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E-books turn digital page in Europe
LONDON, England -- The e-book, what some call the greatest publishing watershed since Gutenberg's Bible, may be emerging from its rough-draft phase in Europe.
More than two years after the first digital tomes appeared in the United States, publishers on the continent that brought the world the printing press are awakening to the potential of the electronic book.
E-books let users store a small library's worth of digitally encrypted books on a portable hand-held device -- or simply read them on computer screens using special software.
"I believe that it's up and up and up as we move along," said Alberto Vitale, the former chairman and chief executive of Random House, who presided over the first International eBook Awards at the October 2000 Frankfurt Book Fair.
Award organisers received 850 submissions at the fair, held in Frankfurt's Old Opera House. Two American authors -- E.M. Schorb and David Maraniss -- split the $100,000 grand prize for "the best original e-book" -- Schorb for "Paradise Square" and Maraniss for "When Pride Still Matters."
Vitale said the technology used to read e-books has evolved to the point that some of the initial complaints -- that the gadgets are too heavy and their text hard on the eyes -- are becoming moot.
"The devices that we have today are very pleasant to the eye, and the crispness of the type is quite remarkable," Vitale said.
In about a year, he said, Europe has gone from a situation where virtually no one paid any heed to e-books to the point where "we have everybody focused on the potential of this technology."
Reversing a vicious cycle
As more publishers sign on to e-books, he said, the technology promises to transform the book industry by eliminating the need to cut trees, turn old volumes into pulp and requisition warehouses for storage -- all the while upending traditional methods of distributing books.
If Vitale is right, then the e-book phenomenon in Europe is on the verge of reversing a vicious cycle that has impeded the spread of the format here.
That cycle has seen skittish publishers reluctant to offer their content to technology providers whose products, in turn, are useless without the reading material to go with them.
To justify their caution, publishers cited an uncertain market and the relatively high cost of the hand-held devices used to read e-books. The devices sell for anywhere from around $300 to $800.
Even now, only a few high-profile publishing houses, such as Simon & Schuster and Random House, have unveiled e-book strategies.
In the United States, interest in e-books was whetted by the recent release, in digital format, of best-selling horror author Stephen King's Riding the Bullet, which e-book aficionados snapped up to the tune of 500,000 books in a single day. The reaction was more muted to King's subsequent foray into electronic publishing -- a chapter-by-chapter instalment of his novel The Plant at a fee of $1 per instalment.
Part of the problem with e-books lies in the competition: The paper-and-ink format has endured, essentially unchanged, since Johanes Gutenberg published his Bible in 1456, including four volumes made by manipulating movable type over vellum.
Online bookseller BOL.com, launched in February 1999, already has operations in 14 European countries. However, it only sells e-books in one -- Germany -- where the company has released 500 titles in digital format.
Ulrich Schmidt-Marwede, a BOL.com spokesman, said the market is bound to pick up as soon as hardware prices come down and more publishers hop aboard. But for now, he concedes, "it's still a kind of niche market."
In the United Kingdom, Random House plans to publish more than 100 titles in e-book format in early 2001.
Simon & Schuster is rolling out a full "season" of e-book titles, including Stephen Ambrose's story of the transcontinental U.S. railroad, Nothing Like it in the World, and Jimmy Carter's childhood memoir, An Hour Before Daylight.
Andrew Rosenheim, the managing director of Penguin Press in the UK, said the primary hurdle potential e-book publishers must overcome in Europe is a technological one. Europe, he said, still lacks the hardware base and levels of Internet penetration seen in the United States that are vital to the growth of the e-book market.
Rosenheim said he believed the market for e-books would remain "embryonic" in the next two to three years before eventually overtaking paper-and-ink books as the dominant force.
"In 50 years, the (traditional book) may have the status of the present-day horse - once the staple of industrial labour, now it's a … luxury vehicle."
The e-book wars
International eBook Award Foundation
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