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 November 19, 1999

Age of electronic publishing is dawning

It’s been four years since I wrote a column titled “If you think electronic books are better than paper, I have some land in Sarajevo to sell you”

How things change, how they remain the same. Land in Sarajevo is now a lot more valuable than it was at the time. Yet still almost nobody’s using electronic books. I wrote that column because I was tired of people telling me I should be writing and selling electronic books.

“People keep asking me why my books aren’t published online,” I wrote. “I’ve even had people tell me they should be published online, as though these people, who invariably don’t work in the book business, know how to sell books better than my publishers.”

Everyone seemed to think that electronic books were imminent, if not actually here. But then people always think that technology moves faster than it really does. Yes, electronic book technology was available. But the problem was that almost nobody was actually reading such books, so the cost of creating them didn’t pay off. I knew of no major success in the area of electronic-book publishing, and four years later still don’t know of any great success. That is, no company I’ve run into is making real money selling these things.

Since I wrote that column, I’ve started my own publishing business and that company, Top Floor Publishing, doesn’t sell books in electronic format. That may change soon, though. Because although it’s still true that very few people, relatively speaking, are using electronic books, the number is beginning to grow, and technological advances over the last four years are bringing us closer to the age of the electronic book.

Not that I think paper will disappear anytime soon. But I do think that selling electronic books will become viable soon — indeed is already viable in some cases. My predication? Sometime around 10 years from now — maybe 15, we’ll see the tide turn, with more books being sold in electronic form than printed form.

What, then, has changed? Of course, it’s easier to distribute books electronically online these days — Fatbrain.com, for instance, sells downloadable books in four formats. But this is necessarily a limited market, in the main for small documents — people just don’t want to read full-length books on their computers.

No, the real changes are in electronic books, small hand-held devices you can carry with you, and that can hold scores of titles. Perhaps the best-known system is the Rocket eBook (www.rocketbook.com), which is currently priced at $269, yet can hold 40,000 pages of text and images — that’s 100 400-page books. Pay another $149 for a memory upgrade, and the book will carry more than 70,000 pages, 175 books.

What can you read on this machine, though? The manufacturer claims that there are 2,000 free titles available, and “thousands of best sellers.” Major publishers are now putting their best sellers into eBook format, so you can read books by authors such as Scott Turow, Stephen King and Bill Gates. But electronic books are more than just a way to display text. The eBook lets you search the books, write notes in the margins, underline text, change the font size or switch orientation, bookmark passages and underline text. And you can even read the book in the dark!

Here’s the catch with these products, though, a Catch 22. How do you get people to buy the product when there aren’t many titles available? Even if there are several thousand titles, it’s a tiny number compared with the 50,000 or 60,000 published every year. Yet how do you get publishers to create the titles in eBook form if not many people own the product?

It’s a matter of reaching the point of critical mass, and the market is progressing slowly toward that point.

In the meantime, NuvoMedia, the owner of the eBook, has targeted a couple of markets that they see as easy sells for the eBook: students and lawyers. Both students and lawyers spend a lot of money on books, so the cost of the eBook, when amortized across all the titles they need, is fairly small. But perhaps more importantly, it’s much easier to carry 100 books in a 22 oz. eBook than it is to carry half a dozen college textbooks.

Oh, and there’s one more reason that our journey into the age of the electronic book is going to accelerate. Because once publishers see it’s on its way, they’re going to jump right in. As a publisher who recently ran out of copies of a title that hit the best-seller lists, I can assure you that publishers will benefit tremendously from the new technology. We can sell them online, with no upfront costs — no need to wait six weeks for the printer, to pay a couple of bucks per book, to ship them around the country, and then see 10 to 20 percent returned unsold! And even when sold in bookstores, it’s cheaper and faster to create a book on a disk than it is to print a paper book.

Peter Kent’s Top Floor Publishing recently published Poor Richard’s E-mail Publishing (poorrichard.com) which is currently on the computer-book best-seller lists.

It’s been four years since I wrote a column titled “If you think electronic books are better than paper, I have some land in Sarajevo to sell you”

How things change, how they remain the same. Land in Sarajevo is now a lot more valuable than it was at the time. Yet still almost nobody’s using electronic books. I wrote that column because I was tired of people telling me I should be writing and selling electronic books.

“People keep asking me why my books aren’t published online,” I wrote. “I’ve even had people tell me they should be published online,…

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