Judging E-books by Their Covers

Talk about your horror stories–when Stephen King released his first electronic-only book, Riding the Bullet, he couldn't read it on his own computer. Riding the Bullet was originally released in handheld-only format and in PC-only format, for such programs as Glassbook's (781/434-2000, http://www.glassbook.com ) Glassbook Reader.Mac users, such as King, were locked out of reading the story.

Adobe eventually came to the rescue with a Mac-friendly version of the e-book. But the problem Mac users had getting their hands on Riding the Bullet only underscores the compatibility issues in a medium that promised platform independence.

Electronic texts in Portable Document Format were once touted as the answer to cross-platform worries. PDF files are easy to create and can be read by anyone with a copy of Adobe's (800/833-6687, http://www.adobe.com ) free Acrobat Reader. But now some electronic publishers are promoting their own proprietary file types, viewable only with their own readers–either programs that run on your desktop or stand-alone devices.

Still, electronic books may seem like a boon to established writers looking for new audiences. And for new writers, e-books can be an inexpensive way to break into the highly competitive publishing market.

But is there really a market for electronic-only texts?

Although they have their fans–more than 500,000 readers have downloaded Riding the Bullet–electronic texts have not yet won wide consumer acceptance. Many e-books, including King's latest, are write-protected and copy-protected so that readers cannot alter them–or even print them out. This leaves two options: read the text on a computer screen or on a portable electronic device. And handheld e-book devices don't come cheap.

While devices such as NuvoMedia's (877/776-2538, http://www.rocket-ebook.com ) Mac-compatible $269 Rocket eBook Pro offer large storage capacity and long battery life, the format still has some limitations. Many electronic texts are more expensive than paperback editions of the same book. What's more, published e-books are vastly outnumbered by the print versions available at bookstores or online. That's not likely to change until publishers feel more secure about their ability to protect copyrighted material in digital format.

Other e-book devices include SoftBook Press's (650/620-4100, http://www.softbook.com ) $600 SoftBook Reader, which bypasses computers by plugging directly into a phone line to download books. Everybook (717/939-3995, http://www.everybook.net ) plans to offer its EB Dedicated Reader–which features a built-in modem–during the fourth quarter of 2000; the device will cost between $1,600 and $2,000 and target professionals such as lawyers, engineers, and architects.

The problem? Different e-book devices use different proprietary formats. If one company gets the electronic rights to a book, other companies' devices or programs may not be able to read that particular format.

July, 2000 page: 26

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