Fred Bass is responsible for buying thousands of used books and has sold about 8 miles of them each day since 1956. He has turned his Strand bookstore on Broadway and 12th Street in Manhattan into a cult of personality, with its ubiquitous bags showing up in every major U.S. city and its shirts making cameos on "Gossip Girl." That said, he bears no ill will toward electronic readers like Amazon's ( AMZN) Kindle. "It's a magnificent piece of equipment," Bass says. "It's going to do wonders for the publishing world, so I'm looking at the positives." The question is why isn't the rest of the literate world more interested in carrying the equivalent of the Strand in its back pocket? Sure, all those books look really nice up there on the shelves and give their owners hours worth of talking points at dinner parties, but last month Google ( GOOG) indexed its trillionth Web page, compared with the 10 billion equivalent pages of information Internet Archive says are stored at the Library of Congress. Still think that bookshelf's impressive?
"I know that my bookshelf is a really inefficient way of storing information," says Andrew Savikas, who heads the digital publishing and eBook program for O'Reilly Media and is an adviser to Safari Books Online. "There's a greater concentration of information on the Web than in every book ever printed." While there may be some question about the quality of online information that includes Lolcats and a repeating clip of Sean Connery saying "you're the man now, dog," the generation now headed to college has spent its whole life reading digitally as their parents' bookshelves gathered dust and their subscriptions to the New Yorker pile up near recycling bins. Though the Association of American Publishers says only 113,220 of the more than 8 million books sold last year were eBooks, that market has grown nearly 60% since 2002 compared with 2% for all publishers. It's the cost of accessing that booming market, however, that's kept many readers buried in the bargain racks.