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Will We Ever Want E-Books?

By Paul A. Greenberg
Nov 14, 2001 2:40 PM PT

At first, the idea of digital books sounded so futuristic. Even so, we wrote it off as another passing innovation.

Will We Ever Want E-Books?

Nevertheless, the major publishing houses have worked at plans to enhance their presence in the e-book marketplace.

Do we need e-books? Do we want them? Can we curl up at night with a digital book the way we do with some of our favorite traditional books?

No, no and no.

Courting Disaster

This summer, a federal court in New York struck a severe blow to major publishing houses when it ruled that they do not automatically have digital publishing rights to the book titles in their inventory.

Fittingly, the groundbreaking battle was waged over rebel author Kurt Vonnegut's groundbreaking novel, "Slaughterhouse Five." Random House sued publisher Rosetta Books for offering electronic versions of the book and other titles. Rosetta Books had released the title electronically, while Random House claimed ownership of all rights, sparking a New Age court debate.

Because the injunction was denied, Rosetta was able to continue selling the book in its digital form. Random House, unaccustomed to defeat, went back to the drawing board.

The result? Random House decided to more aggressively develop and market its AtRandom imprint of digital books.

Brave New World?

When Random House first introduced e-books as part of its inventory, it called e-publishing a "brave new world" and one that was potentially a profit center for traditional publishers.

That brave new world stopped spinning as aggressively last week when Random House announced it would eliminate AtRandom due to a lack of interest on the part of consumers. While some books will still be offered electronically from the publisher, there will not be a separate imprint devoted to e-books anymore.

Why? Because the audience for e-books was not substantial enough to merit a separate imprint, according to Random House. Some Random House electronic titles will now be sold as traditional paperbacks.

Not So Fast

Oddly enough, one of Random House's major rivals in the industry, Simon & Schuster, released its own announcement about e-books almost simultaneously with its rival's decision to throw in the digital towel.

Simon & Schuster will begin selling digital versions of existing titles on the Internet. Citing a consumer demand for the service, Simon & Schuster is forging ahead with its plans, despite an industry-wide realization that we consumers like the feel, smell and weight of the real thing.

This announcement comes on the heels of Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) and Barnesandnoble.com (Nasdaq: BNBN) unveiling their own online versions of selected titles.

There's more: Yahoo! has entered an e-book sales deal with four major publishing houses, including Simon & Schuster, Penguin Putnam, HarperCollins and -- stay with me now -- Random House.

The Power of Words

Where are e-books headed next?

On the one hand, this confused hodgepodge indicates the publishing industry is clueless about the potential consumer interest in e-books. Despite the apparent reader ambivalence, traditional publishers are intent on giving e-books yet another chance.

At the same time, it appears major publishing houses believe the e-book market to be a low-risk venture, with low overhead, and one that will succeed based on multi-level marketing from a variety of sources.

Why else, for example, would Simon & Schuster go to all the trouble of opening its own virtual bookstore, and at the same time being one of four publishers to hook up with the Yahoo! deal? And why else would Random House close its own digital book line, yet partner with Yahoo! to sell the very products it is eliminating from its own shelves?

Playing Risk

Jump back a few lines and notice those words "low risk." That sums up the e-publishing venture.

In the publishing world, the cost of producing and marketing one title is astronomical in traditional modes. But in the digital format, conceivably a company could create one simple file and allow an infinite number of readers to download it.

That translates to almost no cost, and the ability to offer a traditional book that would usually costs US$25 at retail for under $20.

All of this brings us back to the original questions -- do we want or need e-books?

So far, it appears we do not, at least not in any large numbers. But publishers sure would like us to.

What do you think? Let's talk about it.


Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


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