Though eBooks only comprise 1 percent of current book sales, publishers are bracing for a future where digital reading will be more commonplace.
As the book industry attempts to move from hardbacks to downloads, booksellers and publishers are struggling to prevent readers from pirating eBooks the way some music fans pirate music.
On the front line of that effort is digital rights management technology, or DRM, that is embedded into eBook files. DRM lets the companies control how copies can be made of eBooks and which devices can display them. But some users say DRM also prevents them from reading the eBooks they've bought.
When author Naomi Novik paid for and downloaded an eBook of an Isaac Asimov novel, she didn't realize that she wouldn't be able to easily transfer the file to her laptop — she spent two hours and worked on three different computers before finally giving up.
Now Novik, who has written a five-book fantasy series called Temeraire, worries that the DRM component of eBooks will make her fans unhappy. She wants her readers to be able to use electronic versions of her books without struggling with the software.
"You don't have to make it hard," says Novik. "It's incredibly useful for [readers] to be able to search an electronic version of the files, to be able to copy and paste excerpts from it. When you have a DRM'd version that prevents people from doing that, it's really quite frustrating for a fan who has bought all the books."
But Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press says that DRM is meant to protect authors and publishers. He thinks that the music business erred in not putting DRM on CDs. Because of that choice, music fans have been easily sharing MP3s for free on the Internet, and he doesn't want the book industry to go down the same path.
The music industry would "be in a very different position today if you could buy a CD and know ... that's a locked version and those songs can't go anywhere," explains Schnittman. "If the first copy that goes out can be sent around the world instantly, how are the publishers ... going to recoup that investment and do the advertising and all those things that get this content out there?"
Publishers are making sure that eBooks have DRM right out of the gate; Amazon's Kindle, the first eBook reader that has really started to catch on with the public, deals almost exclusively with eBooks that have DRM.
According to Ian Fried, the vice president of Amazon Kindle, customers don't seem to mind: "We've had very few if any customer responses that the choice we made with DRM was a problem."
But DRM could become a problem if the Kindle goes bust — then all those people who bought Kindle eBooks with DRM will have no way to read them because no other device can open the files.
Beyond that, not everyone agrees that DRM is a good business strategy. Publishing consultant Michael Shatzkin says it's tough to make the case that file-sharing reduces sales. He cites science fiction writer Cory Doctorow who, he says, "does the best he can to give away as much of his content as possible." And by giving it away, Shatzkin says, Doctorow's sales have skyrocketed.
Novik fears that in the long-run, locking up her books will diminish her fan base: "The biggest danger to most authors, to most storytellers, is not that somebody is going to steal your work and pass it along — it is that nobody is ever going to see your work."
The music industry is learning that fans who pass around music can help make more fans — who then buy more music and support artists. And while eBooks are still in their infancy and the basics of the publishing industry are different from those of the music industry, publishers know that the adoption of eBooks is inevitable.