To e- or not to e-?

That is the question facing millions of American book-lovers: Will you buy an e-reader to read books electronically? "Never!" cry those devoted to the physical book. "Already!" cry millions who own a Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, iPad, Kobo, or other e-reader.

It's early yet, and the data are churny, but some see an unusual tech trend - led by mature users, 40 and above. And as in the non-e universe, women buy more books, men newspapers and magazines.

Electronic texts have existed since at least 1971, when Michael Hart began the Gutenberg Project - and you could read them, too, if you could work a multistory, several-ton machine called a computer. For decades, people have been talking about the portable e-reader, and its time may finally be here.

To be sure, as Kelly Gallagher, vice president of publishing services at R.R. Bowker, puts it, "We're still in a 1.0 world with e-books. Fully 50 percent of all downloaded books are still free - but the e-books market is finally starting to be substantial."

Sony debuted its Reader in 2006, and since then has sold 10 million e-books, according to Chris Smythe, director of the Reader Store at Sony. In November 2007 came Kindle by Amazon. About 1.5 million Kindles had sold as of December - and the world took note when Amazon said that on Christmas Day, it sold more e-books than physical books, for the first time.

Maria Hutchinson of Haddonfield writes via Facebook that her Barnes & Noble Nook is "easy to use. I get automatic updates that are easy to install. I use it all the time. I find the pricing to be about the same as a book." Faith Paulsen of East Norriton writes via Facebook: "I got a Kindle as a gift, liked it so much we bought one for my husband. Lightweight. Easy to use. Great for travel." Mat Kaplan of Long Beach, Calif., e-mails that he bought an Aluratek Libre for $100: "It came preloaded with 100 public-domain classics, so not a bad deal."

According to the Association of American Publishers, 2009 e-book sales (in a year when plain old book sales ebbed 1.8 percent) increased 176.6 percent over 2008, to $169.5 million. E-sales rocketed to $117.8 million through April of this year, at an annual rate double 2009's. Americans now own an estimated 2.8 million e-readers - not counting computers, still the most common kind.

At fewer than 3 percent of all books sold, e-books are still a small corner of the publishing market. But such rapid growth suggests that a new age of reading has begun.

Who's e-reading?

Makers of e-books are stingy with their numbers, and industry watchdogs disagree, but some say a large proportion of early e-book owners - up to 66 percent in some surveys - are older than 40, with a "sweet spot" in the 35-to-54 range.

Smythe of Sony said that "as of now, the whole e-book industry was trending older," and Tony Astarita, vice president of digital products at Barnes & Noble, said that "our initial adoption was skewed to heavy readers and an older demographic." Astarita expects, however, that as e-book prices moderate, "we're going to see a more general audience."

Risa Becker, vice president of research operations for GfK MRI, reports on a survey released in May: "We're not finding the more-mature trend, and only a very slight tendency for men to own e-readers more than women." Yet for certain readers, such as the Kindle, early users are more frequently female. Smythe said, "We're seeing a greater percentage of women than men; a lot of women are taking to this."

Becker said, "Women were 11 percent more likely than men to say they read an e-book, and men were 20 percent more likely to have read a magazine and 19 percent more likely to have read a newspaper."

E-book users, Becker said, tend to earn more than $100,000 a year, be college-educated, and be very Web and social-media savvy: "These people do everything on the Web. They spend more than 20 hours a week on it."

What are they reading? The e-Top 10 looks pretty much like the non-e. Last week, the top five at Sony Reader Store featured books by James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, and Stieg Larsson. Larsson's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy was 1-3 on the Kindle Top 100, and Evanovich and Patterson were in the top 10.

Electric libraries

You didn't know libraries offer e-books? "That's what's frustrating," said library consultant Cynthia Orr, from her offices in Cleveland. "It's been around for a while now, and people aren't aware of it." She helped invent the country's first public e-check-out system in 2003. Called Overdrive, it is used at the Free Library of Philadelphia and at hundreds of libraries across the land, 11,000 worldwide. It checked out a record 1.2 million e-items in June.

"Video and audiobooks are still most popular," Orr said. "But at last, after seven years, e-books are starting to pick up. . . . Speaking generally, the users have been older than you might expect. Whatever's hot, whatever's on the best-sellers list, that's what's hot e-wise. Romances circulate like mad."

As a librarian, Orr has met many for whom e-books are nothing less than a godsend. One group is people with disabilities. "One man, who could see a little but was legally blind," she said, "called to say he was so grateful for the service. From his home, he could check out titles himself - and adjust the type size so he could read it."

Publishers e-merge

After initial resistance, and still wrestling with pricing, royalties, and rights, publishers are moving to surf the e-wave. All majors offer at least some of their books in e-form. One leader is Harlequin, renowned for its romances: It claims to be the first to render all its books electronic.

Harlequin just went live with the Carina Press, which offers books in electronic form first, with the option to go to press later. "We went from zero to live in nine months," said Katherine Orr, vice president of public relations for Harlequin. Chief executive officer "Donna Hayes and the rest of us felt this was the future, and we already have a devoted readership who've been downloading our titles for a long time."

Like e-reader sites, Carina does more than offer books: It creates a community, with special offers, news of author appearances, and other announcements. The way Carina, Kindle, Nook, and Sony create online communities hints at the future. "The 2.0 step," said Gallagher of Bowker, "may lie in the socializing features you can offer to readers. You can sell me Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, but can you connect me with other readers around the world who are reading it?"

What we may be losing

Some are saddened by the notion of an all-e-world. Rochelle Gurstein, author of The Repeal of Reticence, speaks for many when she laments that "we're losing the physical materiality of books, the memories attached to them. For people who love books, it's not just what's in them; it's all the things we associate with them, who we were when we first read them, who we are now. It's hard to write all of that into an electronic text."

The book is still a superior invention - but for many reasons, some environmental, its place is now being challenged. In this bucking-bronco market, questions abound. Will younger consumers, who read fewer books, ever really warm to e-readers, preferring the handheld media they grew up with? "And you have to wonder," Cynthia Orr said, "will they stick with e-readers, or graduate to something like an iPad, with multiple features, and e-reading is only one among many?"

The iPad is one potential game-changer. Another is the Google Editions eBook Store, scheduled to go live any moment now, Google-big, Google-strong, to square off against Amazon and other e-vendors.

Meantime, one local Kindle user just downloaded the vast, six-volume unabridged Three Musketeers for 99 cents. Hard to curl up by the fire with an e-reader, but still, there they are, Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d'Artagnan. Print or e-, they're still all for one, one for all.