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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, [email protected] CENTER CRM Solutions

[May 31, 2000]

Curling Up With A Good E-Book?

I'm having a conflict of interest about something. It's the only situation I can think of in which the term "technology editor" becomes an oxymoron. On the one hand, I write about technology. On the other hand, I'm an editor and a book lover. I'm talking about e-books.

In the early days of the so-called "e-book" revolution, digital books were on CDs or could only be downloaded to a PC, a concept which we bibliophiles found ridiculous. I sit in front of a computer all day long and take pleasure in the printed page in the evening. How many of us would find appeal in retiring to our computer for an hour before bed, once again parking ourselves in front of the screen, for a relaxing reading session? I apparently wasn't alone in this thinking.

Entering stage left are a new breed of PDA-type devices known as digital readers. One example of this new item is a product sold by SoftBook. The SoftBook Reader is a lightweight, leather-bound reader with the capability of downloading and storing thousands of pages of digital text. According to the company, the SoftBook reader enhances a reader's experience by throwing in the added bonus of search functions, annotations and hyperlinks (entirely eliminating the need to develop those pesky researching skills, I might cynically add). The SoftBook Reader has a built-in modem, allowing users to download new materials via the telephone, avoiding the necessity of having to use a PC. The product retails for about $300 and requires a $20 per month subscription fee. E-books are also available in PDA format. This method requires Palm software specifically created to read text documents.

Can you see this scenario? You're laying on a beach in Tahiti and must instantly leap up and try to find a telephone so you can hook up your modem and download the sequel to the great e-book with which you've just been relaxing.

Few people missed the implications of e-publishing, both good and bad, after the recent release of Stephen King's Web-only novella, Riding the Bullet, back in March of this year (published by Scribner in conjunction with Philtrum Press). The response was mind-boggling. Fans rushed to the sites that offered the book in such enormous numbers that late-comers (you knowthose that logged on 10 minutes late) had a hard time getting onto the sites at all. CNN reported that one of its editors who attempted to download the book from Barnes & Noble.com was told the queue was backed up and that the book would be e-mailed to him instead. Later, he received notification via e-mail that due to high-traffic, even the e-mail would be delayed. This wasn't the only trouble with King's book: One of the distributors offering the book was quickly infiltrated by hackers, who broke through the encryption and began offering the download for free, making would-be e-publishers wince. Pirates ride the high seas once again, though this time minus eye patches and ships.

Still, few publishers with any business savvy would ignore that kind of response. Shortly after the King novella hype, several large publishers stepped forward to announce their e-publishing initiatives. Time Warner Trade Publishing, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Bertelsmann, Houghton Mifflin and Macmillan USA, to name a few, have all announced some form of initiative, ranging from very large to very limited, to get started in e-publishing. The ever-present Microsoft has been involved in at least two of these ventures (Simon & Schuster and Random House), in that it is providing them with the reader software.

I don't begrudge the publishers these venturesthere is daily evidence that several small Internet-only publishers are on the rise. If the large, traditional publishing houses are not quick and sleek, they may find themselves put out to pasture in the e-book industry. At the same time, the staid, traditional copyright and royalty laws and rules that apply to print books have the potential of becoming an unpredictable, snarling beast in the world of e-books, a situation no publisher is going to look forward to tackling. I don't envy the tough choices that have been set in front of these traditional publishers.

I do, however, envy the authors of these up-and-coming e-books. Through personal experience in book publishing, I know a standard royalty rate, particularly for first books, is often a dismal 10 percent. A 15 percent royalty rate means you are a very special author, and anything larger than that means you are Mary Higgins Clark. With the bulk of production costs cut out (and printing costs entirely eliminated), it is the authors who will reap the benefits. It's estimated that royalty rates of 50 percent or more for e-books will not be unheard of.

I'm not completely decrying the technology. It will be revolutionary for distance-learning, and it may be the answer to the prayers of libraries, whose limited budgets may not allow them to carry all the titles they would wish to. Rare books, formerly available only to those few with the resources to travel to where they were housed, can be available to anyone, any time, anywhere.

Additionally, the concept promises to be big business. The number of downloads is still relatively small and largely caters to the non-fiction world, but as more and more titles become available and as the service becomes largely free (check out MemoWare.com, which offers thousands of titles in the Palm format, most at no cost), it will gain in popularity, though I predict only among those that never feel the desire to escape from all things electronic.

I look forward to a day in the future, long after today's young people have accepted e-books as the norm, when a teenager comes to me and enthusiastically reports, "I found this GREAT shop the other day. They sell these thingsbooks printed on paper. They're amazingthey have a great feel and smell to them, and you can buy them, put them on a shelf when you're finished reading them and even share them with your friends. If you drop them, it's OKthey don't get damaged. You can read even when you don't have access to a telephone! Isn't that wonderful?"

Also, if I may offer one valuable and insightful tip to the manufacturers of e-book readers? Please put a large sticker on the back that reads, "Do Not Use in the Bathtub."

Fusty, traditionalist bibliophiles can commiserate with the author at troth@tmcnet.com.

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