Welcome to the party, Barnes & Noble (NYSE:BKS).

The leading bookstore chain is hosting "a major event" in its company history next Tuesday. Everyone who isn't living under a rock knows that this will be the day when B&N unveils its electronic book reader.

Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Sony (NYSE:SNE) have been at this for some time, so the superstore operator has some serious catching up to do.

You can't fault B&N for dragging its feet. Digital books, in theory, will be the death of bookstores. We've seen what MP3 players have done to traditional record stores. We've seen what the Internet has done to the print newspaper publishers.

B&N may feign excitement and pour on the thick superlatives, but you know it's dreading Tuesday's event in New York City. This new opportunity will also speed up the poison that has gradually entered the bloodstream of B&N, Borders Group (NYSE:BGP), Books-A-Million (NASDAQ:BAMM), and their smaller rivals.

Gizmodo has its hands on what are presumably some of the reader's first snapshots, and it turns out that this could be a serious contender. The standout feature is that it replaces the keyboard found on the Kindle with a multitouch screen that can double as a digital keyboard, menu screen, and potentially so much more.

Rich snapshots? Why not? Word games and Wi-Fi surfing? Bring it on. We're now less than a week away from learning B&N's official intentions, but let's not dismiss the company just because it's unfashionably late. It is the country's leading bricks-and-mortar book retailer, so having regular contact with avid booklovers is a powerful perk in marketing this device.

The real drawback is that this will be a confusing holiday season. Since it takes the purchase of several dozen books in digital form to justify the cost of the initial hardware outlay, shoppers need to be confident that their readers won't become obsolete. The platforms aren't entirely compatible with one another, so a lot of potential buyers may decide to watch from the sidelines until a true victor emerges. We also can't dismiss the power of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) inevitable dive into this market, either through the rumored tablet computers or larger portable media players.

This isn't the way B&N mapped it out, but creating confusion buys it time to catch up.

The plot thickens, as does the pool of competitors.

Do you own an e-book reader, or will you be springing for one over the holidays? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has been a Kindle owner since last year. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. Rick owns no shares in any of the companies in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy.