Book you can read in the dark

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The Independent Online
FRAN MATTHEWS, a 24-year-old PR executive in London, likes novels. She is reading Colin Bateman's Divorcing Jack. before that she lapped up The Angels of Russia by Patricia Leroy. The difference was that she could read Leroy's book in the dark.

Ms Matthews is one of the first wave of Britons catching on to "electronic books", or "e-books", hand-held computers able to store hundreds of novels at once and designed to be read anywhere. Battery-powered and with a backlit screen, her 3Com PalmPilot is the start of a change that could affect both how we read books, and how they get published.

"I suppose I might have looked weird reading it on the Underground, just sitting there," said Ms Matthews. "It felt weird reading in bed in the dark. But I can see it catching on."

The principal difference she noticed about reading The Angels of Russia, which she received as an e-mail sent by the Web publisher Online Originals, was that she was never sure how close she was to the last page. She still doesn't know if it was a long book.

"You get to the end of chapters, but it's hard to get a concept of where you are in the whole book. Actually, that added to the fun. Sometimes when you're reading a [paper] book you know you're getting to the end. With this it just finished. And I really liked it."

About 1.6 million PalmPilots have been sold, and more "e-books" will hit American shops within weeks, arriving in Britain next year. They are essentially stripped-down computers, idealised for reading text and graphics. Their displays are usually black and white and prices range from $300 (pounds 185) to $1,500 (pounds 940), weights start at 20oz (0.5kg) and sizes as small as a paperback.

For some paper-oriented publishers the dream of electronic books may prove a nightmare. Authors can sell directly to readers over the Internet, cutting out the middlemen of publishers, editors, printers, distributors and bookshops.

But one trail-blazer, Online Originals, a "virtual company" that exists only on a laptop computer and a Web site, acts as a publisher for first- time novelists. You can sample a book via its Website (www.onlineoriginals.com). For pounds 4, you can buy the content of any. Words and pictures will be e- mailed as a file to be read on a normal PC or a PalmPilot.

The company's authors then receive half the book's purchase price, a clear advantage over the paper system, where a first-time author might never get any money, despite good sales. Most authors are given an advance only for their subsequent novels.

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