This week Stephen King fans couldn't rush to bookstores to pick up the latest tale from their favorite author - they had to use their computers to download it instead.
The mega-selling writer of works like "Carrie" and "The Green Mile" published his short ghost story "Riding the Bullet" exclusively on the Internet yesterday in a major experiment in electronic books.
Given Mr. King's army of followers, the gambit is expected to introduce more consumers to the rapidly growing e-book market - and offers a window into how the Internet may one day bring some of the biggest changes in publishing since Gutenberg.
As with most publishing trends, this latest move doesn't mean it's time to turn the bookshelves into kindling just yet. But if reading by the light of a screen catches on, it could influence the way future generations read, who gets published, and even what the subject matter will be.
King's involvement "sends a message that the e-book has arrived," says Daniel Blackman, a vice president at bn.com, whose site offered the short story free to customers on Tuesday as a way to get them to try it out.
On the heels of the King experiment will be Microsoft Corp.'s release this summer of its unique book-reading software, drawing even more attention to a way of reading that so far has barely made an impression on book buyers. The company speculates that by 2020, 90 percent of all titles will be sold in electronic rather than paper form.
The e-book market has been gaining momentum in the past two years. New technology is allowing books to be downloaded into desktop computers, hand-held personal digital assistants (PDAs), and book-size devices (also called e-books) just for reading. Subjects that formerly couldn't be even envisioned off the paper page - like gardening books - are being reproduced digitally in color and formatted exactly as in print. Together, these developments mean the day has come when people can use computers in places only paper has gone before.
"I can finally read in bed without waking up my wife," says Bart Farkas, a Canada-based writer who has had a NuvoMedia Rocket eBook device for a month and has already stored the contents of his PDA and 38 books in it.
Convenience is the main advantage of e-books, say publishers and readers who've tried them. Multiple books can be packed into a portable paperback-size device, and novels and nonfiction can be downloaded without leaving home. Readers can't print out the books, but they can more easily search them for specific information.
Thousands of titles - from classics in the public domain such as the Bible and Jane Austen to new releases from authors like Frank McCourt and Scott Turow - are available on e-book Web sites such as Glassbook.com and peanutpress.com, and on mainstream sites like Barnes & Noble's bn.com.
But new content has been slow to arrive. Traditional publishers are still only tiptoeing into the e-book world - thanks to sticky issues like negotiating online royalties with authors and making sure encryption technology will protect their offerings from Web pirates.
Over the past year, and particularly in recent months, more publishers have been releasing new titles both online and in print as a way to deliver books to customers via modern channels.
King's publisher turned around his short story in two weeks, after announcing its publication only a week ago.
"It's so exciting because the time frame is so condensed," says Susan Moldow, head of Scribner, the Simon & Schuster division that publishes King.
As barriers to online publishing break down, more authors may get the chance to reach readers directly. But the flip side of democratization is that there may be too many titles to slog through.
"The floodgates that held back a lot of would-be authors are pretty much opened by the e-books," says Nora Rawlinson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, a trade magazine. She says a demand to be published clearly exists, but she's not sure there's a demand for more books. More than 50,000 books are published annually already.
It may also take time before consumers are routinely snuggling up with a good byte. Devices to read e-books cost $200 or more, and even if readers use some of the software that runs on a PC or a PDA (many aren't Mac compatible yet), the cost of e-books ranges from free to as much as a hardcover book. (The King short story has a suggested price of $2.50.)
Another issue yet to be resolved is standardizing a format for delivering e-books. Currently, consumers can get them a handful of ways, some of which work only if they have the device or software that is specific to that e-book company.
"Publishers aren't quite sure which one's going to win, so they're riding every horse in the race," says Frank Romano, professor of digital publishing at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. "There will be a war out there over the next few months as everybody wrangles for position."
The handful of companies that deal exclusively in electronic books say their sales are meeting or exceeding expectations. And the King book may be their meal ticket. Says Michael Seagroves, vice president of marketing and sales at peanutpress.com, "I don't think there is any other author out there today who could have caused the splash this one did."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society