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Why Amazon Needs a Digital Book Exchange

Apple's mythical tablet is said to drop this week, and it'll arrive to a variegated market full of e-ink readers, tablet hybrid computers and smartbooks. What used to be called a "format war" is now more like a "form-factor war." The question of the year (at least, mine) is quickly becoming: what do we want to read on? And why? The answer has less to do with buying books, and more to do with the ones you've already got.

Some people don't mind reading on laptops, while others can't fathom anything that doesn't replicate the sacrosanct Real Paper Experience. But whichever you prefer, you'll agree that what really matters is the stuff on the device -- your reading and viewing fodder -- and how much dough you're spending to get it on there.

If the iPod and iPhone have been any indication, Apple's [AAPL] new gizmo will provide a slick, frictionless (via iTunes) and undoubtedly pricey solution to getting books, magazines and newspapers digitally. Alternatives abound: Sony [SNE] has a good thing going with their Google Books [GOOG] and New York Public Library partnerships, which give you access to a glut of free, wonderful and unpredictable titles. And Amazon [AMZN] this week finally opened up their Kindle platform to developers, who will magically link your Kindle readers to fantastic little tools like Evernote and Instapaper. E-readers are getting good. Very good.

But something is still amok with this business. I've spent plenty of time with Kindles, Sony Readers and a whole truckload of netbooks and smartbooks, but the chemistry between my brain and e-ink hasn't sprouted. And when I look around, I know why. All these e-readers, and I still have a crapload of phsyical books.

Music was different. All of the sudden, nobody needed those heinously ugly, precarious CD towers: everything went into the computer. But books can't be "ripped" like CDs could be; just ask the people who painstakingly scan page after page (and occasionally, an errant finger) for Google Books.

Of course, some CDs (or LPs) your cherish in their physical form, and books are no different. But you don't cherish all of them. I have an early edition of Leaves of Grass that I wouldn't trade for a truckload of Kindles. But I also regularly use the AP Stylebook, which is a veritable literary dumbwaiter. I don't care if it's used, or paperback, or torn to shreds.

You become acutely aware of which books matter when you use a program like Delicious Library for Mac, which lets you scan the ISBN numbers of all your books and create a "digital library" with all the pertinent info about every book you own. (To scan the books in, you can use a little USB infrared wand, like the ones at checkout kiosks in stores. They're about $20.) Some of these books are in the public domain, meaning you can find them digitally on Google or other services. Suddenly, you can sell or donate the paper copies of your personal backlist, and rely on catalogued digital copies. With that action comes that wonderful, unmistakable lightness of being that technologists live for. That feeling is what made people fall in love with the iPod.

So while much of the technorati postulates about whether the public would prefer e-ink to laptop screens, or color to black and white, I'm thinking about how to make my physical book collection smaller and my digital book collection bigger. Which is why Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple and other e-reader hopefuls should create a "print-for-digital book exchange" that allows me to mail in my paper copy in exchange for a digital version. Amazon could collect a nominal fee -- say, $1 -- to cover shipping via the USPS's unbelievably cheap Media Mail service, and they could resell the books if they really wanted to, improving what is already one of the world's most incredible used book markets. But the real win is that I'd be using my Kindle (or whatever device) instead of paper books. Whatever I don't convert to digital will be part of a small, valuable collection.

Now that I've talked myself into this idea, I should mention that there are indeed ways to "rip" books yourself. ATIZ makes a slick group of book scanners called the BookDrive series, and plans exist for DIY versions that cost about $300. There are also pen devices that automatically convert your hand-written notes into digital images, and services like Kirtas that will scan your books for you, though that can get pricey. But these solutions also work for newspaper and magazine articles you'd like to save, which could make for easy personal archiving. No more "where did I read that?" syndrome.

This is great for me, the end user, but even better for the company I'm getting my digital titles from. Every book that Amazon gets me to digitize is another opportunity for me to reach for a Kindle or other e-reader instead of a physical book or magazine. Few millennials would drive to a record store (do they still exist?) to buy a CD these days, because they've been trained out of it. Likewise, the company that wins the tablet market will be the one that retrains its customers to reach first for e-ink.

Are their copyright issues? Sure. But at this point, book and magazine publishers have little choice but to kneel at the altar of the device-makers. After all, Apple wrangled a still-profitable music industry into one of the most profitable yokes in media history. Publishing will go without a fight.

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