/ 29 July 2008

Sony opens up e-book reader

With the market for electronic books still relatively sleepy, Sony is trying a new tack: untethering the latest model of its e-book reading device from its own online bookstore.

Sony will now provide a software update to the Reader, a thin slab with a 15cm screen, so the device can display books encoded in a format being adopted by several large publishers. That means Reader owners will be able to buy electronic books from stores other than Sony’s.

“This upgrade opens the door to a whole host of paid and free content from third-party e-book stores, websites and even public libraries,” said Steve Haber, senior vice-president of consumer product marketing for Sony Electronics.

With the move, Sony is partly letting go of its e-book business model, under which it sold the $300 device and the books that could be read on it. It’s also a challenge to Amazon.com, which last year put out its own e-book reader, the Kindle, and tied it to its own online store.

Amazon, however, makes it relatively easy for publishers and individuals to submit books to sell through the store, with Amazon taking 65% of the proceeds.

Opening up the Reader could also help Sony catch up to the $359 Kindle in terms of book selection — Sony’s store, which it will keep running, has about 45 000 books available, while Amazon’s Kindle store sports more than 140 000.

Sony’s move could also help energise the e-book industry, which has yet to take off, despite the investment of big-name companies such as Sony and Amazon. Neither has released sales figures for the reading devices.

International Digital Publishing Forum, the main e-book publishing trade group, said e-book sales by a dozen major United States publishers amounted to $31,8-million last year, as measured on the wholesale level.

The publishing forum backs the format, called Epub, that the latest Reader model will be able to handle after the upgrade. Publishers supporting Epub include Simon & Schuster, Penguin Group, HarperMedia, Hachette Book Group and Harlequin Enterprises.

Users of the Sony Reader have already been able to load books as text files or in the portable document format, or PDF. But Epub is the first outside format for which the supplier can copy-protect a book, to prevent piracy. — Sapa-AP

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