E-books can be read on a standard computer or laptop, on a mobile device such as the iPhone, iPod Touch or smartphone, or on an "e-reader" - a dedicated piece of hardware such as the Sony Reader or Amazon's Kindle.
While the Kindle is not yet available in New Zealand, there are some other e-readers available at electronics retailers, and the ever- portable netbook is becoming a large contender as a sought-after device for electronic book fans.
While the New Zealand e-book market is still very small, an organisation has been created to accelerate the development of digital publishing in this country.
Formed by Copyright Licensing in conjunction with its shareholders, the Book Publishers Association of New Zealand and the New Zealand Authors Society, the Digital Publishing Forum aims to provide training and networking opportunities for local publishers.
The forum also works towards developing relationships with groups and organisations that can support the e-book industry's development.
"As far as New Zealand e-books go, there is still only a very small market of publishers selling copyrighted electronic texts," says Martin Taylor, director of the Digital Publishing Forum.
"However, our proactive approach to developing skills and co- ordinating joint programmes and promotions early in the market's development means we are making steps to build a strong industry that can compete at the top local and international level."
The Digital Publishing Forum, which is now a year old, is dedicating a large part of 2010 towards producing "Great New Zealand E-books", Taylor says. "The idea is to provide a focus for the industry's own move to digitising books, to provide a platform for a joint marketing programme, and to generate public interest in e-reading."
A key reason for the Great New Zealand E-books project is to ensure that new e-book adopters' first experience with electronics texts is positive.
"That means having really good e-books to try rather than the usual bundle of free classics which aren't necessarily the first choice for readers," he comments.
The planned public launch of the programme will be in the second quarter of 2010. More than 300 of New Zealand's most well-known books have been submitted by 30 publishers to be included in the programme.
The Forum's initial aim is to have 1000 e-books digitised, made available under licence to libraries, booksellers and the educational sector.
"Although e-book readers are not yet widely available in New Zealand, part of our plan is to use these great New Zealand e-books to encourage companies like Sony, Asus and others to enter the New Zealand market early and help to grow it," Martin adds.
The support and involvement of educational providers in this and other e-book projects in New Zealand this year could see e-books become an integral part of student life for young Kiwis.
"Teachers have access to electronics texts for their own development, but there are very few options for in-class learning purposes," says Taylor.
"There are so many benefits for students in using e-books - e-readers have annotation capabilities and search and retrieval tools, both of which are excellent for study purposes.
"Furthermore, e-books are always the up-to-date texts and can include live internet hyperlinks for further information."
With any technology in its inception stages, there is always a format war. A universally used format for e-books is still under debate, and it is almost certain that anything specific to one device won't last - with the exception of .AZW, the Amazon Kindle format.
ePub - a free and open format for "reflowable" content, which enables the display of text to be optimised for a particular display device - is a likely contender to rise to the top for commercial purposes.
"ePub has a large range of technical capabilities," says Taylor . "It has similar limitations to a web page, meaning that it has very little limitations at all. The technology underneath is robust - unlike a format like PDF that leads a reader to be stuck with a static page and isn't great for mobile devices."
The digital publishing market is in its early stages. Local works will be excluded by Google Books' 2009 deal to offer access to scanned versions of books (only books from Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia will be included).
However, Google Books engineering director Dan Clancy said in November that the company would continue to work with rightholders to fulfil its mission to "organise all of the world's information".
"From New Zealand's point of view, as one of the excluded parties, it opens up real opportunities to take control of the process and to do it in a way that is more respectful of rightholders and copyright protections," comments Taylor.
A development in late 2009 however, may lay the foundations in New Zealand for paid-for e-books. REDgroup, the company that owns Whitcoulls, Angus and Robertson and Borders in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore plans to offer 30,000 paid e-books to customers in the southern hemisphere, plus give access to an additional one million free texts.
For the North American market, the company will offer 200,000 paid e-books. "It's very good news for the nascent digital publishing market down under as the possibility of high profile retail channels opens up for local digital content," says Taylor.
"Given the Kindle's arrival in Australia, and its (we presume) imminent arrival in New Zealand, consumers will be offered some enticing options."
* Digital Publishing Forum: digitalpublishing.org.nz
* 1000 Great New Zealand eBooks Online slideshow by Martin Taylor: slideshare.net/digipub/ 1000-great-new-zealand-ebooks
*New Zealand Electronic Text Centre, part of Victoria University Library: nzetc.org
Christchurch-based freelance writer Lee Suckling writes the Favourites column for The Box.
- The Press