E-Books go mainstream

Its list of publications for Fall 2000 includes titles from every Simon & Schuster division, according to the publisher. The company expects to publish some titles simultaneously in both media and to release existing print books in digital form.

What's more, the medium permits Simon & Schuster to speed book publishing to startling timeliness. The day after the November 7 presidential election, Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing division plans to release an e-book biography of the newly elected president, covering his childhood through his acceptance speech.

E-books enable just-in-time publishing that breaks out of the typical book-creation process. But publishers and hardware designers need to shake their efforts to make e-books resemble the familiar printed product, suggests one analyst.

"The term e-books is a quivering oxymoron," says Paul Saffo, director of Institute for the Future, a consultancy and think tank. He criticises the design of current e-book hardware, explaining, "We take innovative technology and try to make it look like something familiar," even if that's not best suited to the purpose.

Simon & Schuster will ship its e-books for several platforms, including Microsoft Reader; Glassbook (recently acquired by Adobe); netLibrary's peanutpress.com; SoftLock.com; and the Rocket eBook and SoftBook Reader, both now marketed by Gemstar.

Early Adopter

Simon & Schuster focused attention on e-books last March when it released horror novelist Stephen King's Riding the Bullet as an exclusively electronic publication. It was downloaded more than 500,000 times, according to the company.

Stephen King's On Writing, a memoir of his craft, is among the e-books being published this fall; it will also be available in print.

King went a step further with the recent release of The Plant, a multipart novella, on his own Web site. He asks readers to pay a dollar to download it.

Book publishers are regarding King's experiment with interest and concern, Saffo notes. "I think we may see the rebirth of the short story and the novella," which may be better suited to online publishing, Saffo says.

Sites Serve Aspiring Wordsmiths

Saffo points out that a number of sites are trying to provide publishing outlets for less well-known authors. MightyWords offers custom publishing. Blosm invites agents and publishers to check out sample chapters (and comments by other readers) at its online showcase for aspiring authors.

And then there are sites like KeeBoo, where anyone can create and publish a virtual book.

Familiar Authors Go Digital

Among the e-books in Simon & Schuster's fall lineup are Blair Witch: Graveyard Shift, for fans of the hit movie; The Fortune Tellers by Howard Kurtz; a collection of Wall Street Journal e-books; and works by Stephen Ambrose, Jimmy Carter, Hunter S. Thompson, Jesse Ventura, and Bob Woodward.

"Each of these books has an identifiable audience that we believe we can reach, both early adopters and new e-book readers who will help expand the marketplace," says Jack Romanos, president and chief operating officer of Simon & Schuster.

Selections cover business and financial titles to fiction, children's nonfiction, games, and educational reference. Each division now acquires and publishes electronic titles as well as print books, Romanos notes. Simon & Schuster does not operate a separate division for e-book publishing. That's different from the approach of rival Time Warner, which organised its iPublish arm to produce books written specifically for Microsoft Reader.

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