US Report: Would you curl up with an e-book?

Today's electronic books are the Babylonian clay tablets of the Internet age: heavy, hard to read and fragile.

Despite the fact that the average bookworm won't be curling up with an e-book anytime soon, the publishing industry has faith that the market for electronic page-turners will grow; not because the product makes sense for the consumer, but because it makes sense for business. "If you are a publisher, e-books solve your inventory problems," said Kimball Brown, chief analyst with market researcher Dataquest. For online booksellers, e-books mean instant sales, Brown said: They make so much sense."

Convinced that their time has come, companies are putting their bets down. Electronic bookmaker NuvoMedia launched its first product, the Rocket eBook, Friday at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in New York City's Union Square. Users of the Rocket eBook can scroll through pages, look up words in the dictionary, change fonts and add annotated comments. Yet, while the Rocket eBook can hold up to 4,000 pages of text -- roughly 10 books -- it costs a whopping $499 (£292). That might sell if top novels were available and free. Instead, little content is available, and prices for a book in electronic format will run between $18 (£11) and $25 (£15) -- a price set by the publishing companies. "THe proper price point is more like $3 (£1) to $4 (£2)," said Don Ledford, vice president of product development for rival e-book maker Librius Inc. Librius is readying its own offering, the Millennium Reader, for sale later this year. The company hopes to attract more users with a "rock bottom" price of under $200 (£122).

Even at that price, only technophiles will likely purchase one, said Jim Sachs, co-founder, CEO and chairman of another electronic book maker, Softbook Press Inc."We looked at the consumer market and decided there was not enough interest to keep us alive," he said.

On Oct. 8, Softbook teamed up with NuvoMedia, Microsoft Corp. and others to push the creation of the e-book standard. The standards effort is backed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Yet, standards are not what is holding up adoption, said Russ Wilcox, vice president and general manager of E Ink Corp. of Cambridge, Mass. "It all comes down to display technology," he said. "People don't like reading on a screen."

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology start-up believes it has the answer: Electronic ink. Spread over a plastic sheet, the ink can be turned on or off, much like the pixels on a computer monitor. The result is a paper-like page that can be bundled together in a digital book. With such technology under development, it is just a matter of time -- four to five years, predicted Wilcox -- before the hardware companies and publishers get the formula right. Dataquest's Brown agrees. "The notebook, when it came out, was a monochrome monitor and a heavy computer," he said. "These things get better."

Softbook Press is not willing to wait. Instead of marketing to a small segment of consumers, the company is targeting its product to a less price-sensitive clientele -- the corporation. The corporate market seems ready for such a device, said Softbook's Wilcox. "The firms want to target specific information at their employees, but like the general distribution model of the Internet," he said. And, as an added bonus, the business reader will most likely use the e-book to catch up on the latest Tom Clancy novel or read the New York Times after hours.

In the end, if Softbook and others can turn the consumer on to buying bits, rather than atoms, the publishers and online booksellers could win big. "Even at a $3 (£1) price, everyone -- the publisher, the author and the seller -- make more money," said Librius Ledford. Today, publishers continually throw away profits -- and take back piles of unwanted copies -- when books don't sell. The new Internet economy means that publishers win, no matter if they sell 1,000 books or a million.

The losers: Those companies whose business it is to push atoms around the world. For instance, printers won't be making the books, truckers won't be shipping them, and bookstores won't have to arrange for shelf space. In total, what Softbook's Sachs estimates is a $72 bn (£42.6bn) annual business will start moving from paper to electronics. BUt if they misstep, publishers may quickly find their business in danger. Librius Ledford points out that little work is necessary to "publish" a book in digital format. "Traditional publishers will have to rethink how to retain their value," he said. "Hustling shelf space in bookstores won't be worth anything soon."