Scrolled Any Good Books Lately?

The idea of putting literary works on computers may seem like blasphemy to avid readers. After all, who would trade the sublime experience of a few hours with a perfectly user-friendly paperback for an afternoon with a laptop computer? Isn't it unthinkable to reduce Bleak House or Othello to a series of electrical impulses flickering on a personal-computer screen?

Perhaps. But a growing number of publishers are throwing tradition to the wind. They are betting that consumers will succumb to electronic books when they see how the technology adds to the printed word a whole new dimension--interaction. By marrying software and text, readers of electronic books are able to call up footnotes, illustrations, music, and whatever else they might want at any spot in their reading.

`WATERSHED.' For some, all those digitized atmospherics might spoil the taut narrative of the latest Le Carre. In nonfiction works, however, electronic books are nothing short of "a watershed in publishing," says Michael Mellin, head of reference works for Random House Inc. Many researchers and students who must deal with massive tomes are eagerly embracing electronic versions that allow them to navigate text quickly.

So electronic publishing looks to be one of the hottest high-tech opportunities around. Consider the sales explosion in CD-ROM disks, which look like music CDs but store huge amounts of data--text, graphics, photos, and sound. About 2 million disks will be sold this year, up from 100,000 in 1988, says the Bureau of Electronic Publishing Inc., a Parsippany (N.J.) distributor of CD-ROM titles. That's equal to worldwide retail sales of $600 million, growing at 80% per year for much of the decade, the bureau predicts.

Leading this new realm of publishing are electronic encyclopedias, which already outsell their printed counterparts in school libraries. The top-selling CD-ROM editions from Grolier Electronic Publishing Inc. and Compton's NewMedia, a division of 224-year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., cost about the same as the shelfload of books they replace. But by typing in keywords, students can instantly browse through articles, illustrations, photos, and even brief animations--showing the functioning of a heart valve, for example. This fall, Microsoft Corp. plans to introduce its own multimedia encyclopedia, based on content licensed from Funk & Wagnalls.

The success of electronic encyclopedias has inspired dozens of other types of electronic books. Medical references, atlases, technical manuals, film guides, and children's stories are all ripe for digitization. Says Susan Boeschen, vice-president of Microsoft's Consumer Div.: "Serious reference works and entertaining educational titles will drive the market into the home."

And into classrooms. Electronic foreign-language texts offer interactive drill-and-practice routines. And McGraw-Hill Inc., publisher of BUSINESS WEEK, has prepared a CD-ROM that offers interactive lessons in human anatomy. The technology promises to make history come to life--almost literally. ABC Interactive News, the network's four-year-old electronic-publishing arm, is supplying publishers of electronic history books with news footage of events, such as men walking on the moon. Video will become "mandatory" in textbooks, predicts E. Jane White, ABC Interactive's director of educational services.

NOVEL USE. It's still not clear who will capitalize most on this new market--the publishers that own the content or the software companies that know how to create snazzy, interactive programs. So far, Sony Electronic Publishing Co. and Britannica's Compton's NewMedia unit are among the most aggressive. In addition to creating their own titles, they are signing up dozens of smaller publishers as affiliates. By controlling hundreds of titles, they should gain clout in distribution channels.

To some, even the electronic novel isn't farfetched. Random House and Voyager Co., an electronic-book specialist in Santa Monica, Calif., have collaborated on adapting for Apple Computer Inc.'s PowerBook notebook computer more than 20 titles, ranging from classics such as Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment to Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton's 1990 thriller. The plot revolves around dinosaurs brought to life via gene-splicing. Readers can call up scientific data or animated clips of dinosaurs.

That may not be enough to get most readers to opt for a computer screen instead of pages that they can touch and turn. But Voyager President Robert Stein says thousands have so far bought into the concept. "Everybody finds their own reason for it," he says. For some, a stack of diskettes is easier to carry. Others say the bright screen of the PowerBook means you can read in bed with the lights out. And, of course, electronic books save trees. "Ink on paper," Stein says, "isn't the only way anymore."

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