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E-BOOKS: A LIBRARY ON YOUR LAP

NUVOMEDIA'S ROCKET eBOOK
Photoillustration by Richard Michiel

So you think you're a beast of burden in the Information Age, hauling around briefcases jammed with reports, binders, and magazines? Do your shoulders ache from the strap on your stuffed briefcase? Is your spine out of alignment?

Lighten up. Electronic books may soon deliver you from your paper weight -- and all those trips to the chiropractor. Ranging in size and poundage from a waterlogged paperback to a three-pound legal pad, E-books share one salient trait: These digital readers can hold up to 4,000 pages, or about 10 books' worth of text, in a memory made of silicon. That should keep even power readers busy on the commute home. Once you've knocked off the Federal Spending Bill, delete it and load the complete works of William Shakespeare -- you'll still have room for the Starr Report, via dial-up modem or PC. Prices for E-books soon to be available range from $499 to $599, while players in the wings claim they will have offerings at the low end (under $200) and high end ($1,500) next year.

Sounds revolutionary -- and it is. But the companies leading the charge have remained faithful to at least some traits of ordinary books. The click of a rocker switch set in the plastic E-book case lets you toggle back and forth, moving forward or backward one complete page at a time. Touch-sensitive screens make it possible to write notes with a stylus in the margins of some of the digital books, such as the Rocket eBook (NuvoMedia Inc.) and SoftBook (SoftBook Press Inc.). The EveryBook (EveryBook Inc.) trumpets a design with dual screens to mimic the look, feel, and function of a traditional book. But the $1,500 cost of such a design will price it far above other E-books -- if the company can meet its target launch date of next April.

Still, readers are constantly reminded that this is less a book than a reader-friendly adaptation of a laptop. The tablet-like displays won't approach the clear resolution of ink on a page for many years to come. And so far, only one -- the EveryBook -- offers color. Then there's battery life, which ranges from around four hours for the SoftBook to roughly nine hours for the Rocket eBook. Trading paper files for spare batteries in your briefcase seems a poor bargain, though longer-life batteries will someday lessen the burden.

STANDARD FORMAT. Besides the gadget freaks, the early users of E-books are likely to be people who must read a lot of information every day. "It's not a consumer business we're aiming for," says James Sachs, CEO of SoftBook Press. "It's a professional information business -- financial services, pharmaceuticals, law firms." In the next year, Sachs expects professional publishers to begin making their publications available online for download to E-books -- for a price.

That process got easier in October, when a new file format, called Open eBook, was endorsed by Microsoft and a number of the early entrants into the E-book market. The electronic-book content standard, based primarily on technology developed by SoftBook Press, is expected to be published free of charge by Microsoft and should be available by the end of 1998. It won't be tied to Microsoft's Windows operating system or Windows CE, its scaled-down cousin for handheld devices. But the new standard will make it easier for publishers to make titles available for download to any manufacturer's device that complies with the standard.

Market acceptance of E-books will depend on the partnerships manufacturers can strike with publishers and other content providers. Despite the high cost and clunkiness of the first crop of E-books, publishers will be watching customers closely over the next few months. Rocket eBook maker NuvoMedia already has announced partnerships with several book publishers, as well as with barnesandnoble.com, to provide around 400 titles for downloading, with 600 more due by Christmas. SoftBook Press has named several of the same major publishers as partners. It's not clear yet what E-book users will be charged for individual titles but don't expect to pay less than you would for a paperback -- at least in the first year or two.

'A LARK.' The advent of E-books might even expand the reading public of many authors. Gary Sutton, 56, an author in San Diego, plans to bring out his new novel Cyber.scamm 2000 in both online and hard-copy editions. The book is a thriller about a criminal scheme to bring the Internet to its knees during the confusion surrounding the software transition to the Year 2000. The hard copy will be published by a British outfit called Ye Olde Digital Press, while SoftBook Press and Hardshell.com have both signed up to bring out online editions.

Sutton says that for him, the online editions are "a lark." "The novel might have particular draw for the users of electronic books, because the plot involves the Internet," he says. But as an author, Sutton found some pluses in his dealings with the two online publishers: "The advantage to me is circumventing the publishing industry, which moves with the speed of a glacier." With E-books still in their infancy and no one sure how the publishing model will work out, the money for an author online at present is "modest," Sutton says. But by referring to an online edition when he is doing promotional radio interviews for the book, he figures he may be able to drive up his royalties. As for the appeal of reading a novel on an E-book, Sutton is skeptical. "What it does offer one day is a book for less than you might pay at a bookstore and the ability to print it out in any typeface and font you want," he adds.

In the meantime, busy professionals with heavy reading loads and aching shoulders can't take their eyes off E-books when they spot one. SoftBook's Sachs, a former product designer at Apple Computer Inc., usually ends up lending his SoftBook to the person in the airplane seat next to him for part of the flight. "I'm one of the most popular people on any airplane," he says. "Businesspeople immediately start talking about how they would use it to reduce the amount of stuff they have to carry."

Just think, you could bring even more reading material on the next business trip.


Note: This is an extended, online-only version of the story that appears in the November 16, 1998, issue of Business Week.

By Paul C. Judge in Boston


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