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Bob Hoover
Books
Reviews
Bob Hoover
Children's Corner
The evolution of e-books

Sunday, December 24, 2000

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

Books are one of mankind's perfect designs, surviving essentially unchanged for centuries. Between their covers is the wisdom of the world.

 
 
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Why, then, are publishers, writers and a variety of high-tech companies trying to replace them?

The efforts involve plans by every major American publisher to convert thousands of existing titles (the "backlist") to digital form; the appearance of numerous Internet companies offering publishing services at low cost; a major investment in improving electronic book technology; and the creation of original novels written directly for computer users, including one by the country's best-selling novelist.

At this point, there's no danger that books are doomed. In fact, some of the current efforts to improve digital technology could make them more convenient than ever.

What will change is the American publishing business.

Barely 150 years old, that business is already on the road to a sweeping transformation, largely economic. The prospects of technology will overhaul the way books are produced and sold as well. Eventually, the changes will reach as far as the relationship between the writer and the reader.

So, as the computer-age advances in the new century, let's take a look at where "e-books" and their permutations stand.

King leads the way

The growing world of e-books emerged rather publicly from behind its technological curtain just a few months ago in several ways. Most notably was Stephen King, who made a national splash by becoming the first popular author to write exclusively for the Internet in July with the first installment of a planned novella, "The Plant."

Posting each chapter as he finished it, King turned out six installments of the thriller before he went "on hiatus" because of other commitments, he told readers of his Web site this month.

King also served as his own publisher, marketing and selling the book himself. Originally priced at $1 for the first three installments and $2 for whatever came next, "The Plant" was sold on the King honor system. He promised to cut the book off if fewer than 75 percent of those downloading failed to pay. That threat never materialized.

He now calls those first six installments, "Zenith Rising: Book 1 of 'The Plant'" and sells them for $7.

The project, says King, "is not a book," but "just an electronic mirage floating out there all by itself ... with no printing costs, publishers cuts or agents' fees to pull it down. Advertising aside ... costs are nonexistent and the profit potential is unlimited."

Locally, the second event was the Carnegie Library's decision in October to lend electronic book readers (it chose the Rocket eBook) to its card-holders. These devices, about the size of a hardcover book, digitally store the contents of 4,000 pages of text.

That number works out to about 10 novels.

"This is a way the library can test the public's interest in digital books," said Herb Elish, library director.

Ten Rocket eBooks are available in the system. Since the devices cost about $300, the library also requires a credit card to borrow one, a week at a time.

But the library does not provide a piece of hardware that makes electronic books more valuable -- the gadget that can transfer content from its source into the e-book. The library decided to offer its e-books for reading only.

Enter the e-book

When combined, these two events reveal the possibilities that the digital world offers: By writing and selling for the Internet, an author simply bypasses the publisher and the bookseller by going directly to the reader via the e-book.

The entire transaction occurs in cyberspace.

At this point, the drawbacks to bringing about this perfect world are considerable. They start with the e-book itself.

Current models are both expensive and limited basically to text only. Their portability depends on battery life. Averaging about 22 ounces, they are not excessively heavy, but they still are uncomfortable to hold for long periods. And, unlike a book, they break down.

In the book business, these problems cause an "unattractive reading experience."

Selling them as a practical alternative is a major task, said Henry Yuen, head of Gemstar eBooks, which makes the electronic reader selected by the Carnegie Library.

"Today, people have pagers, cell phones, Palm Pilots. They don't need one more gadget," he said at the ePub Expo held in New York in late October. "They're saying, 'We already have books. We don't need a replacement.' "

But Yuen, whose company also owns TV Guide, paid $400 million to buy two of the top e-book companies, NuvoMedia and SoftBook Press, so he has a major stake in the future of these products, which he calls "DRDs" or dedicated reading devices.

Yuen's ideal e-book will weigh 8 ounces, offer full-color display as well as audio, run three months on batteries and cost less than $100.

"I don't believe that the e-book will replace paper books very soon, but consumer habits will change," he said. "Children today are more comfortable with digital products. When they become adults, they will have no reservations about reading e-books."

But, technology is the smallest of the hurdles facing electronic publishing. One of the biggest problems is the very nature of the Internet itself, as King complained:

"Internet users have gotten used to the idea that most of what's available to them on the Net is either free or should be."

In traditional publishing, authors and publishers own the rights to material and expect to be paid for granting the rights to reproduce that material. Offering books (known in this brave new world as "content") on the Net is an open invitation to piracy, a literary version of Napster.

For Yuen, "pirates are the biggest threat to content. They've done some pretty extensive damage," he said. "The concept that the Internet is free poses the biggest threat to e-books' future."

Without copyright protection, Yuen worries that online publishing will lack the kind of quality content that will attract buyers. "There's plenty of quantity out there, but very little quality right now, and without copyright protection, creative people will be driven away."

Yuen's own solution is development of a DRD with built-in "content protection against the casual hacker," he said. Each DRD could be programmed to download content only to its owner in a unique identity system, he added.

Digital details

While other efforts to ensure rights legally and technologically are being pressed, most major publishers have gradually entered the digital world in varying degrees. Time Warner Books is the most ambitious, creating a division called iPublish, "an interactive publishing house."

While all the pieces are not in place, iPublish will function as a conventional publisher, but it will accept or reject book submissions online. It also will be a book supplier, offering all of its titles for sale through dot-com stores such as Amazon and barnesandnoble.

"Last year, Time Warner simply decided to become more aggressive about electronic publishing," said Marco Spinar, director of business operations. "The trade publishing side of the company now believes in electronic books."

Currently, books by such top-selling Warner authors as David Baldacci, Sandra Brown, Nelson DeMille and Nicholas Sparks can be purchased in digital as well as conventional form.

Other publishers have followed suit, but what sets iPublish apart is its plan to develop original titles for its Web site. "It's a larger commitment to the Web community," Spinar said.

What he envisions is an interactive site where authors exchange ideas as well as manuscripts and comments on each others' work. Editors from Warner Books will also be involved in the process, Spinar added.

Random House, the American arm of Bertelsmann, the German publishing conglomerate, was more cautious. Earlier this year, it bought a stake in Xlibris, a digital operation that charges authors to publish their books.

PenguinPutnam has formed a partnership with Lightning Source, which will transfer its titles to digital form and set up a system to sell them online.

All of those companies are currently negotiating with authors and agents on contract arrangements for electronic publishing as well.

The move to the Internet by a business that has been traditionally slow to embrace new ideas is primarily economic.

"Mainstream publishing is moving into publishing because it will eventually lead to greater profitability," claims Yuen.

"When it occurs, there will be no need for warehouses to store books, no large production costs, a more efficient distribution system and no more returns."

Unlike most businesses, publishers agree to take back unsold merchandise for full credit. Called returns, the policy has become an onerous expense.

The next page

Despite the new technology, books as we now know them will not change very much. Sometime in the near future, they will simply be printed in a different way -- individually, when ordered either online or at digital bookstore. And with such giants as IBM and Xerox both working on new printing and binding machines, there will be improvements in these digitally printed books.

"The world of digital publishing is both robust and promising," said Kathryn Blough, vice president of the American Association of Publishers. "The whole point of the move is to develop a practical market for consumers to use."

A way of life is about to disappear, however. As two recent books, similar in content but not in outlook, tell us, the clubby and idealist world of publishing is about to die out.

The books are "The Business of Books" by Andre Schiffren (Verso, $23) and "Book Business" by Jason Epstein (Norton, $21.95). Schiffren with Pantheon and Epstein with Random House followed that world from the 1940s to today and both see the digital future in different ways.

Schiffren:

"There is every reason to assume that larger firms, with greater marketing clout, will dominate the Internet in the same way they have asserted themselves in more conventional publishing. They may also ultimately control our access to that medium."

With Time Warner Books now merging with AOL, Schiffren might be on track.

Epstein:

"What is clear is that on the World Wide Web, publishers' tasks can be reduced to an essential handful: editorial support, publicity, design, digitizing and financing. ... Book publishing may therefore become once more a cottage industry of diverse, creative autonomous units."

Additional Bob Hoover Columns:


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