The buzz among the many publishers at last week's launch of the Sony Reader was that it is, by far, the best device dedicated to reading e-books yet developed. The Reader's strengths are many: it is lightweight (9 ounces); built like a paperback (5 in. by 7 in.; half-inch thick); and has plenty of storage capacity (up to 80 books). Its strongest feature, however, is the use of E-Ink, which makes for a sharp reading experience. As Penguin senior v-p and corporate director of business affairs John Schline observed, the screen quality "is so clear and easy on the eyes that it makes me forget I'm reading an e-book" (Schline sampled The Kite Runner on the Reader).

Schline even liked the fact that the Reader is a closed system and will only accommodate titles that are formatted specifically for the Reader. "Consumers can get the software and the book all in one spot, and it's one easy download for each title," he said.

Sony's marketing muscle is another plus, something HarperCollins's Brian Murray alluded to in brief remarks at the launch. "We are excited to see a leading electronics company such as Sony investing in a new electronic reading device," Murray told the crowd. Sony will back the launch of the Reader with online and print ads, plus wall wraps in airports, where the Reader will be sold by Borders.

Publishers acknowledge that e-book sales so far have been small, but are becoming more significant. "We wouldn't want to give back the money we get from e-books," one publisher observed.

Despite the hype surrounding the Reader, few in publishing believe it will do for books what the iPod did for music—create a new, large digitally delivered sales channel. One executive said he doesn't think there ever will be an industry answer to the iPod, and that the transition to a digital reading market will be gradual and include a variety of devices and formats. And while some have criticized Sony for adopting a proprietary system that could cause confusion among consumers, others see the development of the Reader—and the approaching launch of other competitive devices—as good for book publishing, saving it from the kind of monopoly the iPod holds in music.