When Peter Mayer felt the slim weight of an electronic book in
palm of his hand, he suffered instant pangs of dread.
There was no reassuring crackle of paper or the faint scent of
that had been a constant in his career in publishing, for two
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
"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
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.
Barnesandnoble.com, for example, has about 500 titles available for
sale and downloading and has sold about 15,000 copies in this
In general, the privately held manufacturers will not say how many
the electronic readers have been sold, but a Barnesandnoble.com
spokesman, Ben Boyd, said the company had been "pleasantly surprised
with the pace that customers have purchased these devices and
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. …