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Digital books wait for readers as pulped wood rules hearts
Sales show people are loathe to swap their bookshelves for electronic files

(c) 2006 South China Morning Post Publishers Limited, Hong Kong. All rights reserved.

Paper books can be such a bind. Before I moved from London to the Asia-Pacific region, my office was choked with books - hammered by hand into gaps on shelves, dumped on the desk or on the floor where they begged to be accidentally kicked.

When the time came to take them to a second-hand shop, I needed a Hummer and a muscle-bound friend who helped me shift them in return for a cut in the takings. Afterwards, we trembled from the exertion. If only we had been born in a magical age where all books were weightlessly digital. The age has been threatening to dawn since around the year 2000 when predictions of the paperless office were rife.

The prophets said: "Prepare to burn your dead tree books. The future will be written in light."

The distant future, maybe.

Patrick Snow, a former e-book industry facilitator and author of digital self-help guide Creating Your Own Destiny, said: "While they are cool and easily portable, the majority of readers still prefer to read paper books instead of e-books."

"My book, for instance, has sold over 75,000 copies in the printed format, and less than 100 copies as e-books. It has been distributed globally as an e-book for over three years. This tells me, even today, 99.9 per cent of readers still prefer the printed versions of books over e-books," Mr Snow said.

John Seeley - the author of a digital guide to "restarting" life called Get Unstuck! - said the dominance of pulped wood would last for a while. "As far as 'Is it over for paper?' he said, "not for a longtime."

"The generation of 20-somethings and younger are the ones using electronic readers; the older ones are still used to paper and will not give it up.

"Some will adapt and use both, but the tactile feel of a book has a familiar feel that will keep the older readers till they die. In 30 years, electronic books will be the main way people will read," Mr Seeley said.

Meanwhile, e-books languish, undermined perhaps by the image of the prevalent PDF format, which does not seem cool at all. It looks corporate and raises the spectre of PowerPoint presentations rather than ripping yarns and fascinating adventures in popular psychology.

Electronic books are handy and can be downloaded in seconds. Recently I learned how useful this can be when, after vainly trying to lay my hands on a hard review copy of the memoir of rapper 50 Cent, I found a digital version online.

Another advantage is you can search it if you lose your place or want to backtrack or reread an especially juicy passage. But the format still feels sterile.

If you want a reading experience that vies with the gentle sensuality of reading a paper book, you can enlist an "e-paper" flexible display that rolls up and slips into your jacket pocket like a scarf. If dropped, instead of exploding in a shower of parts and glass, the typical flexible display flutters to the ground, good for readers on the move.

For homebodies, an attractive option is DVD. Thomas Appell, the author of the illustrated DVD Never Get Another Cold, portrays this option as both theatrical and socially engaging.

Mr Appell said: "You can play the book like a movie as the author narrates the text. Entire families can read a book together in front of their home entertainment systems - narration adds a new dimension unavailable in a paper-based book."

Yet another alternative to paper is the audio book - at root a relic available since the 1950s, handicapped by its clunky name and association with beige lengths of magnetic tape. But now you can play audio books on your iPod or a dinky platform such as the Playaway.

Recently, according to Jeff Dittus - the boss of the New York-based digital publishing firm MediaBay - the audio publishing market has had a resurgence driven by the mass market penetration of personal digital music players, the growing availability of online audio downloads, even the increase in traffic and commute times across America.

Rather than punching the horn, intelligent travellers apparently use the downtime they have at the wheel to hear stories.

They listen at home too.

Mr Dittus said: "Did you know that audio books are currently heard in more than 25 million households?"

"In an industry worth an estimated US$800 million, the audio books market allows consumers to make the most of their hectic days, enjoying the pleasures of literature while working out, driving, or involved in activities where a paper version of the book would just not be viable," he said.