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e-Pub: Microsoft Readies Reader Rollout
Paul Hilts -- 4/3/00
E-book software for Windows debuts this month on handheld Compaq, HP computers

Microsoft Corp. will begin delivering its Reader software for e-books this month, according to an announcement made at the Waterside Conference for computer book publishers and authors in San Diego, Calif., March 16- 18.

Jeff Alger, Microsoft's group program manager for e-books, speaking on a panel concerning e-book developments, told the audience that the first version of Reader to ship will run on Pocket PCs. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates described these new handheld computers at the Consumer Electronics Show last January, saying the first models would be available from several manufacturers this spring, running a new version of Windows.

With the first devices due from Hewlett-Packard and Compaq this month, Alger announced that Pocket PC Windows will be the devices' operating system. The desktop and laptop versions of Reader are still scheduled for release in the summer, which will provide bn.com's e-book superstore with more titles.

Alger also said that within 60 to 90 days, Microsoft will have a software plug-in for Word to allow authors to write directly in Reader format. A similar plug-in for Internet Explorer to create Reader files for the Internet will be ready about three months later.

Two Markets

Discussing the potential readership of e-books, Alger said that Microsoft had done a lot of research concerning how and what people read, and found two markets of what he termed "ABCs" (Avid Book Consumers). Only 45% of ABCs are PC-savvy, he said; 55% are not, and need other benefits to be coaxed to read on-screen.

In a separate Q&A period, Alger mentioned one surprising conclusion from Microsoft's research: on devices as small as a Pocket PC or Palm, people prefer to read fiction, not technical information. The screen is too small for a lot of technical publishing, Alger said, especially if the text includes complex equations. But the tiny screen can be scanned and comprehended in just two eye movements. Participants in the study liked reading fiction this way, Alger claimed. Regarding the screen font question, and whether people could read volumes of text on screen, he noted that the point of creating Reader with ClearType software to sharpen the image of the text was to deliver a paper-like reading experience.

Digital Ingram? In Wake of King, Softlock Emerges

When Simon & Schuster made the announcement several weeks ago that it would release a story via the Web through a variety of partners, one little-known name to surface was Softlock. In the weeks that followed, consumers and the publishing industry heard about the company often, though few seemed to know exactly what gap it fills. One publishing executive at S&S who did know called Softlock "a digital Ingram."

If the analogy wasn't entirely accurate, it certainly captured some of the spirit of Softlock. The company's goal is to provide all back-office services, from enabling e-commerce transactions to making e-books more download-friendly to facilitating proper encryption. For publishers accustomed to posting content on the Web at no charge, these are important functions.

But while these goals have long been part of Softlock's spine, the company, based in Maynard,. Mass., has recently grown marketing and distribution appendages. In a sense, the S&S deal was its coming-out party as an e-merchandiser. Softlock boasted 80 affiliates for the King program, far more than it ever had before and marking its first real moment as more of a digital PGW than an Ingram. While the list was top-heavy with likely bookselling channels such as Amazon (which S&S arranged) and low on niche sites that experts predict will be the bread-and-butter of e-publishing retail, Softlock hopes that will change through direct e-mail campaigns and partnerships with portals.

Where a terrestrial distributor seeks out channels it deems appropriate, the trend here, as it is in so many places online, is to try to get the content out quickly via anyone who'll sell it. "We have an evolving set of criteria," CEO Keith Loris said. "Right now, the drive is that it's not pornographic. As long as they're legitimate Web sites, we will give them a URL."

The company works through an affiliate program, getting it around some of the pricing issues that have worried traditional publishers by not encouraging markup. It also means, Softlock believes, that each party is dependent on one another in a way that gives them greater incentive. "We're all working on sales commission," Loris said. And by signing up affiliates for a high-profile publishing deal like King, Loris said, he has made them into conduits for other content as well.

Unlike other members of a new crop of intermediaries, like Glassbook and Microsoft, Softlock d sn't specialize in reader software. And at this point, it remains decidedly out of the content game; it didn't even sell the King book through its site, which Softlock believes takes it out of a particular digital realm. "I think Fatbrain views us as a competitor," Loris said. "But I don't. We'd sign them up as an affiliate." --Steven M. Zeitchik

M.J. Rose: E-book Queen Inks Print, Digital Deals

Author and freelance journalist M.J. Rose--who became an e-publishing sensation when she parlayed online buzz about her self-published novel, Lip Service, into a five-figure print deal with Pocket Books--is at it again. In a spate of recent deals, the self-styled e-publishing pioneer has kept her hand in the electronic arena, while consolidating her presence in traditional print. Two weeks ago, Fatbrain posted Rose's 120-page novella, Private Places, on its new online literary marketplace, Mightywords.com.

Meanwhile, in early March, St. Martin's Press bought the print and electronic rights to a guide to publishing and promoting e-books that Rose and co-author Angela Hoy-Adair originally published online as The Secrets of Our Success (it will be retitled for print and digital republication in January 2001; and available as a featured alternate from the Literary Guild). And in Rose's most conventional deal, Pocket Books bought hard/soft rights to her second novel, In Fidelity, for publication in spring 2001.

This flurry of activity follows Rose's efforts to make herself over as an e-publishing success story. After mainstream publishers rejected her erotic thriller, Lip Service, which fell between the traditional romance and suspense genres, Rose opted to publish it online in the summer of 1998. Banner ads drew fans to her site--more than 20,000 hits--but she registered only about 150 downloads. Realizing that her readers really wanted print copies, she began offering a self-published print edition as well as the digital version. By aggresssively promoting the book on women's erotic and romance Web sites and writing about her own e-publishing experiences, she sold 1500 print titles at $12.95 and 300 e-copies at $9.95 over the winter of 1998. She has since become a correspondent for WiredNews.com

In February 1999, Rose was "discovered" by Erika Tsang, an editor for Doubleday Direct, who spotted the effusive reader responses to her book on Amazon.com and snatched up the rights. (Doubleday Direct has sold more than 18,000 hardback copies since August 1999). On the heels of that deal, Rose struck her first deal with Pocket Books and achieved her original dream of print publication by a major house.

While Rose is pleased with the sell-through on the book's 20,000-copy first printing, its online publicity d s not appear to have had a dramatic an effect on its hardcover sales at real-world stores. "Books still sell the same old way--a grassroots, word-of-mouth thing among readers," she said.

Unsurprisingly, her best hardcover sales have come through online bookstores. "If the book had sold as many copies in regular bookstores as it sold in online bookstores, it would have been a bestseller. As it was, it made it on Barnes & Noble's top 100 list and Amazon's top 100 also. I have to believe that was because there was a lot of Internet press ," Rose said.

According to Rose, her edgy, erotic subject matter may also have worked against her in bookstores, since she has observed that "women are buying erotic books more easily online than they are in the bookstore." The sexually explicit jacket image, which seemed to attract readers on the Web, has also prompted some booksellers to complain. A different image will appear on the trade paperback edition, which is due in July.

After making such a splash on the Internet, there is more than a little irony in Rose's move back to old media. Like many e-book authors, Rose turned to digital publishing because she couldn't get the old media to pay attention to her books. She even admitted to PW that she d sn't own an electronic reading device and d sn't like to read anything longer than a chapter on-screen. "E-publishing is still talking to itself," said Rose. "No one is figuring out how to bring readers into the equation. I think e-publishing is moving so fast it's commiting suicide. By January 2001, there will be more than 150,000 previously unpublished titles online. How is anyone going to find them?"

For now, it seems, she's hedged her bets by using her new media ventures to bring attention to works that are published the old-fashioned way. --Charlotte Abbott

Project Gutenberg Sets 10,000 Book Goal

It is the granddaddy of all e-text archives; the Alexandria Library of the digital age. This year Project Gutenberg, a nonprofit, free electronic library of public-domain e-texts, will post its 2,500th book on the Internet. Project founder Michael Hart started this literary cyber-crusade in 1971--long before dot-coms or Jeffrey Bezos arrived on the scene.

Hart, now 53, started Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.net) when he was a freshman at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, with access to a school mainframe computer that was "about the size of a small house." At the time, only a few computers in the U.S. (at the Department of Defense and at elite academic institutions) were online. And the information on the infantile Net was just code ("geek speak," Hart calls it), incomprehensible to anyone but computer programmers.

Hart decided to type in the Declaration of Independence, word for word. When he was finished, he posted the document in cyberspace and Project Gutenberg was born. Even then, Hart told PW, he knew that the Net's greatest value would be the storage of literary materials. "Today," he noted, "you can fit 2,000 books on one disk for free."

Project Gutenberg has more than 1,000 volunteers around the world inputting everything from the Bible to the classic works of Shakespeare, Melville and Twain. All books are in plain ASCII text and downloadable. The texts are available in a variety of languages and they are all free. Gutenberg volunteers can select any title they wish to add to the library. Any book published before 1922 (that makes it public domain) is fair game. Hart's mission is to post 10,000 e-texts by next year, the 30th anniversary of Project Gutenberg.

But for now, he is focused on raising enough money to add another 7,500 titles in just one year. Over the last three decades, Gutenberg has received monetary as well as equipment donations from Apple, IBM and Microsoft. Hart hasn't taken a paycheck in more than a year and his modest lifestyle has helped make Gutenberg possible. But now, in order for his digital library to reach his goal of 10,000 texts, he needs help. "If I had the funding," he declared, "I could put a million books on there." --Sam Weller
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