What's On Line?
Peer into today's kaleidescope of online booksellers
By Tatyana Sinioukov
Now that more and more bookstores have ".com" in their addresses, physical books are being replaced by e-books that have no spines and no pages you can turn by hand--and they aren't even made of paper. Well, everyone knows that. However, what is fascinating to witness is how both traditional and electronic publishers show great creativity in the way they sell their wares on the Web. As the listing beginning at right illustrates, the emerging business models for selling books online grow more varied and inventive by the day.
An example of one company that is tirelessly trying on many hats is Versaware, a New York City-based Internet publisher and software developer. Its notion of what publishing encompasses today is summarized in its tagline, as explained by Tina Ravitz, chief operating officer: "E-Publishing for an I-World," where "E" stands for "electronic," "enhanced" and "educational," and "I" stands for the "Internet," but also "interactivity," "information" and "individual."
Versaware provides electronic publishing services with a focus on the educational market by transforming books into multimedia documents available on CD-ROM that are sold packaged together with printed textbooks. The company developed the Versabook format, which is Open eBook-compliant and downloadable to PalmPilot, SoftBook and similar devices. Versaware has distribution deals with ZD Net and BarnesandNoble.com to sell e-books through downloads and on CD-ROM or DVD. Versaware's publishing clients include Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Funk & Wagnalls and Simon & Schuster Interactive. The company recently launched a beta site, ebookcity.com, which is home to a bookstore with over 1,700 titles--some free--available for download or on CD-ROM.
While offering public domain titles and print-on-demand capabilities seems to be common among the online booksellers, the way Versaware crisscrosses the traditional and electronic media to attract audiences is notable. For example, when a customer buys a textbook/CD-ROM package and registers with Versaware to use the CD, he or she is immediately eligible to open an account on ebookcity.com. The site has "My Library," a free feature that allows customers to register and then build their own URLs and store the titles they purchase or download for free on their custom-built "shelves." "My Library" is accessible from any computer, which, Ravitz suggests, may come in handy for travelers.
Another way to draw the crowds is to offer free downloadable dictionaries and encyclopedias in the reference centers on large portals that get hit by thousands of surfers daily (Versaware does that through deals with Lycos, XOOM.com and MyBytes).
Commenting on the up-and-coming developments in how book publishers and authors are tapping into the online markets, Ravitz suggests that: "People would want to customize their own books and get information from various sources." For example, she says, if you're planning a vacation in one particular region of Italy, instead of buying a travel guide that covers the whole country, you may want to gather information from many guides about that region. Similarly, Ravitz predicts that users will also be able to customize parts of books by changing their layout, size and fonts to their liking.
Another wave of the future, says Ravitz, is the selling of subscriptions to archived electronic versions of documents, books and periodicals. This way, she says, if you have been dreaming of getting hold of that cranberry sauce recipe printed a year ago in some magazine, you'd know where to turn.
"Having an array of materials and a mechanism that enables you to customize them as you need your information is going to revolutionize publishing," she predicts.
Evidently, we will also see more of the "simultaneous" publishing of books in electronic and traditional forms. The 1stBooks Library (www.1stbooks.com), which now offers more than 3,000 e-books in PDF format, just released an electronic edition of the new book "The Y2K Personal Survival Guide" by bestselling author Michael S. Hyatt from Regnery Publishing (the printed version is currently sold in bookstores nationally). Coming soon is "Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise" by George Gilder, Gilder Technologies, to be available in both PDF and RocketEdition formats.
"Both titles are examples of books from conventional publishers who are now distributing through companies like 1st Books," says Dan Snow, director of communication and planning. Snow's own book on self-publishing, "U-Publish.com," which he co-wrote with Dan Poynter, will be coming out as an e-book through 1stBooks at the same time the paperback version is scheduled to hit the bookstores.
Snow firmly believes that e-books will "soon represent a substantial portion of the $27.5 billion annual book market." He adds, "While there are certainly still some technical obstacles to overcome (security and portability in particular), we believe that the sheer economics of electronic publishing will continue to drive the industry in our direction."
New products like Web Buy and PDF Merchant from Adobe and RocketEditions from NuvoMedia, Snow suggests, address the current challenges of security and portability.
"Like everyone else in the publishing world, we spend a lot of time trying to anticipate industry trends," Snow observes. "So far, our efforts (particularly adopting PDF as our standard for desktop computers and using print-on-demand to serve established markets) have been rewarded."
In fact, says Snow, since the changes in technology are occurring so rapidly, keeping up, or, as he puts it, "the ability to roll with the technological punches," may be most important. As the saying goes, Snow points out, "he who hesitates is lunch."
"We believe that authors and publishers who are flexible enough to embrace new ways of reaching the reading public will succeed," he concludes, "while those who are slow to respond will be left in the proverbial (and technological) dust."