Publishing Industry Contends with Uncertainties of E-Books

Article excerpt

When Peter Mayer felt the slim weight of an electronic book in the palm of his hand, he suffered instant pangs of dread.

There was no reassuring crackle of paper or the faint scent of ink that had been a constant in his career in publishing, for two decades as chief executive of Viking Penguin and now of his own independent company, Overlook Press.

"I respect it," Mayer said of the electronic book that could change the dynamics of his business, "but I have an emotional and professional investment in what I know. And when I was young, I knew that I could conquer any change, and now I don't know what's ahead." Such wariness is prompting Mayer, and some authors and agents, to shy away from books made of bytes until a clear view develops of the rapidly emerging market for electronic readers. The culture of technology has collided with the slower-moving book industry, which is engaged in a tense, early clash over how to divide up the spoils of an infant business that is still difficult to picture in scope and potential. "This is a scramble over who controls what," said Laurence Kirshbaum, chief executive of Time Warner Trade publishing, a Time Warner unit that includes Warner Books and Little Brown. He noted that "we're not being motivated by what's to come, but a fear of being left out as the train is pulling away from the station, with some exotic station in mind." For the first time in five years, the New York-based Authors Guild mailed out contract warnings last month to some 7,500 members. The letter criticized current e-book contracts as bad deals. The guild said it considered distribution fees for electronic book manufacturers a payment scheme that would deny publishers and authors the rewards of the Information Age. Some prominent literary agencies are also advising authors to refuse electronic book agreements unless the contracts promise to revise the deals if electronic editions rapidly gain popularity. But in turn, some publishers are refusing to make that concession, which means that many popular books are staying firmly on the bookshelves instead of a digital page. In the last three years, start-up technology companies have pushed forward with plans to make electronic books as ubiquitous as mass market paperbacks. This month, Nuvomedia will expand its sales of $500 versions to stores, while Librius is preparing to begin selling its slender 12-ounce pocketbook-sized model for $200 in July. Softbook Press has been lining up deals with corporations and school districts that are eager to eliminate lockers and reduce backpack strain on students laden with textbooks. Softbook's version, with note-taking and scribble functions, sells for $299. The first e-books became available late last fall., for example, has about 500 titles available for sale and downloading and has sold about 15,000 copies in this format. In general, the privately held manufacturers will not say how many of the electronic readers have been sold, but a spokesman, Ben Boyd, said the company had been "pleasantly surprised with the pace that customers have purchased these devices and titles." The numbers may seem small now, says Chuck Verrill, a literary agent with Darhansoff & Verrill, but "the issues are profound in their long-term impact." "And we want to see the market grow, but we want to make sure the terms are fair," he said. The agency's authors, including Arthur Golden and E. Annie Proulx, are avoiding the electronic format until they reach better deals with publishers. The devices that are inspiring all this anxiety weigh from 12 ounces to more than two pounds and carry brand names like Rocket eBook, Millennium E-Reader and the Softbook. They seem rather expensive now for leisure reading, but eventually the manufacturers expect the cost to fall below $100 or plunge to nothing as e-books are given away like cellular phones to entice customers to buy and download books, newspapers and magazines. …


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