The Electronic Book Arrives
by Tatyana Sinioukov
The next big idea -- the electronic book--has materialized in this fall's releases of SoftBook and Rocket eBook by the two Silicon Valley companies, SoftBook Press, Menlo Park, CA, and NuvoMedia, Palo Alto, CA. BookTech asked some publishers their opinion about a possible onslaught of e-book products. Even those who don't believe it will lead to a sudden death of the paper book want to know how the e-book will read, how it will feel when held, how, if at all, it will affect the book-publishing and book-selling businesses and, ultimately, consumers' perception of a book. Is a book a collection of sheets of paper made from a dead tree that is bound together? Or is it a content-delivery device that, among other things, can become all-digital in the future?
That's why the e-book has been on many people's minds--not just those in the publishing business. Since NuvoMedia and Softbook spread the news about their forthcoming releases, they have been enjoying extensive coverage in Fortune, U.S. News and World Report, The New York Times, Time, Wired and numerous industry publications.
Enter the players: SoftBook is a leather-bound, 2.9-pound, notebook-sized hardware device that features a backlit, touch-sensitive screen and can hold up to 100,000 pages of text and graphics. Readers can search for words and phrases, view text in a choice of font sizes; make annotations directly on the screen and erase them, highlight text, bookmark pages and link to related information. Intended to emulate the traditional reading experience, SoftBook displays an entire page at a time. There is no need to scroll--the 9.5" screen is activated when the leather cover is opened. A rechargeable (takes one hour to recharge) lithium ion battery pack provides up to five hours of viewing.
SoftBook's built-in 33.6 Kbps modem connects the device to the SoftBook network by plugging into a standard phone jack. Once online, a user can browse in the corporate InfoCenter or purchase books and periodicals at the virtual SoftBookstore. Each Softbook has an account with the network, where purchased copies with annotations, highlights and bookmarks are stored. Text-based documents can also be e-mailed from computers to the network in order to be read with the SoftBook. SoftBook Press provides a SoftBook Publishing Toolkit to convert titles to the SoftBook standard as it's expecting more publishers to come on board and more titles to become available through the SoftBook Network.
The SoftBook base price starts at $299 plus a commitment to buy $19.95 worth of books and periodicals each month from the SoftBookstore.
Rocket eBook is a 20-ounce hand-held paperback-sized device with a display designed for reading and the ability to hold about 4,000 pages of text and graphics. A battery lasts approximately 20 hours when the back light is used, 40 without use of the back light; button controls allow page turning, highlighting, annotating, searching, sorting and bookmarking. Rocket eBook features various fonts and personalized viewing (viewers can change the text flow from left to right, right to left; top to bottom and vice versa).
The Rocket eBook requires Internet access and a Web browser and is IBM-compatible. When a title is purchased, it is automatically loaded into a library on the reader's PC. The Rocket eBook's librarian software manages the titles, transferring them to the Rocket eBook. Initially, the books available for reading with the Rocket eBook device will only be available through www.barnesandnoble.com, an online bookseller. Later the titles are expected to become available through other online booksellers.
Rocket eBook comes with the RocketBook Cradle which connects to a PC with a serial cable for downloading. Placing the Rocket eBook on the Cradle also automatically charges the battery. According to NuvoMedia, the Rocket eBook was scheduled to be available in late October for $499 for both the unit and the Rocket eBook Cradle.
So would anyone want to take this new "content delivery solution" to bed? "The nice thing about electronic devices today, with the way storage technology has gotten, is (that it's now possible to have) something the size of a book that holds ten books comfortably and is readable in conditions where a paper book isn't," explained Martin Eberhard, NuvoMedia CEO and founder, during his appearance on a National Public Radio morning edition news on July 14, 1998. "On the plane when they turn the movie on, for example, or, in my case, reading in bed when my wife wants the light out."
According to SoftBook Press, the e-book also has the potential of winning over the textbook market, which, according to Fortune, comprises one-fourth of all books sold, making it worth $5.7 billion a year "Electronic Books Are Coming at Last!" by Carol Vinzant, Fortune, July 6, 1998). Students won't have to carry pounds of heavy books on their backs; reference material will also be made more accessible to lawyers, doctors, analysts, government workers and other professionals.
"The market that we're going after is distinct. It's for people who must read lots of essential information regularly," remarked Jim Sachs, SoftBook Press CEO and the Macintosh mouse co-inventor, during his July 14, 1998, NPR appearance. With its InfoCenter, which can be company-specific, SoftBook is also aiming at accommodating the corporate world--manuals, specifications, handbooks, training materials and other internal documentation can be distributed on SoftBook to employees without making them available to outside audiences.
For the publisher, e-books' distribution system provides no printing and shipping costs, no need to manage inventories and no book returns, also making an "out-of-print" concept obsolete.
"I absolutely believe that electronic books are destined to become ubiquitous and they will come in all sorts of sizes and shapes and colors," predicted Sachs during his NPR appearance. "And with an electronic book, I think within easily the next five to 10 years, the selection of reading materials available will be greater in electronic form than in the printed form."
For more information about Rocket eBook, contact NuvoMedia at (650) 327-5110 or visit www.nuvo media.com. For information about SoftBook, call SoftBook Press at (650) 463-1800 or Eastwick Communications (for SoftBook Press) at (650) 261-6046 or visit www.softbook.com.