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Lost in Cyberspace

Digital Books

© 2000 by H.B. Koplowitz


There's good news for trees. While the music industry tries to block the digitization of music over the issue of piracy, the publishing industry is quietly gearing up for paperless digital books. Maybe that's because publishers are more used to file sharing applications that allow users to access their products for free -- they're called libraries.

Not really. More likely the reason the publishing industry is so sanguine about "e-books," and no one has heard about the changes already occurring, is that there's no bigger market for bootleg literature than for the real thing. The only e-book to catch on with the public so far has been "Riding the Bullet," a short story by Stephen King that several hundred thousand people paid $2.50 to download. Some called that a breakthrough for digital publishing, while others pointed out that Stephen King stories would sell if they were carved on stone tablets. Nevertheless, numerous startups and established houses are venturing into digital publishing.

In its simplest form, an e-book is merely text stored on a computer. Which no one wants to curl up with in bed. But some companies are starting to market hand-held devices, while others employ palmtop computers. It's still pretty primitive, but soon e-books will offer features traditional books never could -- sound, video, searchable contents, hyperlinks to relevant Web sites and "upgrades" instead of new editions.

The oldest and most basic of the new media publishers is "Project Gutenberg" <gutenberg.net>, which began in 1971 when Michael Hart, an early computer operator at the University of Illinois, deemed that the newfangled computer technology should be used to make classic works of literature freely available to everyone forever. To that end, he typed the Declaration of Independence into the school's networked computer, which is said to be the first posting of a document in electronic text.

Named after the inventor of the printing press, Project Gutenberg is a utopian operation functioning on a shoestring. Adding about a book a day, Project Gutenberg e-texts are in plain vanilla ASCII, unformated and unitalicized, so they can be read by virtually all the hardware and software that people are likely to encounter in the future, or their attics. The project's ultimate goal is to become a sort of digital Library of Alexandria, archiving all worthy literature as soon as the copyright expires. 

At the other end of the technology spectrum are the proprietary NuvoMedia Rocket eBook <www.rocket-ebook.com> and SoftBook Press Reader <www.softbook.com>. Launched in 1998, the Rocket eBook is a 22 ounce, paperback sized, hand-held electronic reading device with a 4.5 inch by 3 inch LCD back-lit touch-sensitive screen that can hold up to 55,000 pages of text and graphics with a battery life of up to 40 hours.

The SoftBook Reader, marketed the same year, is a 2.9 pound magazine-sized, hand-held electronic reading device with an 8 inch by 6 inch touch-sensitive screen with 85,000 pages of text and gray-scale graphics storage, a battery life of five hours and a modem for downloading books, newspapers and magazines.

The devices, which cost several hundred dollars apiece, haven't exactly caught on. But that could be changing. Both Silicon Valley startups were recently purchased by the giant technology company Gemstar, which makes electronic program guides for cable TV and is also acquiring TV Guide Inc.

Gemstar's goal is to have 90 percent of reading materials distributed by electronic media within 20 years, said Chairman and CEO Henry C. Yuen. To establish electronic reading devices as a "staple consumer product," Gemstone is launching a "massive consumer awareness campaign" later this year to introduce NuvoMedia's and SoftBook Press' new products.

Other companies want to provide reading matter on equipment you already own. NetLibrary.com offers reference books, scholarly journals and consumer books online for a fee. A subsidiary of NetLibrary, peanutpress.com, has arrangements with regular publishers to sell "eBooks" that can be read on palmtop computers, and "Esquire" has made its Summer Reading Special available as an eBook.

Frustrated authors can always pay to publish themselves, and numerous Web sites have sprung up offering to help writers publish virtual vanity books. Calling itself "The Web's Best Place for Writers Who Have Been or Want to Be Published," iUniverse.com works as a "partner" with authors to publish and sell their books. It claims to have "changed the publishing world by harnessing technology and the power of the Internet to give everyone the opportunity to get published."

More efforts to get the public hooked on digital lit are on the way. Microsoft is creating its own hand-held reading device, and along with Random House and Simon & Schuster it is collaborating on an online version of Michael Crichton's novel "Timeline."

And early next year, media giant Time Warner will launch an online publishing venture called iPublish.com. According to Laurence J. Kirshbaum, Time Warner Trade Publishing chairman and CEO, iPublish will be the first dedicated Internet publishing venture from any American book publisher. Time Warner will make existing content available as e-books and offer new works by famous authors through America Online, Microsoft, Gemstar and other partners. To further generate interest in e-books, iPublish.com will solicit new works from "reader-members" for publication in both the digital and print formats. 

Copyright 2000 by H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.


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