Future of publishing might be digital

Rewrite: The first release by an electronic book project shows how authors can revise their work months after it is printed.

May 14, 2001|By Lisa Guernsey | Lisa Guernsey,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

This spring, Princeton University Press unveiled an unusual electronic book program designed to free books not only from the space restrictions of print but also from time restrictions.

Called Princeton Digital Books Plus, the program goes beyond producing electronic copies of static hardcover books. Instead, each book is designed to evolve after its publication date, shaped by online discussions among readers and authors.

The first book to be vaulted into the public arena of feedback and revision is "Republic.com" by Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. "Republic.com," which considers the effect of customized news and information on the Internet, arrived in March in two forms - a 224-page hardcover book and an electronic book that can be downloaded to any device that uses Microsoft Reader.

Until the end of last month, Sunstein participated in discussions about his book on the press's Web site (http://pup. princeton.edu/) and Salon.com, while also reading and indirectly responding to criticisms of the book that appeared on several other sites.

This week, the revision phase of the program will be on display as Sunstein releases a more formal reply to the online discussions. The 6,000-word reply will be available on Amazon.com for free downloading today and later as part of a revised paperback edition.

The approach has piqued the interest of some members of the publishing community at a time when companies and nonprofit presses are scrambling to figure out whether there is an audience for e-books.

Jim Lichtenberg, president of LightSpeed, a consulting company that focuses on electronic publishing issues, said he could see the program succeeding in an academic market, in which peer review is part of the culture. But, he added, the program raises the question of how much is too much.

"At a certain point," he said, "there is some real advantage to having closure."

Princeton plans to limit its write-and-revise project to one round per book. Its next release, scheduled for June 15, will be "Breaking the Deadlock: The Supreme Court and Election 2000," by Richard Posner, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago.

Lively debates are an integral part of the program, and "Republic.com" provoked plenty. Its publication set off contentious debates in several online communities, including FreeRepublic.com and Salon.com. At FreeRepublic.com, which describes itself as a conservative news forum, more than 80 postings about Sunstein's book appeared within two days of its release.

In his book, Sunstein argues that because people are able to customize what they want to see online, they risk what he calls self-insulation, reading only what they want to read and talking only with those who agree with them. He proposes several ways to counter that fragmentation - including the idea that Web sites carry links to sites with opposing viewpoints. That proposal seemed to strike a nerve among some readers.

"What a joke," a message at FreeRepublic.com read. "There is far more diversity of opinion here than anywhere else." Another said, "The elite-controlled television, radio, press and Ivy League are the ones promoting cascades of like-minded opinions."

Sunstein said the outpouring of criticism surprised him. Of his proposal for opposing links, Sunstein said in an interview, "I say it should be considered; I don't favor it."

Still, Sunstein said, he was grateful for the online debates and for the chance to clarify some of his points in the essay. If anything, he said, the experience has strengthened his beliefs.

"I've been exposed to a lot of arguments I didn't choose," he said. "I didn't choose to hear that my argument was fundamentally wrong."

But, "it fits nicely with the theme of my book." Many of his critics, he said, "had a lot of good ideas."

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