SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
Digital downloading is shaking up the publishing world
Pam Dixon 02-Apr-2000 Sunday
Books have long been about words tucked carefully onto pages, waiting to be unfolded into one’s imagination and mind through reading, either aloud or silently. Technology hasn’t changed this essential process, but it is certainly changing everything else about books.
In March, author Stephen King made a big splash when he released his newest ghost story, “Riding the Bullet,” solely in eBook (or electronic book) format. While King’s is arguably one of the highest-profile eBook launches, it is not the first, nor is it the only way books are being digitally transformed these days.
William Shakespeare, for example, broke into digital print, specifically via Etext, in the ’70s on Project Gutenberg, a vast collection of electronic text available for free on the Web. And last year, Frank McCourt released the audio version of his best-selling book “Angela’s Ashes,” in a digital audio format for instant download on Audible.com.
Others, such as short-story authors Frank Macchia and Tracey London, have been creating books and short-story collections right on their Web pages, using streaming technology to add live music and animation to their original text.
The digital shake-up
It may seem as though publishers have fully embraced the Internet, but listing a book or audio book’s availability online is a whole different story from selling and distributing an electronic book online.
The most important thing about King’s eBook launch is that its high profile cut through publishers’ objections and gave the nascent electronic-book industry a sense of momentum and critical mass. And momentum is key, because despite all the electronic text and audio that is readily available (much of it free), and despite the Internet being well-established, the publishing industry is just now moving to fully utilize the potential of the Internet and the digital medium.
The first steps toward digital-book adoption came by way of selling traditional paper and audio books online at sites such as http://www.amazon.com/ and later, http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ . That’s a few steps away from selling actual digital books, but it was, and still is, an important starting point.
“In general, what the Internet has done — and of course, books were one of the very first product lines that sold well over the Internet — is that it has given us the ability to display the availability of most, if not all, the titles in print,” says Jim Ulsamer, president of Baker and Taylor Retail, one of North America’s largest book distributors. “The Internet has generated a much broader base of sales in terms of the variety of the titles.”
The online catalog approach works well, but about a year ago, a fundamental push from consumers toward something more began growing. Such influences as Project Gutenberg (which archives the full text of entire books online for instant reading) and http://www/ . tunes.com. and http://www/ . MP3.com (which allow instant online listening) made savvy consumers aware that the Internet was useful for more than acting as a terrific catalog for paper books and books on tape. The concept of a “digital download” began to take hold — and that is what is truly shaking up the industry.
Digital Books 101
“My take on digital downloads of books is that it will be small but significant enough to have a major impact,” says Carrie Johnson, an analyst with Forrester Research.
“The evidence is that the consumer demand is already there. Retailers like Barnes and Noble have launched an aggressive eBooks strategy. It will be another way of doing business just like the Internet in general.”
Ulsamer says that while demand isn’t high yet, he expects it to become so. “It’s a little bit early,” he says. “There are a lot of efforts going forth, which is good, because consumers are going to want flexibility, which translates into the big question of what devices are they going to be downloading books into. Those business models will evolve for a while before they settle in.”
As a distributor, Ulsamer is preparing for the day when electronic books are popular. After all, he has nothing to lose. “Electronic books are both a threat and an opportunity. The opportunity is that there are so many titles being bought that no matter how good someone is at maintaining warehousing, it can’t come close. I think there’s room for the purchase of books in electronic format and hard copy.”
If you ask the folks over at SoftBook Press or other electronic reading-device manufacturers, the issues Ulsamer brought up are already moot to some degree. SoftBook and others have been working for several years to solve the problems inherent in electronic books, and have wrought some elegant solutions.
“We make electronic reading devices that you can use apart from a computer. Many sites have books online, such as traditional Web sites like Gutenberg. But for commercial content right now, it’s just Nuvo Media and SoftBook for reading that content,” says Tom Morrow, spokesman for SoftBook Press. Morrow says that the electronic rights can be controlled completely using protections built into the format and the reading devices.
SoftBook, like others, uses the eBook format to digitize books and make them readable on electronic devices. eBook is an actual term for what is called an “open standard” electronic-book format, which means that any publisher can work with it to make its books electronically accessible on various electronic books readers, which are are $200 to $500.
“We’ve been selling books in eBook format for about 14 months,” says Morrow, who works with a La Jolla-based team of engineers to create the devices. “It is the beginning of the industry, so the question is, what comes first: the books, or the devices? We started with devices. We had to convince publishers like Random House to work with us and make everything available. They’ve been supportive of us.”
The SoftBook library includes about 4,000 titles, with more added daily. How the SoftBook works is simple: You purchase an electronic book, grab a copy of it online or get it sent to you, and read the book wherever you want on a slim, booklike electronic device that looks like an overgrown Palm Pilot.
“With a SoftBook you can also publish to yourself,” says Morrow. “We make a free tool called Personal Publisher that will convert a Microsoft Word document into a SoftBook document,” he says.
As eBooks begin to take off, another electronic-book format is starting to root on the Web: audio-book downloads. On the outermost leading edge of the technology is the primary site for this activity, Audible.com, which allows for instant digital downloading of audio books, magazines and newspapers.
“I’ve always jogged with audio books and was always aware that there was a market that was really inefficient,” says Audible.com founder Donald Katz, who is the author of several critically acclaimed books, and was a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and numerous other national magazines before founding his company.
Katz saw what he calls the “Audible revolution” coming a long time ago, and moved to capitalize on it when he found that his magazine stories were being posted on the Web without his consent.
“I saw the amazing numbers of listeners that talk radio brings in, and at the same time I saw the huge growth of the Web,” says Katz.”I thought: Why not take the Web, the talk-radio audience, and bring it all together while at the same time taking care of the inefficiencies of the audio-book market?” And that’s precisely what he did.
Katz used his high-level writing and publishing contacts to persuade top publishers and writers to make materials available in digital audio format. At the Audible.com site, you can find the audio versions of best-selling books by McCourt, Po Bronson and Bill Gates, and, yes, you can find the new King release there, too.
How the site works is that you can listen to the books right from your computer, or you can download them to a portable audio device such as the Diamond Rio 500 or the Compaq 1520 palm-sized PC. The site has plenty of free samples, but for the whole book, you pay a small fee, anywhere from a $1.95 to $25.
In the larger picture, only an estimated 2 percent of the world’s population has computers, and fewer still have book-oriented digital reading or listening devices. “The thing that you have to consider in any tech situation is: How badly do people want this to happen?” says Johnson. That question remains unanswered. Meanwhile, paper books aren’t going away any time soon.
Pam Dixon’s column about the arts and technology appears the first Sunday of each month.