LOS ANGELES - Is the Kindle about to catch fire?

Could Amazon.com's seven-month-old wireless e-book reader - a rectangular wonder in antique iPod white, able to download any of 125,000 books adapted to its format - be the tipping point that marks the decline and fall of the paper book?

If those two questions continue to dominate techno-talk in the book-publishing industry, it's because book folk, being weaker in gizmo-related prognostication than, say, the devotees of a consumer electronics show, aren't sure.

But earlier this month here at Book Expo America, the yearly meeting of the American publishing business, they ran into one man who seems absolutely sure: Jeff Bezos, founder and master marketer of Amazon, at his showcase turn before more than 600 attendees at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The balding, blue-jeaned corporate dynamo - now a 44-year-old father of four who kept his empire healthy through the dot-com disasters - did everything possible to suggest the answers were an almost Joycean yes, yes, and yes again.

Bezos began with Barnumlike flair, reading a passage from Scott McClellan's red-hot memoir, What Happened.

"That book is sold out almost everywhere," Bezos noted matter-of-factly, adding that Amazon would have bound copies back in stock soon. But, he added, "in the car on the way here, I downloaded it onto my Kindle, and it was there in less than 60 seconds. One of the great things about electronic books is that they don't go out of stock."

What exactly is this Kindle, obtainable only from Amazon? Is it worth the $359 list price to which the company cut it last month from $399?

Simply put, it's the digital e-book reader with a difference. Because it's wireless, using the high-speed EVDO data network of advanced cellular phones, you can, like the boss himself, order a book from the Kindle Store ($9.99 is the standard price) and get it in less than a minute. And because Kindle uses what Bezos calls high-resolution "electronic ink," it is, many agree, the closest thing yet to the look of print on a page.

Because it's from Amazon, Kindle is already linked with many companies and options. You can subscribe to major newspapers and blogs, delivered to your Kindle each morning. You can also download first chapters free before buying a book. In addition, the Kindle is lighter than many paperbacks (10.3 ounces), contains the New Oxford American Dictionary and Wikipedia access, with all wireless costs bundled into the device's price. By adding extra memory, its capacity of 200-plus books can increase - one Kindle owner has downloaded 1,076 books.

Bezos told listeners he wanted to capture "essential elements of the physical book," emphasizing how "anything that lasts 500 years is not easily improved upon." The key thing, Bezos believes, is that "the book disappears in your hands. You aren't thinking about the glue and paper and ink. All those things go away and what remains is the author's world."

So the Kindle tries to make everything easy. But Bezos also stresses that it permits readers to do unique things.

One is making margin notes storable "on the server" so retrieval is easier than in a print book. Kindle also allows for change of font size. But the "whopper" feature, in the CEO's opinion, is that ability to download a book instantly.

There's no question Kindle is a hit. To what degree is hard to tell because Amazon doesn't release sales figures, but one widely read industry newsletter, Publishers' Lunch, estimated yesterday that Kindle's 2008 sales will be more than 500,000 units. Bezos did announce that Kindle books now account for 6 percent of Amazon's unit book sales.

Jay Marine, director of product management for Kindle, says it sold out within five hours of its November launch. Bezos apologized on Amazon's Web page for the device itself going out of stock.

Now it's available again. To pump Kindle, Amazon has solicited video testimonials from leading writers, including Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison ("I can carry it, and have more at my disposal . . ."). Bezos also shared feedback at BEA from customers. One wrote: "The Kindle's up there with Häagen-Dazs and sex."

But Bezos' most surprising claim was that "customers continue to purchase the same number of physical books" as they did before getting a Kindle, and their total book purchases increase. The possibility that e-books help rather than hurt print sales could account for why publishers are growing more friendly toward them.

According to Marilyn Ducksworth, senior vice president at the Penguin Group, Penguin's e-book sales for the first four months of 2008 surpassed its total sales for all of 2007.

At the same time, according to a Random House/Zogby poll released at BEA, 82 percent of all readers prefer curling up with a printed book to new reading technology. Remarkably, given the preference of young people for reading newspapers online, only 13 percent of those younger than 30 expressed comfort with reading books electronically.

The anxiety among publishers wondering whether they should rush to authorize e-book versions of all their wares in the $37 billion American publishing industry was probably heightened when Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy announced, after Bezos' initial remarks, that having digitized some 4,000 of its books over the last decade, Simon & Schuster would speed up and authorize 5,000 by the end of 2008.

Reidy explained that she shared Bezos' vision: "The idea that our books could be available to any reader, instantly, all the time, is an idea that we truly embrace." Years before, she had seen the need for "more content, better hardware."

Bezos agreed: "We created Kindle because we've been selling e-books for 10 years, and you would have needed an electronic microscope to find the sales."

With the Kindle's "improved display and better software," Reidy concluded, "we're now finally at the tipping point." In Amazon mode, you might say that BEA listeners who bought Bezos also bought Reidy.

Not everyone has praised Kindle unreservedly. Reviews on both Amazon and technology Web sites cite pros and cons. Some of Kindle's putative improvements over a print book are debatable.

For instance, while it's true you can search for margin notes, they don't actually appear in the text on Kindle, but in windows that must be called up. Also, while it's accurate that one has a right to the content of any Kindle book purchased, it can't be sold like a used print book.

It didn't hurt the Kindle, or Bezos' agenda, that BEA promotion for its main rival, the SONY Reader Digital Book, was virtually nonexistent.

SONY didn't take a booth. Instead, if you rummaged around the display tables in the lobby of BEA - filled with flyers from self-published authors and others too poor or cheap to rent space - you could spot discount cards that promised $30 off the Reader, which is not wireless and holds about 160 e-books.

After his initial presentation, Bezos joined Wired editor Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, for a public chat in which both mused about the future.

Neither addressed one question on the minds of prospective Kindle buyers: Should I grab one now, or wait for Kindle 2.0, the way many cagey sorts are now about to pounce on the new 3G iPhone?

Marine says there's no timeline for a second version yet but concedes, as did Bezos indirectly, that Amazon plans to keep working on improved models. To Kindle doubters, Bezos got off one subtle jab about book-industry know-it-alls.

He recalled when he started his groundbreaking company 14 years ago. "The more you knew about the book industry," he observed with a bright smile, "the less likely you were to invest in Amazon."

Contact book critic Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com.
Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/carlinromano.