- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2006

It’s the smell of a classic — musky and mysterious — accumulated from years spent on a bookshelf, wedged between other literary icons. Or it may be the hot whiff of ink and freshly brewed ideas from the mind of J.K. Rowling. Books are more than just conduits of information or the work of one’s imagination — they are comfortable, friendly and, perhaps, irreplaceable.

Yet in a world of advancing technology, nearly everything with a traditional appeal also is showing up in digital form. Indeed, six years ago, some publishers and industry researchers predicted that by now, paper might be obsolete and all print books would have a digital counterpart known as an e-book.

Most consumers, however, have resisted clickable screen-reading.

Electronic books, which require either a reading device or specific computer software such as Microsoft Reader or Adobe Reader to access, have been met with a variety of reactions — some readers embrace the benefits unique to e-books, such as the large type and easy search options, while others shun the idea that print books could be replaced by the burgeoning market of tech gadgets.

“A lot of people feel they’ve been abused by their [computer] screen all day long, and they don’t want to look at another for pleasure,” says Pat Schroeder, president and chief executive of the Association of American Publishers, which has headquarters in the District and New York City.

“I don’t see you or I throwing paper books out in the drain,” says Morris Rosenthal, an author and publisher of e-books, among other book genres.

Nick Bogaty, executive director of International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), based in New York City, estimates that the e-book industry has reached a $15 million to $20 million market in the United States. Though it is the fastest-growing sector of the publishing business, Ms. Schroeder says that is because e-books started from such a small number — zero — in the late 1990s.

“It never turned into the industry that people expected,” says Mr. Rosenthal, of Northampton, Mass.

Though many factors account for the low e-book sales, the most prominent three are the reasons behind Barnes & Noble’s decision to discontinue the sale of e-books in September 2003.

“Consumers were not as quick to embrace the technology, the pricing set by publishers or the reading devices,” says Carolyn Brown, spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble. “We did have growth in our e-book sales, but the growth was not significant enough to support the business at this time.”

Mr. Bogaty addresses a fourth issue: selection. He says just 50 percent to 60 percent of the books on New York Times best-seller lists are available as e-books. “We’re making progress, but there’s still 40 percent to go,” he says.

Fictionwise.com & Mobipocket.com are the two most popular Web sites for consumers to purchase a large selection of e-books. EReader.com offers e-book titles as well as software to download e-books on various reading devices such as Pocket PCs and Palm Pilots. (EReader Pro for Pocket PC and Windows Mobile Editions sells for $9.95.)

Mr. Bogaty says e-books typically sell for 10 percent to 50 percent less than the print version.

Ms. Schroeder says that a few years ago, publishers were anticipating a surge in e-book sales. “We built it, and they didn’t come,” she says, speaking of consumers.

Part of the reason for consumers’ hesitancy is the difficulty in finding an appropriate reading device. Mr. Bogaty refers to new e-book reading devices, such as the Sony Reader or IRex Technologies E-Reader but says the preferred platform in the United States is a personal digital assistant (PDA). In the future, he speculates, cell phones and PDAs will combine features in one electronic device with a larger screen and better resolution, which would be more conducive for e-book reading.

Though overall e-book sales haven’t matched the anticipated hype, some book genres are selling well in the electronic format, including romance novels and business- and computer-related books.

“Surprisingly, there’s a lot of romance on the list,” says Mr. Bogaty, whose nonprofit, membership-based company, IDPF, releases statistics and creates industry standards that publishers and software companies use when marketing e-books.

“It’s surprising because with new technologies, it tends to be young [people] and men [who adapt first]. So to see romances on there makes me hopeful that it’s moving to the mainstream reading public, which is primarily female.”

Before e-books can truly hold up in the mass market, however, the industry has to agree on standards regarding digital rights management, known as DRM, for consumers to get full use and accessibility from their e-books.

Jonathan Smith, a graduate student at Catholic University who works as the electronic resources assistant at the university’s library while he pursues his degree in library science, recently confronted one of the problems caused by the lack of open standards in the e-book industry.

After purchasing and downloading an electronic textbook to his computer, Mr. Smith realized that his e-book couldn’t be transferred to another, more accessible reading device such as his Palm Pilot.

“DRM is the largest barrier,” Mr. Smith says, referring to the lack of e-book popularity. “Open standards would help across all [reading] devices.”

Even if the e-book industry can agree on standards for the use of electronic devices, Mr. Smith says he “can’t imagine e-books ever replacing physical books [because] we have such a large back stock of books that exist.”

Mr. Rosenthal echoes the position that e-books won’t replace print books anytime soon. He says when students start requesting them, it will indicate a change in the public sentiment toward e-books.

“The main hope for e-books is going to be school textbooks,” he says. “They are cheaper and better for the poor little kids’ backs carrying around 40 pounds of books now. When these kids grow up, they’ll be happy to continue reading e-books. I don’t see e-books growing in leaps and bounds until there’s a generational shift.”

“This is really about a good story, about the content,” Ms. Schroeder says. “Don’t get razzle-dazzled by the machine it’s on — people want solid material. So far, most of the people want a book. Rooms are full of this technical stuff that nobody can read. At the end of the day, the book is a permanent thing that seems to hang.”

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