Many people dislike the idea of reading a novel on a computer screen, yet they appreciate the ability to quickly access information electronically. So why haven't reference titles become the dominant e-book category?

Len Kawell, director of e-book development at Adobe Systems Inc., believes there are several reasons why the reference category has so far failed to take the e-book market by storm. (San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe develops Adobe PDF, a major e-book publishing format, and works with publishers to produce and distribute electronic versions of their books.)

"The rights issues with novels, sci-fi, biographies and other categories are usually less complicated than with reference books," Kawell tells PW. "With a typical reference book, there may be multiple authors to secure electronic rights from. Publishers often must secure rights from illustrators and photographers, too." Because it can take longer to acquire rights, then, publishers often push other types of books into the e-book pipeline first to get the fastest return on their investments, Kawell says.

Meanwhile, production and authoring time for reference works is often longer than for nonreference titles, Kawell adds. "The production of, say, a novel is relatively simple because it's primarily text. But reference books often have a complicated page layout, with multiple images on a page as well as text." As a result, Kawell says the process of converting a reference title into some e-book formats can take longer than with books with a straightforward design. (Kawell notes that Adobe Systems' Acrobat 4.0 software enables publishers to easily generate e-books in the Adobe PDF format directly from computer page-layout files.)

Finally, publishers often spend more marketing dollars on novels and general nonfiction titles than on reference works, Kawell believes. When it comes time to create their e-book catalogue, it simply makes sense to emphasize books in which they've already invested substantial marketing dollars, he says.

The situation should begin to change soon. "Early next year," Kawell says, "we'll see more reference titles available because they've been in the pipeline for a while." Publishers are becoming more adept at securing electronic rights, he adds, and as e-books grow in acceptance, so will the demand for reference titles.

Currently, there are several e-book formats, including Adobe PDF and Microsoft Reader. (In August, Adobe acquired Glassbook Inc., maker of the Glassbook Reader e-book format, which uses Adobe PDF as its file format. The Glassbook Reader technology will be integrated into future versions of the Adobe Acrobat Reader, Adobe's software for reading Adobe PDF files.) Among the e-book formats, Adobe PDF is best suited for reference works, according to Kawell, because it reproduces a book's graphics, page layout, fonts and other elements with high fidelity. Unlike other e-book formats, complex page layouts-common in reference works-retain all formatting when converted to Adobe PDF, Kawell says.

Adobe PDF is the only e-book format supported on both Windows and Macintosh computers, Kawell adds. Adobe is currently developing an Adobe PDF reader for Palm handheld devices for release early next year.

In Kawell's opinion, the ideal reading device for reference e-books is a small, lightweight laptop computer. As opposed to dedicated e-book readers or handheld devices, laptops offer larger, high-resolution color screens-a plus for reference titles with color graphics. And unlike most dedicated e-book devices, you can augment the information in a reference e-book on a laptop with Web surfing and other digital resources.

In the near future, however, Kawell foresees a portable entertainment appliance that will play music CDs, DVDs, MP3 audio files and e-books. Such a device would have a crisp, bright color screen and could work in landscape mode, for watching DVD movies, or portrait mode, for reading e-books. Sony is already selling a device in Japan that "comes close" to his dream machine, Kawell notes, so it's only a matter of time before a portable entertainment appliance becomes a reality in the U.S.