Virtual books hit the shelves

Can e-books revive the lost art of pleasure reading?

Author Seth Godin brought the Napster concept to the world of e-books last summer when he gave away his latest work online. He offered the book, Unleashing the Ideavirus (Do You Zoom, 2000), in multiple formats and instructed recipients how to pass it along to friends. When the print version came out in the fall, he says, he sold far more copies than he would have had he sold it solely through traditional channels.

In a move equally scary for print publishers, Stephen King produced The Plant in serial form, and offered it for download for a voluntary fee of $1 to $2 per installment. But he put the work on hiatus in late 2000 after payments dropped to 42 percent of those who downloaded it, leading the press, which originally viewed this as a death knell for traditional publishers, to pronounce e-books dead on arrival.

E-book publishers have some work to do to prove them wrong. First, they have to stop obsessing over copyright protection and royalties—what publishers and authors want—and start focusing on what consumers want. They need to lift the unnecessary restrictions on e-book readers concerning printing, cutting, pasting, and sharing. Book buyers are older and busier than the teens and college students the music industry targets, so Napster-style piracy isn't a problem.

Helping this mature demographic enjoy reading despite their busy schedules should be the real goal of e-book publishers, device and software makers, and e-tailers, notes R. Micheal Segroves, vice president of marketing and sales for peanutpress.com. The company focuses exclusively on e-books for PDAs running the Palm OS or Windows CE, which has its own reader. Downloading a 200K e-book takes just a few seconds. Although these devices' screens are small, the format is conducive to the quick break in the doctor's office or on the train.

Read on
E-book content is becoming more widely available as publishers from Random House (AtRandom.com) to AOL Time Warner (iPublish.com, scheduled to launch this quarter) ramp up their offerings. These publishers are even exploring works from unknown authors.

Startup MightyWords recently began publishing the works of more popular authors such as Toni Morrison and Patricia Cornwell after scrapping its self-publishing concept. The publisher still occupies an interesting niche, however, with essays and novels of 10 to 100 pages—short enough for even the most harried readers, and in some cases, too esoteric to have been published elsewhere.

Barnes & Noble.com, which sells e-books in the Microsoft Reader, Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader, and Gemstar formats (the last for RCA's $299 REB1100 and $699 color REB1200), launched its own imprint called Barnes & Noble Digital in January. Its e-books will fall in the $5.95 to $7.95 range.

Authors, too, are showing a willingness to experiment. In January, Dean Koontz agreed to publish his next work through Barnes & Noble Digital, and crime author Elmore Leonard said he would release his next book through another Internet imprint, Contentville. In addition, Frederick Forsyth will take Stephen King's serial approach, albeit with copyright protection, through Online Originals.

Incubation period
Lower-cost e-book hardware devices with PIM-like features and audio-book players should help spread the word(s). Pricing for Franklin Electronic Publishers' eBookMan, scheduled to ship before winter's end, will start at only $129.95.

Academics and researchers could also boost the e-book business, because it relieves them of weighty textbooks. Features such as annotation, highlights, bookmarks, and dictionaries are already making their way into PDA- and PC-based readers, as well as dedicated players.

The increased availability of content, lower costs, and the instant gratification of downloading without shipping costs could be as revolutionary as the mass-market business itself, says Michael Fragnito, vice president of digital books and publisher of Barnes & Noble Digital. "There was a time when it was unheard of to be able to buy books everywhere—in the drugstore and at the airport," he says. Now imagine beaming books from the plane or at the terminal.

Audio books took a while to catch on, too, notes Fragnito. "But after they were marketed correctly, they grew to serve a large group of people who spend a lot of time in their cars," he says. "And they didn't cannibalize book sales." Indeed, part of Barnes & Noble Digital's plan is to target the 90 to 95 percent of the population that doesn't buy a single print book in a given year.

Stephen King's response to a recent New York Times editorial indicates he concurs. People keep telling him, he said in his reply, they're waiting for the print version. "They're like people saying, 'I love corn on the cob, but creamed corn makes me gag.'" King sees separate audiences for the formats and doesn't believe the $600,000 grossed online will eat into print sales. If Godin's experience with Unleashing the Ideavirus is any indication, sales could actually be higher.