Will Amazon's Kindle catch fire in China?

Amazon is said to be readying a Kindle launch in China. But can a dedicated e-reader compete in a land of 800 million cellphones?

Are China's 200 million to 300 million traditional book readers likely to embrace the Kindle – or any e-reader other than their cellphones?

A small flurry of rumors and headlines was created last week by reports that Amazon was seeking to hire executives to help launch its Kindle e-reader in China. And as it happens, such reports coincided with the announcement that China's own Shanda Technology would be launching its Bam Book (Jin Shu, in Chinese) e-reader, a device with a six-inch screen, Wi-Fi, and 3G.

Already active in China's e-book market is Hanvon Technology, which, according to the South China Morning Post, currently dominates about 90 percent of China's e-book sales. Hanvon says it sold about 270,000 e-book readers in 2009 and expects to sell 2 million in 2010.

But will Chinese readers – many of whom read avidly on their cellphones – embrace dedicated e-reading devices? "In comparison to the total population of China (1.3 billion) and the number of people who own a cellphone (between 700 million to 800 million), the sales of e-readers is not even worth considering," Liu Chengyong of China Publishing Group told publishingperspectives.com in an interview.

According to a nationwide survey, 1 in 4 Chinese between the ages of 18 and 70 reads e-books. And for readers under the age of 29, the number of Chinese reading e-books is almost 1 in 2.

The mere size of the Chinese market is staggering. Last year at the Frankfurt Book Fair, China was celebrated as a land of somewhere between 200 million to 300 million traditional book readers.

Even a tiny slice of that enormous pie would prove a prize well worth competing for.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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