Network: Reinventing the book

A range of `reading devices' are coming to the market. The publishing industry may be in for a shock.
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The Independent Culture
Can you publish a book without printing it? That was the question attenders at the Frankfurt Book Fair were asking each other last week. It's an odd subject to raise at the publishing industry's largest annual gathering - where agents and editors hustle to get potential best-sellers into print. But a number of people at this year's fair didn't want to talk about hardback rights; what they wanted to talk about were books that may never get into print at all - electronic books.

Steve Potash of Overdrive Systems was in Frankfurt to demonstrate BookWorks, which allows publishers to produce, copyright and distribute e-books to PCs and portable appliances running Microsoft Windows. Among the titles the literary agent Ed Victor was representing were books published by Online Originals, an Internet publisher. And Nuvomedia was on hand to demonstrate its Rocket eBook, a palm-sized electronic reading tablet that it claims will take reading and book-buying "one giant leap forward".

The idea of the e-book isn't new. It's been a staple of science fiction since the Forties, making appearances in Star Trek, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Knight Rider. Since 1971, volunteers at Project Gutenberg - a University of Illinois initiative to make as much public-domain literature as possible available as e-text - have been typing in books. These texts have been posted on the Web, waiting for a convenient reading device to make them accessible.

But it's only very recently that laptop technology and widespread Internet access have made the e-book a real possibility. Four e-book reading devices are coming on the market in the next year: the Rocket eBook, the SoftBook, the Librius Millennium Reader and the Everybook Dedicated Reader. Ranging in price from $300 to $1,500, the devices store and display books that have been retrieved from the Internet or a proprietary network.

Palmtop developers such as 3Com have also started pitching their products as reading devices. And last week in Gaithersburg, Maryland, at the first electronic book conference, Microsoft threw its weight behind the growing industry by proposing "the Open Book Standard", guidelines for formatting and distributing electronic texts. Microsoft said it was seeking to avert a Betamax-versus-VHS-type battle in the e-book industry.

At the same time, online bookstores are gearing up to deliver books via the Net to these reading devices and palm-top computers. Traditional publishers have formed partnerships with the reading device producers to distribute some of their titles. New book publishers such as the London- based Online Originals and the New York-based Electron Press are publishing quality new books solely on the Internet.

So just how seriously should we take the e-book? In a few years' time, will we all be carrying e-books along with our mobile phones and laptops, or are they merely flavour-of-the-month gimmicks? In the US, the economic advantages of electronic books have already been recognised. The chairman of the Texas Board of Education has proposed spending billions of dollars to replace outdated textbooks with e-books. Last month the Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, said replacing printed textbooks with computers should be a goal of the US government.

Others are less enthusiastic. Commercial publishers can't imagine how to market e-books - books without covers, books that will never appear in Waterstone's - and they're nervous about selling electronic texts that may be copied and redistributed without permission. Readers share this scepticism, arguing that a book has a certain feel, a certain smell - you can't crack the binding of a reading device, or fold its pages to mark your place. "The idea of reading a novel by Dickens from a screen is mad!" complained Auberon Waugh, editor of The Literary Review, on Newsnight.

None of the reading device producers claim that they're replacing the look and feel of printed books. Still, they are quick to point out the advantages of e-books. Reading devices can store many e-books at a time. They have optional large-type fonts, bookmarking, searching and annotating functions. Their backlit screens allow you to read them in bed without disturbing a sleeping partner. There are social benefits, too: the clear environmental advantage of saving paper; the ability to deliver books to schoolrooms containing only a phone line and a computer. These advantages, the companies argue, will dramatically change reading habits.

"Imagine the ability to have dozens of corporate documents, books and periodicals all within one slim, leather-bound book," SoftBook proclaims on its Web site. "Imagine teachers being able to present their students with required reading materials for an entire semester, or [information] managers being able to distribute corporate documentation to hundreds of employees - but all in one book."

The reading device producers also point to problems in the publishing industry that the low cost of producing and distributing e-books may remedy. Paper books are expensive to print, inventory, store and ship. That means that new titles which don't sell well immediately vanish. Critics argue that as the publishing industry has consolidated, decisions have shifted from editorial to marketing departments, and books by established authors and celebrities are more likely to be published than books by fringe or new authors.

"Today's trade publishing industry is confronted with serious economic barriers to growth," says the Librius website. "The risk of carrying expensive inventories that may not sell has led, in the US, to the demise of the small bookseller. Clearly, the industry is in need of a better way to publish that reduces risk, allows even new authors to be published and effectively marketed and makes buying books less costly and more convenient."

The four reading-devices coming to market have some features in common: touch screens with a stylus for note-taking; searching and bookmarking capabilities; and large-print options. But beyond this they differ in size, price and function. At the cheaper end of the spectrum are the SoftBook ($299) and the Librius Millennium Reader ($200).

The Millennium Reader, which will be available this winter, is paperback- sized and weighs about 1lb. Users will buy new and previously printed books over the Internet from the Librius World Library and other retailers via their PCs. The books download into the device, which can store up to 10 at a time.

The SoftBook, available this autumn, is larger and heavier (it measures 8.5in by 11in and weighs 3lb). It holds up to 100,000 pages of text and graphics. Unlike the Millennium Reader, SoftBook plugs directly into a telephone line. A modem dials up the SoftBook Network, a virtual bookstore. When you touch the title you want, SoftBook charges your credit card and downloads the book. The SoftBook Network will be available only to SoftBook users; in addition to purchasing the device, users must pay $9.95 per month for access to its books, newspapers, magazines and professional and student resources.

The Rocket eBook ($500) pitches convenience and readability. It's the size of a paperback, weighs 20oz, and has a screen resolution

of 105 dots per inch (most computers use a 72dpi screen). It holds up to 4,000 pages of text, has a curved "spine" that fits in the palm of your hand, and resembles small digital organisers such as the PalmPilot (it was designed by the same team). It connects to the Internet via a PC. Unlike other devices, the Rocket eBook doesn't have its own virtual bookstore. Rather, users download books from third-party Internet bookstores, such as the US megastore Barnes and Noble.

At the top end of the spectrum is the Everybook Dedicated Reader, which comes in three models costing from $500 to $1,500. It will be available in the UK in winter 1999, and looks much like a very large book. It has two facing screens (measuring 11.8in by 9.5in together) and its proprietary bookstore, the Everybook Store, delivers texts that are exact duplicates of printed pages. Like the SoftBook, the Everybook plugs directly into standard telephone lines, and retrieves only books purchased from the Everybook store. It is delivered with a Bible, a dictionary and other reference texts, and is being marketed to professionals who require instant updates to their expensive reference collections.

And there are other electronic reading devices that millions already own. E-books published on Overdrive System's BookWorks platform can be downloaded to any laptop or palmtop computer supporting Microsoft Windows. And 3Com's PalmPilot (pounds 299) holds at least two books and also has e-mail and organisational databases. The clarity isn't great for readers, but a more reader-friendly version is in development.

Already, online publishers have recognised the PalmPilot's potential as a reading tablet. The Internet publishers Online Originals and Peanut Press offer books formatted for PalmPilot, and Electron Press plans to release all its books in PalmPilot format by the end of the year. Philip Harris, founder of Electron, and David Gettman, managing editor of Online Originals, both praise the PalmPilot's open architecture, which allows users to download books from a number of sources in different formats, and to use the same device for e-mail and planning as well as for reading.

Users don't want to haul around more than one palm-top device, concurs Neville Street, general manager of 3Com Palm Computing Europe. They want one, multifunctional device on which they can "get their e-mail and newspaper before they get on the train in the morning, connect to the Web when they get to work and hot-sync with their PC to download paperwork to carry home at the end of the day".

Of course, if there are going to be electronic reading devices, there must be texts to read on them. Each of the reading device companies has established partnerships with publishing houses. The giant American book retailer Barnes and Noble, and Bertelsmann Ventures, a division of Bertelsmann AG (which also owns Random House and last week bought a 50 per cent stake in Barnes and Noble's online bookshop, have both invested in the Rocket eBook's developer, Nuvomedia. SoftBook Network will offer titles from HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Random House. Everybook is developing books in conjunction with McGraw Hill.

However, no publishing house has yet converted its full list into e-text. Although encryption methods are in place to protect against unauthorised duplication, publishers - their fingers burnt by investments in failed CD-Rom projects - are waiting to see whether the public will really pay money for e-books.

They won't have to wait long. Some people are already purchasing e-books over the Internet from Online Originals, which offers a list of 32 fiction and non-fiction titles. Customers browse sample chapters on the company's website, then place orders by e-mail. The books are e-mailed to readers as digital files formatted for desktop PCs or PalmPilot. (Online Originals' list may also be available in Rocket eBook format in the future). Each book costs pounds 4, and to date orders average several hundred per title - though many of these are for a free book that the publisher gives away each month.

Electron Press offers 11 titles; the sci-fi publisher Pulpless offers titles by Piers Anthony and Victor Koman. Conventional publishers are also selling books directly over the Internet: Time Warner has produced 24 e-books, and Peanut Press is selling a sci-fi series in conjunction with Tor Books, a division of St Martin's Press. The online library Alexandria Digital Literature distributes previously published short stories.

So should you buy a reading device? Perhaps, if you're an editor tired of lugging huge manuscripts on the tube or a doctor requiring updated reference books. If you're an average reader, choose carefully; remember, there's little industry standardisation thus far. The Rocket eBook supports only texts formatted specifically for it, and it's still unclear how many publishers will spend the time and money to convert texts to meet Rocket eBook standards.

The SoftBook and Everybook retrieve content only from their proprietary networks. This is like buying a TV that shows only the BBC. Moreover, none of the reading tablets includes digital assistant functions, so if you already own a palm-sized computer you may end up carrying around two handheld devices. Your best bet for now may be a device that supports many different platforms, such as a palmtop running Microsoft Windows, or the PalmPilot. Or, you may decide to wait to see whether the next versions of the reading devices include e-mail and other functions, and adopt standards that allow access to a broad selection of reading materials.

The book as we know it came into being with the invention of the Gutenberg press in 1456. Paperbacks weren't widely published until the Thirties. The e-book is in its early stages. It may take time for technology to catch up with our desires.

Peanut Press

Alexandria Digital Literature


Electron Press

Barnes and Noble

Online Originals

Overdrive Systems




Rocket eBook