Computer Books Turn Reading Into Audiovisual Event

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN the multimedia section of the Learningsmith store here people are looking at a book without pages.

Part of bestselling author Michael Crichton's novel "Jurassic Park" is displayed on a computer screen as customers make text slide up and down, bookmarks appear and disappear, or built-in illustrations and sound come to life all at the click of a mouse.

This is the latest advance in electronic publishing: books on computer disks. The lure is in the illustrations and sound effects that turn reading into a multisensory experience.

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For instance, California-based Donovan Publishing has among its disk offerings a series of safari books, which take readers through the sights and sounds of foreign climes with the help of audio tapes.

Electronic publisher SoftBooks in California has come out with "The Presidents," which allows someone to read via personal computer about each president, see his photo, and in some cases hear one of his speeches.

More often, though, special hardware is also required to read books on compact disk or floppy disks.

Michigan-based Brilliance Electronic Publishing markets compact disks for Sony's new multimedia Discman. This portable player allows one to either read the book on screen, listen to it, or do both at once.Compact disks, known as CD-ROM (compact disk, read-only memory), can store up to 100,000 pages of text. This allows an encyclopedia like Compton's - all 20-plus volumes - to fit along with illustrations and sound examples on one disk.

PUBLISHERS say electronic books are an important part of the industry's future, though few suggest printed books will disappear altogether.

The new products are "good for people who are looking to do new things with books," says Carol Schneider, a vice president and associate publisher at Random House.

Using either a Macintosh Powerbook (a portable computer) or a Sony Discman to read a book requires more work than its advertising would have one believe, however. Although easy to load and turn on, the Discman requires numerous key punches to move through the book.

The more immediate success of electronic publishing is its ability to simplify research. Libraries, schools, and a growing numbers of parents are providing them for children's use.

Dana Gardiner, software buyer for Learningsmith, says parents today are looking to supplement their children's education by building home learning areas that include computer technology.

Educational technology expert Paul Saettler likens this to other technological advances such as audiovisual films, and says "every 10 years we have a media excitement." But economics, he says, may preclude electronic books from wide use: Schools will not be able to afford them.

Publishers are moving to stake out a market. The present system works on licensing agreements between large publishers and small electronic publishing firms. But Bob Stein, president of Voyager, expects major publishers to take this in-house in the next few years.

Houghton-Mifflin Marketing Services Manager John Riley says his company has done several reference works as electronic books, but is waiting until the market develops more before doing novels.

One of the oft-mentioned pitches used in marketing these books is, "They are great for those who want to read in bed when spouses want to sleep." But convincing readers to curl up in front of the fire with a computer, or take it on a camping trip, may be difficult.

As Ms. Gardiner explains, cooking videos do not sell because few people put VCRs in their kitchen.

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