International Digital Publishing Forum, e-book sales in 2004 totaled $9.6 million and will probably have topped $15 million in 2005 (final figures for last year aren’t yet available). Meanwhile, overall printed book sales for 2004 were $23.7 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers.

It’s not for a lack of dedicated e-book devices, either. In 1997, a company called NuvoMedia released the Rocket eBook reader, the first of several such devices to hit the market in the late 1990s. These devices were similar in size and shape to the Sony Reader, although they used older LCD screen technology. None were commercial successes. Even Sony’s Librie, which uses the E Ink display and was released to the Japanese market in 2004, hasn’t sold that well.

“The problem was that the devices weren’t very good, the screens were terrible, the prices were too high and there was a terrible selection of content,” said Michael Gartenberg, a vice president at JupiterResearch, a market research company. By contrast, Gartenberg said, the Sony Reader is small and readable enough to interest consumers.

Also piquing publishers’ interest is the fact that Sony plans to integrate its Reader with its online Sony Connect store. It’s a not-so-subtle nod to Apple’s success in selling music through the iTunes Music Store, which makes buying and transferring songs to iPods extremely simple.

Currently, e-book readers for laptops and PDAs can be difficult to install and configure. What’s more, digital rights management built into the books means consumers don’t always know what they’ll be able to do with the books once they’ve purchased them. Sony is instead promising a very simple purchase-and-download process.

“The pain is lessened somewhat if you have a seamless experience,” said Nick Bogaty, executive director of the IDPF. “You don’t hear a lot of complaint about DRM with iTunes,” although it does have rights-management restrictions.

The market may also have changed since the late 1990s. “I think consumers in general are ready for digital reading,” said Keith Titan, vice president of new media for Random House. “Before, reading digitally was a completely foreign experience. Now, people are starting to think, ‘I’m reading all these PDFs, all these RSS feeds, and I could really use a device.'”

Sony has said that the Reader will be able to display content from RSS feeds and from PDF files in addition to e-books in Sony’s own BBeB format.

In the end, whether the Sony Reader winds up kick-starting the e-book market depends more on Sony’s marketing and pricing decisions than on the sexy E Ink technology, according to Gartenberg. “The technology looks like it’s in place. What it comes down to is if they can deliver enough content at a reasonable price,” Gartenberg said.

Books have been written on sheets of dried, mashed plants for about five millennia. Paper is a cheap, relatively durable and versatile technology. Sony’s new Reader will not spell the end of that long history, but it could be the opening of an interesting new chapter.

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