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E-books at the lake

The new way of reading doesn’t always go by the book. 1_2_1001.xml hed: E-books at the lake dek: The new way of reading doesn’t always go by the book. blurb:The new way of reading doesn’t always go by the book. number of pages: 2 by Cary Griffith

If touted potential were promises kept almost all your prose reading would be done using small handheld electronic devices. Is it? According to Investor’s Business Daily, the total 2000 electronic-book market (including devices and titles) registered an anemic $34 million. Forrester Research estimates that over the next five years, the e-book and e-book device market will fetch a paltry $251 million. “Publishers are expecting trade e-book sales that won’t materialize,” commented Daniel P. O’Brien, the senior analyst at Forrester responsible for the report. “The drawbacks of reading onscreen will discourage all but the most motivated readers.”

For about a year, one of the best e-book Internet sites was NuvoMedia’s e-bookNet.com. Visit that site today and you’ll only find a notice that Gemstar-TV Guide International acquired NuvoMedia in January 2000. Pursuant to its acquisition, it decided to “step out of the e-book journalism space.” Gemstar is forging ahead with continued e-book development and production, just not providing coverage of the topic. For those interested in Gemstar’s e-book titles, visit the Gemstar site.

E-book pros and cons

Consider the e-book’s strengths and it’s easy to see why so many have waxed positive about its future: Carry a library in the palm of your hand. Control the size and shape of your type font to customize your reading experience. Electronically bookmark pages. Annotate your books with electronic pop-up notes. Search the entire text of Homer’s “The Odyssey” for every occurrence of Cyclops. Download new editions of the same book on a subscription basis. And if all these functional features aren’t enticement enough, consider the cost savings. Download books, magazines, and newspaper contents from Web sites for significantly less than the costs of comparable print versions.

So why have these laudable devices penetrated so little of the reading marketplace? Consider the flip side. Printed books are terminal technology. That is, like the wheel, they cannot be improved. They require little or no training; read to any preschooler, and he’s turning pages in no time. Printed books are compact, light, need no external power supply, and can be easily read at the beach. There’s no microprocessor, LCD, or other component that can go belly-up and end the reading experience. You don’t have to log on to the Internet to buy a new title, and perhaps best of all, you don’t have to spend $200-$700 or more to buy the device required to read.

Still, practically every large publisher in the world is keeping its finger on the pulse of e-book technology. Why? Because they believe it’s only a matter of time before e-books make a major dent in the marketplace-not that electronic books will take over the printed page, but that the number of users is bound to increase.

The e-book market is still trying to define its market and determine its market share. In keeping with its fluctuating perspective, potential e-book readers have more than a few choices. The actual number of hardware devices devoted to the e-book market is very small. Three of them are reviewed in the accompanying sidebar. But if you want to read an e-book on your laptop or desktop PC, you have plenty of other software options.

The three primary e-book engines are Adobe’s Acrobat Reader, its e-book Reader, and the Microsoft Reader. All three e-book engines can be downloaded and installed for free. And if you’re curious about the e-book reading experience on your laptop or PC, these engines provide you with plenty of free titles or partial titles with which to test them.

Most PC users are already familiar with Adobe’s free Acrobat Reader, one of the first e-book engines. Like many e-book engines on the market today, the Reader enables users to perform many of the functions characteristic of electronic-book technology.

For the serious reader, Adobe has created the e-book Reader (formerly Glassbook Reader). The latest version has some excellent features, enabling users to set bookmarks, perform full-text searches, annotate pages, and perform similar functions. Visit the Adobe e-bookstore (URL referenced above), BarnesandNoble.com, and other online booksellers to acquire e-book Reader titles.

Out for more than a year, the Microsoft Reader continues to grow in terms of available titles and features. The latest version contains bookmarks, full-text searching, and similar features, plus an excellent design. The Reader can be downloaded for free, and titles can be acquired from Microsoft, Amazon.com, and other online booksellers.

What should you buy?

As the lawyers and politicians say, that depends. Do you have a PC or laptop? What kind of reading experience do you want? Do you want to take your book to the beach? How about taking it to Starbucks, and with a minimum of flourish and attention, open your e-book and read? And how much are you willing to spend?

Today, if you own a PC, you can begin to get a feel for e-book technology for free. Download and install any of the preceding e-book reading engines and you’ll find plenty of titles from which to choose. Many of these titles are free. And some contemporary novels and news items can be downloaded on a piecemeal, test basis.

If you’re willing to part with $200-$700 consider any one of the hardware reading devices featured in our sidebar. The one device that provides the most comfortable, printlike reading experience is the RCA REB 1200. It has the look, feel, size, and heft of a book with all the enhancements offered using e-book technology.

So why isn’t the market large and growing? We’ve already mentioned some of the reasons. Others include price and, when compared to the reading experience of a printed book, the attraction factor.

My 15-year-old son can sit for hours in front of a video screen when he’s playing games. He’s also something of a reader. I thought these small handheld devices would interest him. He took one look at them and asked if they came with any games.

“They’re for reading,” I said (even though some of them do come with games).

“Oh,” was all he said, returning to his PC.

His perspective is anecdotal, but the hoped-for gee-whiz attraction factor may not materialize. These devices are novel, yes, but are they practical? Ultimately the only way they’ll succeed is if they prove to a large segment of the world’s readers that the electronic reading experience is as good or better than the printed variety.

E-book future

In July the U.S. District Court in New York gave a potential shot in the arm to the e-book industry. The court held that a small e-book publisher, RosettaBooks can sign up existing authors to e-book contracts, as long as their existing contracts don’t contain provisions for digital rights. Random House sued RosettaBooks over the issue and lost. Today Rosetta has signed up some excellent authors to digital-book contracts, including Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, Ray Bradbury, Ed McBain, and Fay Weldon, to name only a few. While this may add to the number of available e-book titles, it doesn’t address some of the e-book’s more fundamental issues.

Still, the media, selected booksellers, authors, and computer manufacturers continue to tout the coming revolution of e-book technology. Some are actually beginning to back their rhetoric with monetary clout. But the more prudent companies are taking a more conservative approach: exploring the market, considering platforms, producing a handful of titles, and waiting to see what develops.

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