By Deborah Cornwall ABC news
Baby boomers are among the earliest and most fervent e-book enthusiasts. (AFP: Mario Tama)
Middle-aged women have astonised the publishing industry by leading the demand in the rapidly expanding e-book market.
Sydney theatre nurse Candace Gray, 48, was among the first to get an Amazon e-book reader, the Kindle, when it was released in Australia last year.
It was a gift from her husband in the hope it might drag her into the digital age.
"I have a phone with a camera - I never even use it," she said.
"I don't know how to Skype, I don't know how to blog ... but once I found out what I could do with this Kindle, I just couldn't put it down."
Ms Gray says the e-reader has changed the way she reads. She now dips into a book, in shorter bites, throughout the day.
"It's like having a bookstore in the palm of your hand," she said. "I don't watch television anymore."
According to Michael Tamblyn, VP of content and sales with the Canadian digital publisher Kobo, Mrs Gray is the typical of the new e-reader's demographic - the very group that was expected to fiercely resist giving up their hard copies.
"Who would have ever thought aging, squinting boomers would drive a new market for e-books?" he said.
Mr Tamblyn says this is just one of several surprising early trends in the e-book revolution.
"It's amazing where e-books are going. We are delivering bodice rippers in Iran ...we are delivering Pride and Prejudice into Afghanistan," he said.
Sales of e-book are expected to go vertical with the global release of Apple's much-hyped Ipad next month.
After years of stalled negotiations with digital book wholesalers like Amazon, publishers are now scrambling to go online because, like the music industry before them, they now have just two choices: go digital or dive.
While digital books currently make up between 6 to 7 per cent of the market in the United states and Britain, futurist and digital-content specialist, Mark Pesce, predicts that by the year 2020, about 50 per cent of all book sales will be digital.
More than half of e-book sales are made within the first 24 hours of the book's release - sales that are lost forever if publishers delay digital release to try and sell their hardbacks first at a premium price.
Stephen Page, the CEO of England's literary publishing house Faber and Faber, says while the paperback is not about to disappear any time soon, readers increasingly want a choice.
"To think that actually making digital books is about having three hairy people in a basement doing another thing called digital, while the rest of us carry on with the beautiful business of sewing and binding our books, that is an absolutely impossible universe," he said.
Long way to go
But for all the talk about the brave new world of the e-book, the CEO of Melbourne University Publishing, Louise Adler, says online book sellers still have a long way to go to meet the needs and wants of readers.
Ms Adler says books available in digital format are still largely limited to best sellers and pot boilers, with the market squarely aimed at an American audience.
"If you are a reader of romance or historical novels you might find it satisfactory but in the main, I find it rather disappointing that most contemporary fiction and non-fiction is not available," she said.
Ms Adler says the problem is partly due to publishers' resistance to the world's biggest digital-book seller, Amazon, and its attempts to cap the price of all e-books below $US10.
But she says online retailers have also failed to understand the complexity of the publishing business and meet the expectations of more sophisticated international readers.
"If I want to see a blurb for a book, if I want to see what I am buying, you are probably going to get a blurb of about two sentences," Ms Adler said.
"It's actually a very impoverished reading experience, when everything tells us readers are looking for a more enriched experience.
"It will be who has control of the content, not the reading device, that will determine the winners in this race."
Apple's Ipad is now poised to take on Amazon's Kindle, with internet giant Google snapping at their heels.
But Ms Adler says while publishing empires may rise and fall in this latest digital face off, there will always be a place for the humble paperback.
"I think that there are books you're going to want to love and to have and to hold and have in your library, and I think that feeling is never going to go away," she said.
Michael Tamblyn agrees.
"We've had books longer than we've had forks," he said.
"Books should not become more sterile or less engaging if we do this properly."
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