The electronic book Publishers move beyond printed word

October 05, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

Pull a volume off your bookshelf and hold it next to the computer in your home or office. As a work of technology, the 2,000-year-old, paper-and-ink book is still tough to beat. It's portable and doesn't require electricity. It never crashes or breaks down. And it's impervious to hackers, viruses and bugs- unless you count bookworms.

Over the centuries, books have been made with materials ranging from stone to parchment to leather to paper. But now there's a new medium - silicon.

This month the first of several electronic books is expected to hit the market. While these new "e-books" use state-of-the-art technology, much of the digital magic has gone into making them seem comfortably familiar. About the size and weight of a college textbook, they display black text on a white liquid crystal background. You can even scribble in their electronic margins or digitally dog-ear a page.

But these books are like none you've ever read. The e-book will cost about 60 times as much as the average paperback - but it will hold the equivalent of a bookshelf full of information downloaded from online book stores.

For that reason, e-book makers think they'll be ideal for students, doctors, corporate executives or anyone who regularly needs to lug around lots of reading or reference material.

Almost no one in the industry believes that paper books will go the way of the stone tablet any time soon - most readers still relish the feel of a book in their hands. But the arrival of the e-book could change the way many books are read, written and published - a shakeup under way thanks to the Internet.

E-books could allow publishers to sell more copies of their titles - much the way audio books do - while eliminating some of the money they pay to print books, warehouse them and handle returns. Some large book retailers and publishing houses are signing deals with fledgling e-book makers.

"Remember: There's no paper on 'Star Trek,' " says Jim Sachs, chief executive of SoftBook Press Inc., a Menlo Park, Calif. firm that plans to launch its leather-bound electronic SoftBook this month.

The digital age is changing our reading habits. Cyberspace is quickly becoming a giant bookshelf, with the Starr report as the latest must-read. Long before that, it was possible to find online the complete works of great writers. Michael Hart, director of the venerable Project Gutenberg, is responsible for translating many literary classics into digital form. In 1971, a few years after the birth of the Internet, Hart began typing books on a Xerox Sigma V mainframe computer at the University of Illinois. His goal: to create an electronic library containing every book in the public domain.

"That way, literally for the price of a decent bookshelf you can buy a disk drive and create a library that rivals the Library of Congress," he says.

In the beginning, Hart typed all the books and documents into the computer himself. The first document to go online was the Declaration of Independence. Today Gutenberg's online repository holds about 1,500 books - with about three dozen added each month. Most were entered by volunteers around the globe, and Hart says his digital editions are well-thumbed.

"People read them from end to end, do homework with them, book reports, research - everything you or I would do with a normal book," he says.

But Hart acknowledges that reading on a computer is not always comfortable or convenient. Unless you own a laptop, you can't cart a PC into the bathroom or onto a plane. That's why - until the e-books introduced this fall become widespread - some people are latching onto other digital tools to read on the road. Perhaps the most surprising: digital organizers like the Palm Pilot.

"A paperback is cumbersome to carry around, but my Pilot's hanging on my belt anyway," says Michael Heinz, a 33-year-old from Wayne, Pa., who scrolls through classic science-fiction novels by H.G Wells and others "to keep busy during otherwise pointless meetings."

Heinz isn't alone. Although the Pilot's liquid crystal display screen is about the size of a Saltine cracker, many of the 1.6 million Pilot owners are using them not only to keep appointments and phone numbers, but also to while away the workday with a good read.

"It would be untruthful of me to say that there weren't differences between text on paper and the Pilot's screen. But you get used to it," says John Swain, a 35-year-old production director at a visual effects company in New York City who reads books on his Pilot while sitting in Manhattan gridlock or outside a client's office.

Swain also runs the Lending Library, one of dozens of free book repositories for the Palm Pilot on the Web. Swain's site contains more than 345 novels and each month visitors download more than 20,000 copies. The most popular? "Believe it or not, it's 'Moby Dick,' " he marvels.

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