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Rocky road in Europe for e-books

Hanover — Startups are following giant Amazon into the burgeoning electronic reader market but major hurdles may slow e-books’ take-off in Europe, experts at the world’s biggest IT fair said.

Electronic readers are one of the star attractions at the CeBIT in this northern German city, with an array of new models trying to muscle in on Amazon’s daunting headstart.

Amazon released the second generation of its popular Kindle last month but the portable digital devices to read books, newspapers and magazines are still getting a sceptical reception in Europe, where the adoption of high-tech products is often slower than in North America or Asia.

That has not stopped heavyweights such as Sony and small startups from trying to get in on the act, with what they call sleeker, more compact, faster models to whet Europeans’ appetites.

Amazon "paved the way for us," said Andreas Steinhauser, who has developed a digital reader called txtr (pronounced as "texter") that is slightly smaller than a school notebook and has the clean lines of an iPod.

Like Kindle, txtr uses mobile phone networks to access a virtual library where users can buy the latest whodunnit or download their favourite magazine. It is due to hit the German market late this year.

The devices are billed as less cumbersome than a laptop and said to offer a reading experience comparable to that with bound paper, even outdoors on a sunny day.

But digital publishing consultant Ralf Alkenbrechen said the American model could not be transplanted in Europe without a few modifications.

He said that the US publishing and bookselling markets were dominated by "a few majors, meaning fewer people you have to strike deals with, more limited financial means to digitise the books and more sales volume."

In Europe, the sector is far more fragmented — across national lines and among small publishing houses. In addition, mobile roaming fees make downloading a book a pricey prospect when crossing a national border in Europe.

Against this backdrop, the expansion of the market to include new readers named txtr, Bebook, eSlick and Sony’s PRS-505 "is more of a curse than a blessing," Alkenbrechen said, because it confuses consumers.

Steinhauser insists his txtr got a warm reception from publishers because they are wary of Amazon, fearing they will lose control of their catalogue or face pressure to slash prices — despite Germany’s sector-wide price fixing for books.

"With a young company like us, and the fact we are German, we get off on the right foot," he said.

Alkenbrecher said that even if the evolution toward virtual books is "inevitable," they will always be a mere complement to the paper variety.

He estimates that e-books will make up at least 10 percent of the market in Germany in 10 years, with interest particularly strong for scientific publications and pocket guides.

Steinhauser, for his part, is counting on periodicals to set the market alight.

"No one wants to pay to read a newspaper on his computer but you could imagine it for a personal subscription on an electronic reader," he said.

Steinhauser said the digital age could bring with it a renaissance of the serialised novel "in which you read the latest episode everyday on your electronic reader, in the subway or on the beach."

With the new devices, the publishing sector could face a wave of illegal copying that has slammed the music industry, Alkenbrecher acknowledges.

"But by refusing to sell books in an electronic form, you would only push consumers toward breaking the law," he said.

The CeBIT runs until Sunday.

Aurelia End/AFP/Expatica