Magazine

Digital Books via Cell Phone


Move over Kindle. Many readers are downloading digital books to their iPhones instead

Adam Parks is an avid reader of digital books. But you won't find him downloading the 20 or so titles he reads each year onto a dedicated electronic book gadget such as Amazon.com's (AMZN) Kindle or Sony's (SNE) Reader. Instead, Parks flips through the digital pages of Sun Tzu's The Art of War and other works on his Apple (AAPL) iPhone. "I travel a lot," says Parks, a marketing executive who lives in Palm Beach, Fla. "If you are running from airport to airport and from city to city, bringing an extra piece of equipment loses some of its value."

Amazon and Sony have been battling each other to create the ultimate electronic book. But the solution for readers on the go may end up being something much simpler. A growing number of people like Parks are turning to their mobile phones to do their reading. Phones may not have the large screens and sophisticated technology of a Kindle or a Reader, but they have the advantage of being within arm's length pretty much all the time. They also save consumers the $250 to $360 expense of an electronic reader.

It's becoming much easier to get books on mobile phones. Entrepreneurs around the world have set up Web sites where people can download dozens of books, especially classics with no copyright protections that are often available free of charge. One Ukrainian startup called Readdle has created free software that lets people get the collected works of William Shakespeare (in English) for Apple's iPhone or iPod touch. Hamlet, King Lear, and the other three dozen works have been downloaded more than 300,000 times so far. (Readdle makes money by selling iPhone users and others storage capacity online.)

NO BEATING THE PRICE

It's tough to beat the prices of some books for the mobile phone. While new titles such as Twilight may cost as much as a paperback, many classics are available for 99 cents or less. One of the most purchased books from Apple's iTunes store is a 99 cents collection of 14 children's books, including Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels, and Robinson Crusoe. At Amazon's Kindle store, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland alone sells for 99 cents to $2. At Borders, the lowest price for the Lewis Carroll book is $3.

Some publishing houses see the growing popularity of digital books for cell phones as a promising opportunity to boost sales. "There's a chance for us as publishers to reach a wider audience, maybe people who weren't walking into the bookstore," says Matt Shatz, vice-president for digital at Random House. Although the revenue per book may be lower, profits for digital books could be higher since there are no printing and distribution costs. Shatz believes the mobile phone will become the most popular way to read digital books in the coming years. "The opportunity is a lot greater via a phone than for a physically printed book," he says.

One factor is the sheer size of the potential market. Analysts estimate that makers of electronic readers have sold fewer than 1 million units since the devices were introduced. The number of advanced phones that can download books is at least 295 million, including about 18 million iPhones. Amazon and Sony representatives declined to comment.

Publishers are targeting iPhones and other handsets. Random House started making some of its best sellers available for the iPhone in December, a deal in which Apple collects the money from sales and then distributes a cut to publishers. Random House now plans to expand its efforts to other phones, such as Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry, and devices that run Android, a cell-phone operating system developed by Google (GOOG). "Ultimately, we are interested in working with everybody," says Shatz. "Our job is to help our authors reach the widest audience possible."

Join a debate about whether print newspapers and magazines can survive.

Kharif is a senior writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

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