E-Books: The Next Electronic Frontier

Article excerpt

Key players in the emerging industry gathered at Electronic Book '98

Judy Luther, M.L.S., M.B.A., and president of Informed Strategies (http://www.informedstrategies.com), is a consultant in the area of market development. Based in the Philadelphia area, she has 25 years' experience in the information industry half on the library side and half on the publisher/vendor side, in various operational and management positions. She can be reached at jluther@earthlink.net.

With the launch this fall of portable electronic books, or e-books, we are witnessing a dual phenomenon: the conversion of large numbers of books to digital form and the distribution of convenient handheld readers with a variety of applications. Both have significant implications for the way we work and for our leisure reading.

Books are the third wave of electronic publishing. First, indexes from secondary publishers became searchable databases via Dialog in the '70s and on CD-ROMs in the '80s. When the Web became popular, primary journals began converting to PDF formats for local printing or an SGML format that enables users to hotlink to other references.

Now books, those cherished paper editions to which we are so attached, are about to be converted in large numbers. Research shows that there is a correlation between human learning and the physical format of the printed page. Users typically print long documents to read off-line since the standard print page does not fit comfortably on the average screen, and scrolling is awkward.

Designers of these new e-books realize that they have to provide readers with a comfortable experience by offering a vertical (portrait rather than landscape) view and by allowing users to "page" (or click) through the book. Additional features and functionality enable the user to select a larger type size and to access a dictionary online. New versions are lightweight with backlit screens that can be read in low light. They hold from 10 to 500 books, which can be easily downloaded, read, and highlighted.

Standards

One of the hurdles for this fledgling industry is the creation of format and transmission standards that enable users to download a book to read on any device. This was a common theme at the recent National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conference in Gaithersburg, Maryland. While much of the book world was gathered in Frankfurt discussing print products, NIST quietly hosted Electronic Book '98 (October 8-9; http://www.nist.gov/itl/div895/isis/ebook98.html). Committed to stimulating the U.S. economy by promoting standards for developing technologies, NIST played a role by bringing together 300 researchers, businessmen, and librarians to discuss hardware, software, content, and marketing issues for this emerging industry. The conference was aptly subtitled "Turning a New Page in Knowledge Management."

During the conference, Microsoft announced that it is joining major publishing and technology companies--including Simon & Schuster, Random House, and Time Warner--to establish technical standards as part of the Open E-Book Standard Group. This should allow for the establishment of standards similar to those that supported the introduction of CDs and DVDs. No one wants to experience the complications that occurred when VHS went head-to-head with Betamax.

The Markets

There is a financial incentive for publishers to participate as their profits are squeezed by higher returns and distribution costs, which consume 50 percent of the price of a trade book. Although Amazon.com markets and sells books over the Web, they still ship print versions. E-commerce of digital formats of books could create new channels for distribution and new economic models resulting in the availability of out-of-print titles.

The current U.S. book market is $21 billion, with 25 percent in textbooks and 10 percent sold to libraries. …