The Bearable Lightness of E-Books


By Jeff Green What business traveler hasn't scrambled at the last minute to buy an overpriced book to read on a flight? Usually, you end up struggling to find a place in your luggage to stash it for the rest of the trip -- or worse, forget it in the seat pocket on the plane. I bought one book three times for that reason.

Well, Palm technology offers an attractive alternative -- electronic books you can read with a variety of free, Palm-based programs. This software allows entire books to be downloaded to a desktop computer or handheld device for reading. If you know how to use a Palm to install a file, you know all you need to know to download and read e-books on a Palm.

In much the same way books have different formats and bindings, there are different ways to read e-books. Several companies offer special devices that are just for electronic books. These single-function gadgets do have the advantage of allowing for easier-to-read type.

But if you're going to read books in the electronic format, the Palm or another handheld device makes a lot more sense -- especially because you are likely already carrying one in your briefcase. Why add to the load?

SCARE STORY. Different companies offer e-book readers in a variety of formats. Most of them let you bookmark your spot electronically and even annotate sections you want to refer back to -- handy if you're reading a self-help book or reference title.

Advocates insist that the e-book industry is thriving despite the bursting of the dot-com bubble, which has cast a pall over most nascent Internet businesses. Admittedly, the outlook for e-books took a hit when famed horror author Stephen King didn't have the immediate success he expected when he attempted to self-publish a book on the Internet. However, his latest book, Dreamcatcher, seems to be selling briskly on the e-book-download sites.

Indeed, some evidence shows the industry has a profitable future, considering it has no paper, distribution, or warehouse costs. Publishers clearly are getting interested, says Jeff Strobel, founder of leading download site Peanutpress.com. Some authors, most notably Tom Clancy, are still holding out, but Peanutpress is pretty much able to get all the titles it can handle at this point, Strobel says.

"NOT AN ISSUE." About 60% of them are fiction, but business books and biographies are strong, too. "Two years ago, we were pleading with publishers to release titles in this format. Last year, it was easier, but it was still work. This year, availability is not an issue," he says. Palm recently purchased Peanutpress for an undisclosed amount.

January was the best month ever for Peanutpress, and sales have been increasing dramatically, Strobel says. He wouldn't release figures, but he indicated that the site has sold as many as 1,000 books a day recently. Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com also have a variety of e-books, although not all of the titles are for Palms. For example, some have been offered for Microsoft's Pocket PC.

For the cash-strapped, Project Gutenberg (www.promo.net/pg/) offers classic titles -- no longer protected by copyright -- for free, such as Moby Dick. The biggest drawback is that you have to read the Gutenberg titles as big text files and don't have the powerful bookmarking and annotation tools of more sophisticated readers, like those from Peanutpress or others.

PLENTY OF ROOM. Project Gutenberg is the only place I know of where you can get a large number of free e-books. Overall, this is not a Napster-like application. Prices can range from as low as $3 up to $25, but the current average is around $6.95 (about the same as a paperback) and many of the more popular books are in the $15 range, Strobel says. A typical text requires about 300 kilobytes of space on a handheld. With most new Palms now offering 8 megabytes or more, you can comfortably carry a wide range of titles.

For many people, the e-book phenonenon has opened up whole new areas of their lives to reading. Adam Boettiger, for example, typically buys a couple of books a month ($30 to $40 worth). E-books have given him a way to keep up with the latest in business reading. Now, Boettiger, the 34-year-old founder of a Portland (Ore.) Internet-advertising company, says he's able to speed read rather easily on his Palm and has been recommending the format to friends. "I carry my Palm everywhere, and this way I can read a book when I'm stuck in traffic," he says.

Jonathan Plummer says he carries his Palm around in his hip pocket like a wallet and finds himself reading at the grocery store, on the bus, or even waiting for a movie to start. The Kansas City (Mo.) editor says he has gotten quite comfortable with the format over the past year and can now read on the Palm for just as long as he would read traditional paper books, without strain. But both Boettiger and Plummer agree: They don't think e-books are going to replace their printed counterparts. Curling up in bed with a real book will still have its place.

Indeed, many people are not ready for pixels to replace pages. Plummer says he has faced some actual hostility from friends who think that he's threatening the sanctity of books by going electronic -- though he insists he still likes the good old bound book as much as the next guy. It's just harder to read a printed book in the dark before the movie starts. Green, a BusinessWeek correspondent based in Detroit, is crazy about handhelds. Follow his perspectives on Palm-based technologies, only on BW Online


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