WHSmith on Thursday opened an eBook shop, timed to coincide with Microsoft's launch of PocketPC 2002, which includes an updated version of the eReader software.
Many of the big publishers are to start publishing eBooks still in copyright, including Random House, Penguin, Little Brown, Harper Collins, Fourth Estate, Butterworths and Lonely Planet.
Ross Beadle, commercial director at WHSmith.co.uk, said the decision was taken because with Reader 2.0 Microsoft has a "properly secure" digital rights management (DRM) system. "It is the poor security that has always held back the growth of eBooks," he said. "The previous version [of Microsoft Reader] was not properly secure; you could download a classic that was out of copyright, but nobody would publish modern books still in copyright."
WHSmith will have 4,000 eBook titles, most of which are expected to be about 20 percent cheaper than current paperback versions, said Beadle. But, he said, in the upper levels of academic publishing, where books often sell for more than £100, there is unlikely to be any discounting. "At the moment we are just sucking it and seeing, because we don't know what the consumer will do. There is no precedent to work on."
Beadle is betting on three types of eBook that are likely to be popular: short stories -- Harper Collins will have a collection including one from Stephen King; guidebooks -- whether for wine or travel; and expensive academic texts where it may be possible to buy just a chapter or two.
WHSMith will not store the eBooks. It will just act as a shop front for a company called Overdrive, which acts as the digital warehouse and has the relationship with the publishers. WHSMith's eBook store is at http://ebooks.whsmith.co.uk.
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