Page last updated at 10:25 GMT, Thursday, 21 May 2009 11:25 UK

New chapter as books go digital

By Alka Marwaha
Digital Planet, BBC World Service

Various book titles on a shelf
E-books can often be more expensive than a paperback copy

With the success of downloadable music, TV and film, it comes as no surprise that the literary world is not far behind.

The bookshop Borders has just launched its new e-book service in the UK and Amazon has also put out a larger version of its e-reader, Kindle DX, just three months after the original release of its Kindle 2 gadget.

Digital Planet took a literary trip around London to find out if the writing is on the wall for the printed word, starting at Borders bookstore, which has more than 1,000 stores worldwide.

It already sells e-books online in the US and just last week launched a similar service in the UK.

"We have waited until there's been sufficient content to make it a worthwhile experience for the customer," said Julie Howkins, who is head of e-commerce at Borders.

As booksellers tentatively enter the e-book market, libraries are also beginning to offer some of their collections on the web.

Digitising history

The British Library in London is currently coming to the end of a two-year project which involved digitising more than 100,000 books from the 19th Century.

Four giant scanners are used to make a digital copy of the books.

The book sits in a V-shaped cradle; above it are two high-end 21 mega-pixel cameras and a robotic arm that turns the pages automatically.

"There is a process called optical character recognition (OCR) which basically scans the pages and detects the individual characters," said Aly Conteh, who is responsible for digitising the books.

“Those characters can then be matched to a patterned database that it has for what A's look like and what B's look like."

We have just come to the end of this project, which digitised about 25 million pages of 19th Century books. That equates to around 70,000 books
Aly Conteh, British Library

"It then forms the words and then checks them against a dictionary,” he added.

As the books are many years old, there can be some problems in scanning them exactly.

"We have some particular issues with historic texts for instance. A common character that was used in the 19th Century was the long S, which to modern OCR software can look like an F, so we'll work on building historical dictionaries.

"We have just come to the end of this project, which digitised about 25 million pages of 19th Century books. That equates to around 70,000 books," said Mr Conteh.

Google is also delving into the digital market and is currently scanning millions of books.

It is in negotiations with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers to get a court agreement to allow them to scan books that may be in copyright.

Google Book Search is a massive digitisation project that will probably dwarf what the British Library and other institutions are doing.

Digital readers

The Kindle DX, displaying a page from The New York Times
The latest e-reader to be launched is the Kindle DX from Amazon

The latest e-reader to be launched is the Kindle DX from Amazon, which is currently only available in the US.

Many of these digitised texts can be downloaded to devices such as Amazon's Kindle or Sony's E-Reader.

Stephen Bury, who heads up the European and American Collections at the British Library, feels that the market for downloading books is at a tipping point.

"There are probably about a million Kindles in the world but nobody actually knows, as the figures are kept guarded.

“There are probably about three-quarters of a million Sony Readers out there and that’s a small proportion of the world’s population," he added.

It is the older members of the population who perhaps have a bit of spare capital
Julie Howkins, Borders

Mr Bury says such devices have benefits over opening up a traditional book.

“It remembers where you were the last time you looked at the texts, so you don’t have to fold the page down - it's like a virtual bookmark," he explained.

“If you want to enlarge the texts, you can press this button, so for the partially sighted, this is a godsend."

Books can be downloaded from a number of different sites, the same way in which you would download music to your mp3 player.

Expense and experience

E-readers may be accessible but they are expensive, costing a few hundred pounds, and e-books themselves can often be more expensive than paper versions.

“The majority of searches that are being done for e-books are actually buying for the over-55s – it is the older members of the population who perhaps have a bit of spare capital," said Julie Howkins from Borders.

“Publishers are beginning to take notice but I don’t think we have reached the music i-Pod moment for books at all. You would never get the same experience browsing through the shelves and being able to see books that you didn’t know existed.

“I can’t see Borders being a huge bank of computers, that’s not the way it’s going to go," she added.

Digital Planet is broadcast on BBC World Service on Tuesday at 1232 GMT and repeated at 1632 GMT, 2032 GMT and on Wednesday at 0032 GMT.

You can listen online or download the podcast .

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