A New Chapter For E Books

They're too pricey, hard to read, and offer limited titles. But that's changing

What comes first--the product or the market? In high tech, it's often the product, and building a market for something that people don't yet know they need can be arduous. That is the case with electronic-book readers, which launched with great fanfare more than a year ago, but have enjoyed at best modest success. Things may be about to change, a result more of business developments than new technology.

E-books, devices that can electronically store and display books, have to solve a three-cornered problem to succeed. Consumers won't buy the reader devices in large numbers unless they are cheap and there's plenty of content available. Current e-book readers cost $200 to $600, and that's with monochrome screens, not the color needed for high-quality text. To drive costs down, makers need to sell millions of units, not thousands. And publishers want the incentive of a mass market to make books available electronically.

PRICEY TITLES. One factor that may get the market moving is the bulking up of e-book makers. SoftBook Press and NuvoMedia, makers of the SoftBook Reader and Rocket eBook readers, have been acquired by Gemstar International Group, owner of TV Guide, the VCR Plus+ recording system, and online TV listings. Gemstar plans to relaunch the paperback-size Rocket eBook and the larger SoftBook with a marketing campaign that their startup owners could not afford.

A big marketing campaign may help convince publishers that the e-book market is worth paying attention to. While there are lots of classics available in electronic form, current titles are sparse. Just as bad, publishers are not pricing e-books so they can jump-start the market. For example, bn.com charges $19.96 for a Rocket eBook version of Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation from Random House--$7.50 more than the same title in hardcover. Since I, like most people, would rather have the printed book, such pricing is a problem for the infant industry.

There are signs that things may be loosening up a bit. Single-function readers like Rocket eBook aren't the only way to get e-books. Microsoft is about to ship its first products using a technology called ClearType, which dramatically improves the quality of text on a color LCD display. Not only do the characters look much better, but ClearType fixes the erratic spacing between letters and lines that makes electronic displays hard to read. Microsoft Reader, a ClearType-based electronic-book program, will appear on a new breed of Palm-size Pocket PCs in April. I've been playing with a prototype, and while the display--15 lines of about 6 words each--is small for serious reading, the quality of the type approaches print on paper. The technology will also be made available for laptops and, perhaps, on a new line of more booklike electronic tablets.

Publishers like the looks of ClearType but are worried that Microsoft has paid too little attention to preventing piracy of downloaded books. That's the problem Adobe Systems has tackled with PDF Merchant, designed to facilitate the sale of e-books while blocking unauthorized duplication. You can see a demonstration of the software in action by downloading a free Glassbook Reader from www.glassbook.com.

Unfortunately, Adobe's Acrobat technology works much better for high-quality printing of electronic text than reading it on-screen. Combining Microsoft's display technology with Adobe's rights management seems a natural. But the two companies don't get along very well, so don't hold your breath.

We can only hope that a marketing campaign will sell more readers on e-books and that, in turn, will persuade publishers to offer more titles at lower prices. There are some encouraging signs. Simon & Schuster, for one, will sell a new Stephen King short story exclusively in electronic form, for $2.50.

For now, the readers are useful mainly for periodicals, corporate materials, reference works, and self-published texts distributed through channels such as NuvoMedia's Rocket Library or Fatbrain.com's eMatter. Electronic textbooks, however, are waiting in the wings. Sales of e-book readers in various forms seem poised for at least a modest pickup, and that may be all it takes to interest publishers enough to make e-books a real alternative to paper.

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