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By Helena Mulkerns

Published as a New York Times “Intelligence” column, May 2011

When I lived in Eritrea, I was a member of a book club. Made up of an ever-changing core of around thirty people, we had about seven hundred beloved tomes, and each month, we moved them from house to house in cardboard boxes, according to who was hosting the event. It was quite a task to haul them around. Since there was no longer a book store in Asmara, where I lived, to borrow from and enjoy this precious cargo was a real privilege.

Today, you can fit all the printed data from those books into one smartphone. A person can sit by a lake in Alaska and down load a book in Arabic from Lebanon. Books are now available online to readers who have never had access to reading materials.

The current debate is whether the availability of the electronic book format will “kill the book” and change how humans read, or whether it will turn out to be a complement to traditional book publishing and allow for new departures for writers and readers.

Niranjana Iyer, an Indian writer, sees the advantages. “E-publishing may be viewed as an organic response to the gaps left by traditional publishing,” she said. “Many e-books are published by authors writing from the margins, and deal with topics that mainstream presses deem too controversial or too unmarketable. It also dissolves the geographic boundaries of publishingit ultimately serves to broaden the reader’s landscape.”

This blurring of the lines between author, reader, distribution and format has perplexed the publishing world’s biggest companies. In April, tens of thousands of people at the book fairs in Abu Dhabi and London crammed into rooms to learn more about the digital age. As one publisher noted, “Before, we talked about it. Now, it’s really here!”

Consumers are driving this market and adaptability is the primary requisite. While publishing companies are desperately trying to launch themselves into the new digital flow, many may find the path difficult.

Julio Silveira, a Brazilian with a corporate background, recently resigned from a major publisher to set up Ima Editorial, an independent house. “I believe all publishers will have to deal with the new reality, sooner or later,” he said. “The thing is that the very large companies have a lot of money, but they can’t afford to take risks. Partners and shareholders are not willing to explore uncharted territory. I see the future being with the smaller enterprise, which can consider all of these new developments and be able to make decisions as the opportunities arise.”

An example of the nimbleness of a smaller operation is Neelwafurat.com, owned by Salah Chebaro, which distributes Arab-language books and e-books online. It recently launched two new Arabic-script apps for the iPad, and will be launching more this year.

Across the globe, electronic materials are becoming more readily available in local languages. An Indian e-reader, WINK, which features no less than 15 official Indian languages (so far), was introduced last August.

What is still unclear is if e-publishing will spread to less prosperous regions of the world and eventually make a real difference in education.

Jens Bammel, Secretary General of the International Publishers Association in Geneva, cautions against unrealistic expectations. “The topic of e-books is much more complex than people think. Particularly in the developing world, we have things like one laptop-per-child, one kindle-per-child initiatives, when really the issue is more about developing the appropriate content and listening to what the educators need.”

Nor is it clear whether online access would be easy in countries where repressive regimes restrict or prohibit the Internet. China’s recent clampdown on Gmail and Web software that evades censorship does not bode well. But for many writers, e-publishing represents a new freedom. Irish crime novelist Declan Burke recently bought back the rights to his acclaimed 2003 debut, “Eightball Boogie.” As an experiment, he put it up as an e-book through Smashwords, priced at 99 cents. In just over a month, Mr. Burke sold 215 copies.

His next book is coming out in print. “Once things start to level out, I think the e-book and the traditional book will live in harmony,” he said. “I love books. After all, the book is a perfect design – it’s lasted for 500 years.”

Plenty of people agree with that assessment,including the staff at the non-profit collective, Microcosm Publishing in Portland, Oregon. Last January, it announced that the store would “exchange real books for unwanted Kindles,” advising candidates to “bring a wheelbarrow” for the books they could get for the price of a tablet.

A wheelbarrow. Now, why didn’t we think of that in Asmara …