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A new page for electronic books

Electronic books aren't winning the hearts of American readers. Sales of the two available e-books has been slow, and some companies have dropped out of the business altogether.

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 13, 1999

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Americans aren't opting to curl up before a cozy fire with an electronic book these days.

Less than a year after the first two of the portable devices arrived on the market, sales are slow, funding is tough to find and potential competitors are dropping out.

"These e-reader companies now have a pretty sober understanding that this market is going to take some time," said Glenn Sanders, a founder of, an online site with information about electronic books.

Electronic books are about the size of a conventional book, but can hold more than 10 conventional books, magazines or newspapers at a time. New texts can be downloaded, and stories can be annotated and searched for words or phrases. Pages are turned with a push of a button.

As many as a dozen companies have tried to bring some form of electronic book to market for years. Only two have made it: Rocket eBook, selling for $349, and SoftBook, which costs $599.

Neither SoftBook nor NuvoMedia will disclose actual figures, but Sanders estimates that only a few thousand of the devices have sold so far.

"It's been disappointing, but we think this market is going to take off, and when it does, we'll still be here," said Martin Eberhard, co-founder and CEO of NuvoMedia, the company making Rocket eBooks.

It's not that people don't want to read. U.S. sales of conventional books rose 6.4 percent to $23-billion in 1998, according to the Association of American Publishers.

"This is a new industry, and it's taking some time before it's widely accepted," Sanders said. "It's going to happen, but it could take four or five years."

The biggest challenge, electronic-bookmakers agree, is getting publishers to convert books to their format.

"It's a bit of a Catch-22," said SoftBook Press CEO Jim Sachs in Menlo Park, Calif. "We can't sell an electronic book without a lot of content, but publishers aren't going to produce a lot of content if there aren't people using it on electronic books."

Publishers have been concerned that electronic versions of their material would be pirated and flood the Internet as illegally distributed music and software has.

In June, the AAP released a study indicating electronic books are technically secure -- a basic requirement for publishers and authors, AAP president Pat Schroeder said.

Still, publishers have been slow to respond. Only 1,000 titles -- mostly older classics -- are available for electronic books, well below the approximately 45,000 new titles released in paper last year alone.

While Rocket eBook and SoftBook struggle to survive in the limited market, several other electronic book companies have failed.

GemBook Inc. in Sunrise was out of business three months after it sent notices to reviewers saying it was offering "a new innovative type of reading."

Last month, another company -- Inc. in Bellevue, Wash. -- also gave up, pulling its Millennium eReader off its business plan, which focuses on selling digital copies of books to consumers via the Internet.

"When we started Librius two years ago we knew that the device aspect of this business would be volatile," vice president Don Ledford said in a letter to consumers.

Librius' investors were wary of the electronic reader, some fearing it would be a liability to their existing online sales.

"In essence, the consumer electronics or Internet dichotomy froze investment in the company," he said. "An improved Millennium eReader was ready for manufacture, but we were unable to close adequate financing to go forward with production."

At the SummerWood Partnership in Stuart, Cynthia Gurin said its e-books -- LunchBOOK and the Reader -- work very well, but aren't ready to launch.

"We're literally waiting for the right venture capital, and improved screen technology," Gurin said. "There's a procedure you need to go through in order to be at the point where it's time to grab the ball and go for the touchdown, and it's just not that time yet."

Despite the tough market, not all electronic-bookmakers are shying away. GlassBook in Waltham, Mass., and EveryBook Inc. in Middletown, Pa., plan to release their books this year.

EveryBooks are two-screened, mimicking an open book. They also are in color and can hold 200 books -- more than 10 times that of most of their competition. They cost $1,600 and are aimed at doctors, lawyers, engineers and others who spend thousands a year on professional manuals.

EveryBook spokeswoman Jeanne Quinn Lowing said they plan to sell 25,000 units next year, dismissing concerns that other companies haven't sold early that many.

"Quite candidly, we position our product differently than they do," she said. "There is no doubt we are going to make it. It just takes time."

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