E-books get a boost from Stephen King

Acceptance: But the pricey, hard-to-read devices face a reluctant publishing industry and readers who still prefer their books on paper.

April 10, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

Stephen King is no longer just a best-selling horror novelist. In the past month he has become the patron saint of the fledgling electronic book industry.

"God bless Stephen King," exclaims Dick Brass, head of Microsoft's e-book effort.

King's canonization comes after his 66-page short story, "Riding the Bullet," released last month only in electronic form, broke all e-book sales records and generated a huge publicity blitz for the struggling technology.

More than 500,000 readers downloaded the ghost story in the first two days, a blistering pace even by the horror meister's standards. By comparison, even the most successful e-books released up until now have sold in the triple digits.

"People argued initially that nobody would read on a screen," says Brass. "I guess this proves they will."

But the "King thing," as many in the e-book industry are calling the event, has also highlighted the obstacles that remain before e-books gain mass market acceptance.

Ron Hewitt, a 50-year-old executive at a biotech company in Kansas City, Mo., and "major" Stephen King fan, spent an afternoon trouble-shooting technical glitches before finally getting the story to his laptop computer.

While he raves about the tale and said reading on his laptop wasn't as bad as he thought it would be, "I would rather have the book in my hands and flip through the pages."

He's not alone. The first generation of hand-held electronic books -- the SoftBook Reader by SoftBook Press Inc. and the Rocket eBook from NuvoMedia Inc. -- are too pricey, too hard to read and too hard to find, industry analysts say.

International Data Corp. estimates that a mere 5,000 devices were sold last year. That number, analysts say, could grow to 2.8 million in 2004, but only if the e-book reader technology improves and publishers make more books available.

To solve the first problem, companies are taking two tacks.

Companies such as Glassbook, the small Waltham, Mass., start-up that provided the reader software for the Stephen King book, are focusing on the millions of people who already own a computer or hand-held organizer.

This month Microsoft is launching its Microsoft Reader software, which will make its first appearance on new palm-top computers from Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Casio. A version of the software for laptop and desktop computers is expected this summer.

Microsoft Reader could make reading on an illuminated screen less of a strain, thanks to a new technology included in the software called ClearType, designed to smooth out the rough edges of electronic type.

Meanwhile, several big consumer electronics companies are working on better, cheaper stand-alone e-book readers.

In January, Gemstar International Group -- a little-known Pasadena, Calif., company whose claim to fame thus far has been inventing the VCR Plus+ technology used to program many VCRs-- scooped up fledgling e-book makers SoftBook Press Inc. and NuvoMedia Inc.

Now Gemstar has partnered with French electronics giant Thomson Multimedia, known for its RCA and GE brand televisions and other home electronics, to develop a new generation of electronic books that will be cheaper, lighter and easier to read.

Thomson hopes to pump out 500,000 of these devices, sold under the RCA brand, to its vast distribution network of 15,000 retail stores by Christmas. While the design isn't yet final, these new e-book readers may double as electronic organizers and digital music players, says Thomson spokesman Dave Arland.

"People will think, 'If RCA has this figured out, it can't be that hard and it's not going to go away,'" says Arland.

But creating more ways to read e-books is only half the story. Publishers are reluctant to put more of their content in digital form.

"Publishers say, 'Why do we want to spend the money when the market's so small?'" says Marcus Colombano, marketing director at NuvoMedia Inc., which makes the Rocket eBook.

One issue is the nature of the publishing business itself.

"What you have to understand is that publishing is traditionally a slow-moving industry," says Adam Rothberg, spokesman for Simon & Schuster. "We're the last to get teched up."

But publishers are learning from the mistakes of the music industry, which has found that heel-dragging comes at a price: piracy. If publishers don't put their content online and figure out how to make money with it, someone else will put it online and give it away.

For example, Random House, the world largest trade book publisher, acquired a stake last week in Xlibris, an online publishing firm. The company is also spending millions to create digital copies of its new releases and its catalog of 20,000 older titles.

As with the movie and music industries, security still worries book publishers.

Within hours of the release of King's book, pirated copies were showing up across the Web. Although many legitimate online booksellers were distributing the story free of charge anyway, the theft made already-jittery publishers all the more cautious.

But the phenomenal reaction to "Riding the Bullet" by readers has given some large publishers hope that there may be new ways to make money with e-books. With the success of this experiment, publishers are thinking about dabbling with others.

"A 66-page story is just not practical to put between covers," says Rothberg of Simon & Schuster.

"The Internet totally changes the nature of what a publisher can publish."

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