E-book Industry players seek effective business models
by Rose Blessing
"E-books are more than hype right now. E-books are definitely here," asserted Victor McCrary, group leader, Information Storage and Integrated Systems Group, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). McCrary was speaking at the Electronic Book 1999 conference held in Gaithersburg, MD, in September, the second such conference sponsored by NIST; he chaired the event. McCrary and many other speakers--including the reading-device makers--agreed that improved displays, lowered device weights and decreased power requirements are desired. "A lot of work still needs to be done in terms of (creating) a thriving electronic book industry," added McCrary. He credited SoftBook Press and NuvoMedia (makers of the SoftBook and the Rocket E-Book reading devices, respectively) with having paved the way for further industry developments. He also added that a pattern of industry cooperation has already been set, pointing to the September finalization of the Open E-Book text formatting standard as one standout accomplishment.
E-book reading devices are only a small part of the big picture, noted speaker Charles Geschke, co-founder, president and chairman of the board of Adobe Systems, who provided background on the development of Adobe's PDF technology and described Adobe's product development philosophy. The real trend to focus on, said Geschke, is "digital distribution of information on a worldwide basis."
Diverse groups attended the event; registered attendees included representatives of
* Makers of screen displays and disk storage.
* Publishers already selling books online in digital format, including Alexandria Digital Literature, Hidden Knowledge and Mind's Eye Fiction.
* Associations and public service organizations, including the World Bank, Library of Congress and the U.S. Department of Education.
* Educators and/or librarians, even from as far away as California, Louisiana and Montana.
* Traditional book and journal publishers including John Wiley & Sons; American Mathematical Society; Kluwer Academic Publishers; Harvard Business School Publishing; Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins; Materials Research Society; Time Warner; Macmillan Publishing; and Simon & Schuster.
* Printers such as R.R. Donnelley & Sons, Cadmus, Lighting Print and Acme Bookbinding.
* Text processing service providers such as Automated Graphic Systems, OverDrive Systems, Texterity and Versaware Technologies.
* Audio recording specialists such as the Recordng Industry Association of America and Brilliance Corp.
* Helpers of the blind and print-disabled including National Library Service for the Blind.
Issues to tackle
Speaker Jim Sachs of SoftBook Press outlined issues facing the industry. His musings included
* Content: Users want to pay less for content delivered electronically; content categories are endless. For example, is a PowerPoint presentation "content"?
* Standards: The Open E-book specs are established and available on the Web. The next standards to work toward are digital rights management and distribution systems.
* Tools: Multiple authoring tools are available; conversion services are on the increase. People have potential content ranging back many, many years.
* Aggregation and Selection: When what is sold is electronic files, not printed pages, it is easy to package library collections or sell subsets of basic texts. Niches and vertical markets already abound; demand is driving these markets.
* Retailing: It is still early; prices of e-books are still high compared to paper books, but with the release of the Open E-book standard the base of books will just get bigger.
* E-commerce: With transactions occurring at many points in the distribution chain, overall "there are a lot of ways of making money."
* Digital Rights Management: This "could be the next bottleneck," said Sachs. On the bright side, solutions-providers are already beginning to emerge.
* Security: "Security is relative, but there is plenty of it."
* Storage and Delivery: The dominant mode of delivery today is the Internet or PC, not cartridges, disks or tapes. Systems are not cross-compatible yet. Users like speed and ease.
* Readers: "What we don't know is: What will the killer app be? What will really make electronic books take off?"
The next speaker, Martin Eberhard, CEO of NuvoMedia, reiterated that today's devices are not perfect for "immersive reading experiences," but added confidently: "Technology does this well: cheaper, lighter, more durable, more readable."
He predicted that the future will bring e-book editions released before print and authors writing specifically for the e-book market, including use of effects such as sound, video and hypertext links.
Players and approaches
Additional stakeholders of the electronic book industry shared opinions and activities to date.
Dick Brass of Microsoft provided a futuristic timeline (by 2005, Brass predicted, the market for e-book titles will reach $100 billion). Microsoft is joining the fray with a device reader that will be available in the first quarter of 2000. Called the Microsoft Reader, it features Microsoft's ClearType screen display technology. The device will be given away free or at very low cost, a spokesperson for the company confirmed later in a follow-up call.
Robert A. Kelly, director of Journal Information Systems, The American Physical Society, conveyed to the audience the difficulties of translating materials with mathematical formats to other media, including e-books. Today, he explained, all of the Physical Review is online. Articles are "filled with non-text matter," he noted. GIF files proved too big; PDF files work but not for files with lots of annotation; an experiment with XML and the Internet Xplorer 5 browser conducted with the University of Illinois proved promising; it is allowing formatting of equations on the fly.
Representing CENSA, the Collaborative Electronic Notebook Systems Association, Rich Lysakowski, executive director, noted that "as digital technology records creation rates accelerate, businesses are depending more and more on complex technologies to use and access documents." Some important attributes of paper documents that are often taken for granted should not be overlooked; at times a paper record may be required until and unless technology finds solutions for the following
* User authentication and trusted time-stamping.
* Secure audit trailing.
* Permanent records preservation and access.
* Interoperability among devices.
* Systems migration.
Lysakowski highlighted how difficult this might be. For example, he said, "I don't know if we'll ever have digital operability standards across time." CENSA's mission, he noted, is to help the industry create open electronic notebook architectures, components, systems and products that meet industry, government and consumer needs.
Steve Potash, OverDrive Systems, demonstrated an IDG Books Worldwide computer book being assembled with use of the Open E-book standard. His advice to publishers is to
* Define target markets
* Consider e-book distribution channels
* Review content issues
* Analyze strengths of a print book or title.
* Consider e-book sourcing issues and options.
* Consider rights and licensing land mines.
* Define an appropriate realm, i.e., information publishing or recreational reading.
Potash outlined today's distribution models
* Downloading of files to e-book readers or palm devices.
* Providing a Web-based library for access via subscription or membership.
* Publishing on CD-ROM or other fixed media
* Packaging for resellers or OEMs, or bundling.
George Kerscher, Research Fellow, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic and Project Manager to the DAISY Consortium, pointed out that electronic book technologies could expand the market for reading for the blind and print-disabled population, because the open standards that are emerging for e-book formatting can be also be used to facilitate their translation into audio or Braille products. He outlined current translation issues.
Security issues are a concern of publishers, so much so that the Association of American Publishers has been studying them, reported Carol Risher, vice president, copyright and new technology, Association of American Publishers. She presented highlights of the E-book Security Assessment: General Report which was prepared for the AAP by Global Integrity, La Jolla, CA. A summary is posted at: http://www.publishers.org/home/press/ebook.htm. The full report is available on the Global Integrity web site (www.globalintegrity.com).
Also at the event were representatives from Everybook, which has a forthcoming reading device; Librius, which had been planning to introduce one, but has shifted gears and is working on creating a server-based brokering and library service; and distribution and/or copy protection specialists Glassbook, Infinite Ink and Softlock.
Publishing is publishing
Those looking for avenues to profitability through publication of out-of-print books should remember that one thing technology will not change is that finding out who controls the rights to a book and securing rights to publish it can "often be as complicated as untangling a cluster of paper clips and just as tedious" but "you cannot publish a book until you do it," said Richard Curtis, president, E-Rights/E-Reads. Curtis is a literary agent who also helps authors ascertain the in-print or out-of-print status of their books and recover rights when appropriate. E-Rights also does scanning, encryption and conversion to electronic formats.
However, e-books will make it easier for authors to publish without the backing of major publishing houses, Curtis pointed out. "You who produce those batteries that will run my e-book for 100 hours, or a screen as bright as while paper in sunlight--the implications of your work are indeed utterly revolutionary."