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Publishers Scramble to Make Electronic Books a Reality

In the past year, publishing kingpins have been promising to usher in the new age of the electronic book. But last week's e-Book World Conference at the Marriott Marquis showed an industry riven by as much schizophrenia as the presidential elections.

On one hand there was a whopping round of chest thumping from old-world publishing heavyweights like Time Warner's Larry Kirshbaum and The New York Review of Books' Jason Epstein about the auspicious future of electronic publishing. In the midst of all the boosterism, Random House made a pledge to grant e-book writers a whopping 50 percent royalty rate, compared to the 10 to 15 percent its print authors get. The very next day MightyWords, the e-book company in which Barnes & Noble invested $20 million last June, announced a radical downsizing: They will terminate half their writers' contracts; the remaining writers will receive a royalties cut of 50 percent to 70 percent of their current contract.

It was a much needed reality check. After all, though the industry is brimming with high-profile endorsements and practical promise, neither the demand for e-books nor the actual proceeds from e-book sales yet exist to justify so much controversy. For now, anyway, the e-book industry is more rumpus than reality.

Still, a shift is in progress—from romantic queries about the state of literature to practical questions of how the hell e-publishers are going to make any money. Last week's hubbub occurred right on the heels of an equally controversial ceremony at the Frankfurt eBook Awards which led everybody to believe that the industry was polarized over lofty political and theoretical issues: big-business print publishing versus insurgent indie publishing, old-world standards of literary quality versus the new-world celebration of literary ingenuity.

What became obvious at e-Book World is that the technology mavens and big-business publishers who have scrambled into the e-book fray have no time or patience for "whither content?" issues. It seems they've already decided to forego the gestation period where we get to bat around literary philosophy.

E-book world was an anticlimactic clash of two seemingly irreconcilable worlds: the fast-paced Babbittry of tech culture and the muddle of old-school publishing suits that crowded around the technology exhibitions. At the Microsoft booth, where the company is trying to promote its Reader software as the industry standard, a rumpled passerby queries a vibrant PR flack: "Can I play this on my Rocketbook?"

The publicist furrows and shifts a bit. "No, that's Gemstar's hardware—an actual reading device that takes a different format. This is software that you can download—or 'play'—on two devices, your personal computer and your PDA. When you read, it allows you to do things that paper books don't. My favorite part about Reader is the instant dictionary. You can click on a word you don't know and a definition will pop up. Then within the definition you [can follow other links], so it takes you in and in and in."

Now the visitor furrows and shifts. The Microsoft rep changes her tack: "Also, you can choose your own font size, so if you have eye issues you can blow it up like this." The single page on the screen transforms the text of Great Expectations into billboard headlines. The visitor grins at it a moment, then dodders off.

The fact is that the nuts and bolts of e-publishing just aren't that exciting. Which is why every industry needs its true believers, those willing to stand on a podium and convince the uninitiated. Jason Epstein, the venerated cofounder of The New York Review of Books, has successfully stoked his dwindling relevance by becoming the new industry's most lyrical, but also recklessly reductive, pundit. In his keynote speech he rehashed his three recent columns in NYRB (a book on the topic will be published early next year). "The World Wide Web will destroy filters that traditionally separated publishable work from the surrounding chaos," he croaked, struggling to maintain a tone that felt more like eulogy than elegy. "The profound human instinct by which people have always created order, distinguished value, and sustained markets, with its multitudinous babble, folly, wickedness, will create new filters. Distinguished and useful Web sites will prevail, will infuriate competitors, and readers will, sooner or later, find their way to desirable goods as they have always. New technologies do not annihilate human nature, which for all its flaws persists . . . into the distant electronic future."

It's one thing to get the young, hip music industry up to speed with next-gen high-tech publishing standards, but plugging in the old, stodgy publishing industry is another feat altogether. Addressing the hot-button piracy issue, Microsoft's Dick Brass soothed the e-Book World audience by saying, "We all can rest assured that consumers of books are much more honest than the kids who listen to rock and roll." It's true that publishing's mature, respectful audience may protect it from radical, disruptive shifts like the Napster phenomenon. But they will also make the book industry's transition into the new economy much more cautious and cumbersome.

The irony is that no industry stands to benefit more from electronic technology than book publishing, whose business model is horrendously flawed. Seventy-five percent of a book's cost goes toward distribution, ink, and paper, and bookstores can send books back if they don't sell, leaving publishers in the lurch. Electronic publishing can alleviate a lot of the problems—speed of production and manufacturing costs, to name two—which explains the industry's optimism and willingness to overlook the absence of demand. They are counting on younger readers to get over the squeamishness about look-and-feel and intimacy issues that have plagued e-books.

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