The Readable E-Book Is Here

I suffer from Picard’s Syndrome. I like to have a book in my lap that looks like a book, feels like a book, and is portable.

I am willing to read an article on-screen, but not a whole book.

This has limited me to printed books. We have been hearing about e-books, dynabooks, and similar technologies for twenty years. Nothing has arrived.

The big barrier has been a screen that has the equivalent of 600 dots per inch, which is the minimum needed to look like a printed page. The other major barrier has been battery life.

Now Sony has introduced the Sony Reader. We’re almost there.

The product is pricey: $350. Its battery life is adequate — “7,500 pages” — but not spectacular in actual use. The screen is not lit, so it can’t be read in the dark. But the product offers hope. If it catches on, the price will fall. Features will be added.


The product will be fine for reading popular novels. It does not maximize efficiency for academic books. Here is what I want as a researcher-author.

Flicker-free screen Copy & pasteNotation: hand-held “pen”Notation: speech-recognition softwareRetrieval softwareUploading to a computerDownloading from the WebWide range of titles

Basically, I want access to the Library of Congress and all of its national equivalents. I download whatever I want to read, book by book, for $4.95 per copyrighted book, or 95 cents per public domain book.

This arrangement will take a while. It will not take forever. I doubt that it will take half a century.

Think about how you read an academic book. You read, underline, make marginal notes, and hope you will remember all this. You won’t.

Think about an ideal researcher’s e-book reader. You read. You come across something that interests you. You use a cursor — or your finger — to extract the passage, word for word, error-free. You add keywords, including phrases, to help you retrieve the passage. Preferably, you do this with speech-recognition software. You save the passage and your notations to the book’s internal disk.

You later upload all this to your computer, where the overall file becomes part of your data base.

You upload this to your on-line data storage system. If your desktop dies, you still have back-up. These on-line storage systems already exist. They are free.

The retrieval software enables you to locate the extracted passage, put it on-screen with the original page, so that you can see the page number. A digital link takes you to the book’s data page: author, title, edition, publisher, city of publication, date of publication. You get your footnote reference this way.

All of this is technically possible now. It is a matter of design and price.


As an author, I see the advantage of ebook readers that read PDF files, which are universal. If my book sells for $4.95, and I get a dollar royalty, the publisher still makes money. He doesn’t have to print the book, warehouse it, or mail it to the buyer or to a physical store. He pays no inventory tax. A publisher can publish far more books this way.

Those authors who know how to typeset their books can eliminate the middlemen. They can make deals with digital book distribution outlets. The outlet makes its share, the author makes his share, and the liberal New York publishing houses make nothing. I like the sound of this. It would end the ability of the Left to burn books in advance by serving as gatekeepers: suppression by committee.

A printed book could be available through print-on-demand format: one book at a time. For someone who had ordered the ebook, he would be allowed to order a single printed copy for printing and mailing costs — no book royalty.

The long tail effect would take over. Publishers could escape state inventory taxes. They could keep books on-line forever, never turning loose of copyright because a book goes out of print for a year and automatically reverts to the author.

The unknown author could break through without the entrenched book-publishing bureaucracy to baptize his efforts. Book publishers would spring up like mushrooms after a rain. The cost of entry would be a few thousand dollars.

An author could go straight to Amazon. He can do without a publisher. He buys off-the-shelf software to enable him to take orders.


A. J. Liebling’s quip a generation ago is coming true: “Freedom of the press is wonderful if you own one.”

We are watching the demise of the gatekeepers. This has never happened in man’s history. Entry is open. There will be gigantic quantities of junk, but there will also be a huge increase in the number of gems. The Remnant will find what is worthy. Isaiah’s job will become cheaper. So will the cost of footnotes. The court prophets’ job will become more difficult.

The ebook will speed up this process.

November13, 2006

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2006