It started in the 1970s with the very beginning of Project Gutenberg, when a man decided to use his computer timeshare to email copies of the Declaration of Independence to everyone on the then-fledgling BITNET. It continued in various forms until the late 1990s, through Gutenberg and Wiretap, through Hero Games's experiment with the Hero Plus line of postscripted books on disk, and FASA's attempt to sell Earthdawn as a CD-ROM. But it was only in the late '90s that the e-book craze began to catch fire.

An electronic book is, of course, the text (and possibly illustrations) of a book, stored in digital form. It seemed like a revolutionary and subversive idea when it was first posited--and perhaps it still is a little too revolutionary for some. There have been multiple attempts at creating e-books, none of which is terribly compatible with any of the others: Dedicated readers such as the Rocketbook, Postscript files for the PC or laptop, TealDoc or Peanut Press files for the Palm Pilot, Visor, or Windows CE machine...or plain ASCII or HTML. Or the so-called Open E-Book Format--though it doesn't seem to be used by terribly many people yet. Downloadable file, floppy disk, or CD-ROM?

But no matter what format it is, it is questionable whether people will actually read an e-book rather than a dead tree. Surveys have shown that the great majority of the people who downloaded Stephen King's much-touted e-book Riding the Bullet...have not actually read it. Many people have reported eyestrain or difficulty reading from the devices available today.

And even if the eyestrain problem were solved tomorrow, with digital ink or some other new advance, it is uncertain whether people would change their reading habits. Electronic books create new problems consumers have never faced before. Sure you can download it instantly...but should you pay hardcover or paperback price for it? And you can't sell it (the way you can a used book) if you decide you don't like it.

These are some of the problems facing selling e-books today, even without addressing the new electronic vanity presses such as Fatbrain and iUniverse, which have problems of their own.

Fortunately, there are many excellent public domain books available electronically for free, thanks to Project Gutenberg, Wiretap, and sites such as the Palmtop Library. There would be more, but for the recent corporate-sponsored copyright extension.