Barnes & Noble plans to launch biggest electronic book store

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The Independent Online

The world's largest chain of bookstores is planning to launch the world's largest online retailer of electronic books, triggering an arms race in one of the most important new markets in publishing.

With Amazon's handheld device for reading e-books, the Kindle, starting to capture the public imagination in the US, and an e-reader from Sony also widely available, Barnes & Noble yesterday threw its weight behind a rival device that will be launched next year.

It announced a new online store that will sell 700,000 titles in electronic form, which can be read on smartphones such as the Blackberry and the iPhone and on the forthcoming e-reader from the US manufacturer Plastic Logic.

The company said it hoped its online store, at BN.com, would stock more than a million titles within a year, including 500,000 out-of-copyright books supplied by Google, which has been digitising the world's libraries.

"Our digital strategy is rooted in the belief that readers should have access to the books in their digital library from any device, from anywhere, at any time," said William Lynch, president of BN.com. "We want to make eBooks simple, accessible, affordable and convenient for everyone."

The e-books sold at BN.com will not be compatible with the Kindle or the Sony Reader, however, and the market is developing in such a way that customers with different devices will be limited to purchasing books from specific, associated retailers.

Publishers are viewing the developments in the US with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, in the expectation that e-books could become a profitable new business, if digital piracy does not take hold. Bookstores, meanwhile, are nervous that downloading books from the Web could wipe out their business.

Amazon launched the Kindle in the US in November 2007, and a second-generation device earlier this year. It has cut prices this month, as competition hots up. The number of titles available in electronic form has also been increasing fast. Amazon's Kindle store sells about 300,000, up from less than a third of that when it first launched. Sony's e-bookstore sells 700,000 titles, including 500,000 out-of-copyright books from Google.

Newspapers and magazines have also begun selling subscriptions to e-reader versions of their publications.

The development of the market in the US is also being watched from the UK, where Waterstone's is selling the Sony Reader and Borders last month launched a cheaper e-reader of its own. Amazon has so far declined to launch the Kindle in Europe as it tries to navigate a patchwork of continental telecoms markets, where it must do deals to ensure that users can download their books wirelessly.

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