As if trying to convince consumers to read books on computers wasn't tough enough, publishers and retailers are also faced with a potentially confusing array of the differing software formats needed to read an e-book in the first place. At the recent Seybold Seminar at the Javits Center in New York City, four major developers of e-book formats--Microsoft, Adobe, Palm Digital Media and Franklin Electronic Publishers--were on hand to pitch the strengths of their own format and lob the occasional friendly barb at their competitors.

Representatives of Microsoft Reader and Adobe Acrobat, whose e-book readers have become a de facto standard for desktop and laptop computers, faced off with dueling claims of technical upgrades and new retailer-friendly pricing models. Palm Digital Media, sporting an installed base of more than 20 million Palm OS handheld devices, claims to have sold more e-books than anyone on the podium, using only a single direct sales outlet--its own Web site. And Franklin Electronic Publishers strutted an intriguing new partnership with MobiPocket, a French e-publishing vendor that offers what may be the holy grail of e-publishing--an e-book reader that will run on any handheld operating system.

The Vendors

Steve Potash, CEO of e-publishing services OverDrive and moderator of the dueling formats panel, called it the "e-publishing dream team," and emphasized that e-book technologies are "important despite what you read in the press. E-infrastructures are expanding. Publishers and retailers are investing in them, and advances in e-technologies are coming on an international scale." Indeed, a lot of the discussion was meant to address what many e-publishing vendors perceive to be a skeptical backlash against e-books in the press.

Adobe's James Alexander hailed his own company's elimination of transaction fees on each Adobe e-book sold. He said Adobe had three million readers of Adobe electronic documents and was quick to note that, unlike MS Reader, Adobe digital documents can be printed out.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft's Julie Blackwell said MS Reader had a market of six million potential readers (four million Pocket PC e-book-enabled devices and two million downloads of MS Reader). The new, improved MS Reader 2.0 was released in October ("a catalyst for e-book sales," she said) and, with a quick look at Alexander, she noted that MS is reconsidering its own transaction fees. She also pointed to the much-discussed Tablet PC, a new handheld device--it looks like a laptop screen without the keyboard--coming from Microsoft in the fall that will run a full Windows OS. "We're in the early stages and it's frustrating, but we believe onscreen reading for pleasure is viable. E-books will pay off," she said.

Mike Segroves, director of business development at Palm Digital Media (formerly Peanut Press), which offers frontlist titles in a format for Palm OS devices, claimed to be the "largest seller of e-books." PDM, whose e-book reader is bundled with every Palm device, offers 4,000 e-book titles that can be bought only through its Web site ( He said the site has 100,000 customers who buy at least five times a year with an average sale of $100 per customer. Because of their lower cost, portability and multiple functions, "Handhelds are preferred by consumers for reading e-books," Segroves emphasized. "Consumers," he continued, "don't want another device just to carry around books."

Franklin, which has been offering e-books with licensed reference content since the 1980s, is launching a low-cost ($49) handheld device, loaded with reference content, to which the user can also download new content. Franklin CEO Barry Lipsky proclaimed, "we make money on e-publishing." Franklin offers its own device, the ebookman, but the house is banking on its partnership with MobiPocket. Lipsky is clearly hoping that the MobiPocket Reader, its new cross-platform e-book reader format, will turn heads. "Publishers don't have to choose which devices they target," he said. "With MobiPocket they get them all." And, Lipsky said, it will even work on the new generation of cell phone PDAs coming to the U.S. market this year.

What About Retailers?

A layperson might ask: why not just have the retailers offer any format that a consumer wants? Isn't that flexibility what digital technology is supposed to be all about? Too expensive, said Michael Fragnito, director of BN Digital and 's e-book store, who was in the audience; "We've simplified [by limiting formats offered] and it seems to be working." ( offers only the MS Reader and Adobe e-book reader formats.)

As the panel wound down, the audience (although not the panelists) began to blame publishers for both the high price of e-books and the limited number of titles available, claiming that publishers are afraid of cannibalizing their print revenues.

HarperCollins's Laurie Rippon, sitting in the audience, could take it no longer. "Publishers are not afraid," she said. "We're trying to come out in as many formats as possible. But there are costs involved in publishing a book, costs that can be assigned to both print and the e-book edition. The price put on a book isn't arbitrary."