An electronic gadget capable of storing hundreds of downloadable "ebooks" that could do for the written word what the iPod did for music is to be launched in over 300 stores across Britain.
For months, rumours have raged that the Sony Reader – already a hit in America – will be coming to British shores.
Waterstones announced that it would be taking pre-orders from today, ahead of its sale in 205 stores from September. It will also go on sale at an additional 130 Sony stores. Tens of thousands of ebooks are expected to be on offer on Waterstones' website to coincide with the arrival of the Reader. Downloads will be cheaper than their physical equivalent.
The biggest publishers are already said to transforming their material into ebook format, including Penguin, Random House and HarperCollins, after taking its lead from America's success. Random House has seen a 100 per cent increase in its year-on-year sales of ebooks across the Atlantic.
It is the first time an electronic reader has been available on such a scale in this country along with book downloads, and it could mark a "tipping point for ebooks", according to industry experts.
Borders launched its own electronic iLiad in May for £399, initially in seven stores, but many felt that such a gadget would only be a commercial hit if sold at a far cheaper price.
What makes this launch significant is the considerably lower cost of the Sony Reader, marketed at £199, twinned with the easy availability of downloads.
Smaller in size than a hardback book and written with E Ink to resemble a traditional book page, it can store up to 160 ebooks.
But while Ian Hudson, president of the Publishers Association and deputy chief executive of the Random House Group, regarded the Reader's UK launch as an important moment, he thought the ereading revolution would not happen "overnight".
"My view is that this offers a real opportunity for consumers who won't have to pack 10 paperbacks because now they can carry around 150 ebooks. In my view, this is the best piece of equipment out there. But research has found that people have a high emotional attachment to physical books... so the industry is likely to be slower to change than the music sector," he said.
A hundred "classic" ebooks such as Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Charles Dickens' Great Expectations will be on offer alongside contemporary titles such as Richard Branson's Business Stripped Bare, Jodi Picoult's Harvesting the Heart and Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.
Is the ebook the future?
Fiannuala Duggan, director of Random House Group Digital
"The first thing you notice is that there's no glare. I wasreally surprised by the screen which is not like any other, there's no reflection so you can read it sitting in the sun. I was surprised because it was so simple to use, you just press a button to move to the next page. The screen offers a very immersive reading experience. It also looks nice. It's got no flashing lights and shiny bits so it doesn't feel gadgety. It's a calm, sophisticated kind of device."
Tom Tivnan, features editor at The Bookseller
"I was not completely blown away. Aesthetically, it does the business: it is sexy, slim with a surprising bit of heft. The reading experience is surprisingly pleasant. The screen is nothing like a computer monitor, there is no backlight and you need other sources of light to read it.
There are technical aspects that are annoying. Flipping between "pages" is maddeningly slow and when you move between pages the entire text disappears and the next page reappears, which for some reason I found disconcerting."