Book lovers fail to click with e-pages

The subject line of the e-mail caught my eye immediately as I browsed through my overnight mail.

"For the love of God, PLEASE buy my book."

I knew the book to which the sender, Claire Berlinski, was referring. Earlier she had e-mailed me, unsolicited, the first chapter of 'Loose Lips,' about a woman joining the CIA.

Now came the pitch: "Surely you were a little bit intrigued? Look, I swear to you, it's a great book. And hey: I'm practically giving it away. It costs way less than a double latte and a scone." For $5.95, I could obtain the Web address, from which I could access the whole book.

Ms. Berlinski has picked a tough time to self- publish an electronic book.

A year or so ago, e-books were being touted as the future of publishing: Paper would go the way of papyrus, we were told, and we would soon all be curling up with personal digital assistants.

It was not to be, or at least not yet. Over the past three months, three of the biggest e-publishing enterprises have folded: AtRandom, Random Books' foray into the online world, closed in November. IPublish, belonging to Time Warner, shut down at the end of last year. Ten days ago MightyWords, half owned by Barnes and Noble, switched off its website.

"We do not believe that the market for digital content was large enough to support a separate company," said Barnes & Noble, whose disappointing e-sales prompted its decision to ditch MightyWords.

Berlinski is not necessarily arguing with that. So far she has sold only about 100 e-copies of her book. But she has used the web to get around a classic problem for first-time authors - how to break into the publishing world when you don't have a reputation.

"You cannot get published without an agent, and you can't get an agent unless you've been published," says Robert McCormick, chief operating officer of 1stBooks Library, an e-publishing venture which works with a lot of previously unpublished writers.

Berlinski e-mailed installments of her first chapter to about 1,000 journalists, publishers, literary agents, and other people in the writing world whose e-mail addresses she found on the Web. A reporter on The Chicago Tribune liked 'Loose Lips' enough to recommend it to his agent, Katherine Robbins, and she has agreed to take it on.

"Agents are deluged with manuscripts," Berlinski explains. "I wanted to do something really effective, not waste a lot of time, and some wonderful opportunities present themselves with new media. I want to exploit them."

For some of the biggest players in US publishing, the wonderful new media opportunities they hoped to exploit with e-books turned out to be illusory.

"It is taking longer for consumers to grasp the technology than people thought," says Carolyn Brown, a spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble. "The price of devices is still very high, and there is still a lot of education to do on things that consumers don't know about."

E-books can be read on a range of devices, from a regular computer or laptop, through hand-held personal organizers such as PalmPilots, to custom-built e-book readers.

Barnes & Noble is still publishing some e-books itself, and bestseller Stephen King enjoyed great success with "Riding the Bullet," which he published electronically in 2000. Smaller companies, too, are doing well in the business.

Fictionwise, for example, which concentrates on sci-fi and romance titles, saw its sales jump by 400 per cent last year, to around 10,000 e-books a month, and "all we see is growth ahead," says company founder Scott Pendergrast. "We are very excited.

"It's still a small market ... not mature yet," he adds. "But for publishers that are careful with their expenses, we think it's a great market."

Fictionwise launched itself with sci-fi partly because Mr. Pendergrast is a sci-fi fan, but also, he says, because "we had the belief that people who owned hand-held devices would be science fiction readers."

And the e-publishing business tends to be doing well in such niche sectors, with a mainly male readership among customers comfortable using personal digital assistants in their daily lives.

That is not a profile that matches very many readers, however, which is why another e-publisher, 1stBooks Library, sells not just electronic books for download, but 'print on demand' books too. Under that system, a reader finds a title he is interested in on the website, orders it online, and 1stBooks prints a copy just for that customer, who receives it through the mail. This eliminates the risk and cost of publishing a large print-run of a title that may not sell very well.

"The reading public still likes printed books better," says 1stBooks C.O.O. Mr. McCormick. "But the under-18s spend more time in chat-rooms than on the phone, and we'll see the ratios change quite a bit. Whether that will happen in 10 years or 50 years, nobody knows."

Fictionwise founder Pendergrast says it will depend on how easy e-books are to read. "We believe the e-book market will explode when new hand-held devices come out with fantastic new screen technology making them easier to read, and when prices become reasonable," he argues. Such technology could be in shops within two years, he says.

Berlinski says she is a believer in the Internet as a tool for marketing and spreading ideas. "Whether it is economically viable as a medium for books, I don't know, but I am much less skeptical than I was a month ago."

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