Microsoft, Time Warner Unveil E-Book Deals

Further solidifying what has traditionally been an uncertain niche for major players, Microsoft and Time Warner announced separate digital book publishing deals Tuesday.

Microsoft said it is teaming with two trade publishing giants — Simon & Schuster and Random House — to give away free downloads of Michael Crichton’s new book, as well as 15 “Star Trek” television episodes. The software giant said Crichton’s “Timeline” is available from by way of Microsoft’s new software for handheld and personal computers.

Meanwhile, Time Warner said it is starting an online venture called iRead and iPublish, which is designed to bring popular literature to the public and give new authors an opportunity to see their work in print. Time Warner’s venture will also use Microsoft electronic reading technology.

Electronic Readers

Until recently, electronic book publishing has been the domain of short or out-of-date works and so-called vanity publishers.

The industry has essentially been plagued by the chicken-and-egg enigma: to attract readers, e-book companies need to offer a wide variety of books and authors, but to attract publishers, they first must convince them that a market exists for the product.

Hundreds of small companies have entered the arena, but up until now, established book publishers have steered clear. After the success of Stephen King’s online novella “Riding the Bullet,” however — which sold more than 400,000 copies and overwhelmed online booksellers earlier this year — the big players have started to move.

Random House, the nation’s largest publisher, is currently involved in a two-year project to digitize its backlist of 20,000 titles, while Simon & Schuster is also formatting all of its new books in electronic form.

Crichton Coup

The entry of bestselling author Crichton into the digital world is a coup for e-publishers in general, because one of the issues for potential e-publishers has been the lack of well-known and popular writers in the field — Stephen King notwithstanding.

“Michael Crichton has for decades dazzled readers with his visions of the past, present and future,” Erik Engstrom, president and chief operating officer of Random House, said. “It seems fitting that Michael, a professional who has made brilliant use of computers in his work as a filmmaker, creator of computer games and writer, will be one of the first authors to see his book come alive as an e-book in this complementary medium.”

Many analysts believe that e-publishing could forever change the way people read books. E-books can be read as e-mail, retrieved by a special electronic reading device, downloaded from personal computers, or even converted from digital versions into hardbound copies that can be printed in less than a minute.

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