Business travellers on some of Lauda Air's long-haul flights are being offered the use of portable computers and a choice of software including novels to be read on the computer screen. A year ago this might have been just another sales gimmick, but the electronic book is about to become part of mainstream publishing.
Electronic books have been one of the unfulfilled promises of the personal computer revolution. The grand idea was that ubiquitous computer disk 'readers', the size of hardback books but with high-resolution liquid crystal screens, would replace paper publishing, because it was cheaper to duplicate and distribute disks and more information could be packed on to a disk than into a book.
But it did not turn out that way. Most books converted to electronic format come as CD-ROMs, mass storage systems based on audio CDs. They are relatively expensive and need special equipment to be used. They sell only to specialist markets such as science or education. Until now electronic publishing has never been close to breaking through as a mass-market activity.
An electronic publishing firm based, inevitably, in California is the first to attempt the breakthrough. The Voyager Company is releasing a stream of conventional novels and non-fiction titles at prices that compete with hardback books. Air travellers, and others, can choose from authors including Aldous Huxley, Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carroll. Voyager's Expanded Books present the full text of the book on screen with simple controls for turning the 'pages', skipping through to a chosen chapter or page, and making marginal notes.
Some books have been enhanced with graphics and sound: that blood- curdling roar comes from the dinosaurs in Michael Crichton's science-fiction best-seller Jurassic Park, while the electronic version of Alice in Wonderland boasts a Cheshire cat that disappears before your eyes.
'Until now computers have been 'write-only' devices,' says Florian Brody, Voyager's technical director. 'You can write into them, but you can't properly read from the screen. If you want to see the text, you have to print it out. Computers aren't designed to be read from. They are too big and heavy and the screen is too poor.' But Mr Brody argues that the new generation of small 'notebook' computers provides the portability and screen quality that the electronic publishing market has been waiting for.
The first Voyager titles are available on the Apple Macintosh PowerBook series of computers, which has excellent screen quality. 'Ideally, I would like a computer that was half the size, with a higher resolution screen. It will come, very soon,' says Mr Brody. PC notebook computers also lack the supporting software that Expanded Books need, but Voyager plans to launch PC titles next year.
Voyager is licensing its publishing software for use by other firms, and several US publishing houses have shown an interest. Random House is bringing out 10 classic titles in collaboration with Voyager, including The Picture of Dorian Gray, Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment, while Doubleday, Scribners and others are in negotiation.
Would-be authors soon will be able to use Voyager's software to publish electronically their own manuscripts under their own independent imprint. In a couple of hours a word processor file can be imported into a blank, professionally designed Expanded Book and automatically converted into a form that can be 'read' on a computer. Vanity publishing will never be the same again.
Mr Brody argues that book publishing has always been a dynamic industry. 'If you look back, you will see that books have changed so much. A hundred years ago you bought your books without a cover and had to have them bound. Then they invented the hardback and now there's the paperback.'
But does this truly represent the start of a revolution? Will the traveller buy an electronic best-seller from the airport bookstall, or will the titles only sell to a niche market of what one computer expert described scathingly as 'techno-fanatics'?
John Manger, a director of the Oxford University Press, is certain of the value of electronic publishing, but admits that there is little or no momentum in the market. 'People do need convincing at the moment, but things are already starting to change.'
Mr Manger runs a large department at OUP that plans to convert up to 200 titles into electronic format. 'Companies like ours have to get in on the act now and establish themselves. I don't want to have to go to someone like Voyager in a few years' time and ask for help in publishing our own titles. There is an urgency about this.'
OUP is repackaging its smaller, cheaper reference works as electronic books that can be read on any computer while turning the larger, specialist titles into more expensive CD-ROMs. Thus the Concise Oxford Dictionary is part of a low-cost floppy disk package, while the latest edition of the full Oxford English Dictionary, released this month, is a majestic CD-ROM program with a powerful search-and-retrieval system.
'The next edition of the OED will be in 2005,' says Mr Manger, 'and who can be sure what form it will be in? I certainly can't. Perhaps it will be entirely electronic and we'll only print a 'collector's edition' on paper.'
The concept of publishing novels on floppy disks makes a great deal of sense to him. 'Let's say you have written your First Great Novel. In hardback it might sell say 2,000 copies. It must surely sell better than that into the community of dedicated portable computer users.
'What will really be interesting is when a publisher decides that it is worth bringing out a best-seller on disk before the paper version,' Mr Manger says. Distribution is a different matter. Voyager books are packaged to look like conventional books and sell in bookshops in the United States, with 'print runs' of 3,000 copies. But the British distributors admit that they have had no success in persuading British bookshops to stock them. 'It's a different world here. They don't want to know,' says Kim Stainton, of Kimtec. So the British electronic novel reader has to buy by mail order.
Even the OUP has only had limited success getting its own electronic titles into bookshops, according to Mr Manger. 'The problem is that we want to let people see these things running - after all, buyers are used to seeing games and other software displayed like this in dealers. But the bookshops are worried that they will have to get technical.
'But this is the next wave of publishing. If the booksellers don't support us then they will lose out - we will sell direct to the user.'
The writer is the author of 'The New User's Mac Book', published by Sigma Press, pounds 12.95.