Recent announcements of big money online distribution ventures by traditional brick and mortar book companies signals a new approach by the oldest media to cash in on the powers of the Internet, computers and handheld personal devices.
The surprising success of Stephen King's Riding the Bullet release on the Internet earlier this year proved to Simon and Schuster that the demand for online publishing and distribution was real - and the deals have been rolling.
Teaming up with Microsoft and Barnes & Noble, Simon and Schuster, Inc. (a unit of Viacom Inc.) released 15 free Star Trek titles online to users with Microsoft's Pocket PC, a competitor of the popular Palm Pilot hand held device.
Microsoft also entered into an agreement with Random House, a subsidiary of Germany's Bertelsman AG, to make best selling author Michael Crichton's Timeline available online. Like the Simon and Schuster deal, Timeline can be downloaded from barnesandnoble.com.
"The conversion of the Internet and new technological advances in computing and publishing make reading possible in ways that could not have been imagined just one generation ago," Crichton said.
"Random House is committed to the future of eBooks. This is one of many steps we are taking to bring out books to readers in electronic and digital form," said Erik Engstrom, president and chief operating officer of Random House.
"After 500 years of standing in the spotlight, Mr. (Johann) Gutenberg is being nudged off center stage, or at least being given a sharp digital elbow," said Laurence Kirshbaum, chairman and chief executive of Time Warner Trade Publishing.
What's causing the great stampede toward electronic publishing and distribution?
Many analysts say the publishing industry has noted with alarm the growing online exchange, and piracy, of music, made easy by file-sharing programs such as Napster, and wanted to stage a pre-emptive strike. Several bands, claiming copyright infringement, have sued for royalties and damages. The book industry hopes to avoid many of the mistakes made by the music business.
There are still many issues to be worked out. People rarely purchase or use books directly from the publisher, but get them from bookstores, libraries and increasingly, from companies like Amazon.com. Although many publishers are putting their books online, customers often don't know who ublishes a specific book, and thus, don't know where to go to search for a particular title online.
Copyright protection is also a problem. A library usually has a finite number of titles available, and when they are all checked out, that's it - no more can be distributed, until other copies are returned. With the advent of publishing on demand, or online, this is not a concern. What is of concern, is how to manage a collection. Some companies are working to develop software that can measure use, and to allow for short term increases in the number of "electronic copies" to be available while maintaining proper copyright control for the publishers.
And, there is some unease at the thought of publishers charging more for an electronic version of a book, simply because there is the possibility of unauthorized copying. When King's book was released on the Internet, it had security encryption, but it only took hackers a couple of days to break it, and distribute the book free of cost.
"The jury's out on the proper price tag for e-books," says Kate Tentler, head of Simon & Schuster's online division, explaining that while some costs may be lower, there are unknown new costs for matters like storage, security and distribution.
Another dilemma is the lack of standardization. Right now, Microsoft is releasing titles that can only be read by their proprietary software. Other titles can only be read on Palm Pilots. Standards similar to computer software should be in place to ensure that any machine can "read" any book.
For readers, there are other questions. For some, nothing can compare with the feeling of holding a book in one's hand, smelling the binding and turning pages - the e-book just won't do. Also, how difficult is it to download text and how long will it take? Many people still can't program their VCRs - will they want to deal with electronics simply to read something that is already in a proven format? And if you don' want to read a book electronically, how long will it take to print a paper version?
Still, the list of authors going online increases daily. Blockbuster mystery writer, Mary Higgins Clark, has recently signed a new contract with Simon & Schuster that contains a clause to release ten of her books online, including Before I Say Good-Bye - her newest best seller. M. J. Rose's Lip Service and Angels & Demons by Dan Brown are among other titles available for electronic consumption. And NetLibrary has won exclusive rights publish the electronic version of Russian President Vladimir Putin's memoirs.
And for those who can't find a "regular" publisher? They can turn to e-houses like Xlibris and self-publish their work - good or bad - on the internet. Vanity presses have been around for a long time - this is just taking advantage of new technology.
E-publising is changing the way text is distributed. But as Stephen King said - and many agree with - "While I think that the Internet and various computer applications for stories have great promise, I don't think anything will replace the printed word and the bound book."