Electronic books await readers

As America propels toward an electronic page, yet another digital gadget is slowly working its way onto bookshelves and desktops. It's called the e-book and it lets travelers, students, and avid readers tote four or five novels in a device the size of a single book. Weighing about three pounds, the tome resembles a book and displays stories page by page on a computer-like screen.

Industry authorities predict the technology could signal anything from a shift in how people will enjoy future novels to just another gizmo that stretches the publishing playing field.

"Nothing's really happened with books since the Gutenberg printing press. We'll be seeing things that we can't even imagine," says Jim Sachs, co-founder and chief executive officer of Softbook Press in Menlo Park, Calif. His company was the first to ship an electronic book last fall. Since then, a few other e-books have hit stores, such as NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook, with prices ranging from $300 to $500. Story texts, which are encrypted, are usually downloaded from Web retailers.

Ted Shelton, a New Yorker who heads an Internet software company, uses a Softbook to carry a few novels, the Wall Street Journal, and his business documents when he travels. The high-tech tome also lets him store and peruse certain magazines and other newspapers that total no more than 8,000 pages.

Before boarding a flight one recent morning, Mr. Shelton plugged the e-book into his phone line and connected to the online Softbook bookstore, which sells some 1,000 electronic titles, usually at hardback prices. "Before even eating breakfast, I got my book," he recalls. Shelton stores his books and documents on Softbook's secure server, which he can access through a phone line.

Industry experts predict that as more publishers make titles available electronically - one major drawback now is limited content - e-books will gain in popularity. In fact, the technology could change the way authors write and publishers sell books, Mr. Sachs says. Because distribution logistics are simplified, publishers can ship new releases electronically six to eight weeks before hardbacks, as they did recently with the book "Knockdown" by Martin Dugard.

"We will see more serial novels because the publishing process is made easier," he adds. "When the medium changes, the artists tend to create their work differently.... You can have hyperlinks in a book. You can create 'choose-your-own adventure' books."

But Ben Boyd, vice president of communications at Barnes and Noble, which sells titles electronically on its Web site, points out that collecting books on a hard drive doesn't carry the same cachet as a stacked bookshelf. "They'll never fully replace books," Mr. Boyd says. "The tangible, smelling, touching sensation of reading is not going to be replaced. We see multiple formats ... and an expanded market ... as the way of the future."

Sachs agrees, predicting that, while paper books will retain a presence, digital pages are here to stay. "We size the domestic market of publishing at $70 billion. The electronic-book publishing industry accounts for a small fraction of that. But in five years, e-publishing will be a multi-billion dollar market," Sachs says.

Indeed, an electronic format has advantages. Users can search text, look up words, read better in the dark, and bookmark pages. Users say it's easier to read with an e-book than off a computer screen, costs less, and has a more comfortable shape. Yet Lawrence Crutcher, a book-publishing analyst with Veronis, Suhler & Associates, says e-books won't dramatically impact an industry that has seen slow but steady growth. "The history of media is that more forms come along, but nothing gets replaced." He points out that different e-books use different, competing encryption standards and prices are too high for the mainstream.

Joanne Fritz of Albany, N.Y., who is shopping at Doubleday Books in Boston, agrees. "I would rather physically come into a bookstore than download books from the Internet ... It's too impersonal on a computer screen," she says. But E-Ink Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., claims to have a solution to digital animosity. The company's goal is to combine the convenience of e-publishing with the desired look and feel of paper.

Russ Wilcox, vice president and general manager of E-Ink, envisions producing electronic books and newspapers in the next four years that users could read on a single paper-like sheet or a chapter's worth of pages.

The text changes when a mixture of dye and pigment chips, microcapsules, suspended in liquid on thin, flexible electrodes, respond to electrical charges. The "pages" would update automatically and wirelessly.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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