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Thursday, 1 March, 2001, 18:41 GMT
The world in your hands
The much-heralded e-book format is not making much of a dent in the sales of the traditional novel. On World Book Day, Alex Webb investigates.
An increasing number of authors and publishers are using new technologies as a way of reaching readers.
Even horror writer Stephen King, whose online novel The Plant was abandoned after a majority of readers downloaded it without paying, is trying again.
The first 6,000 words of King's new novel Dreamcatcher will be published on the net on 5 March, weeks ahead of its physical publication date.
"British publishers are mostly following the lead of American publishers who've been much more proactive," he told BBC News Online.
"Now UK publishers are setting up digital imprints.
"In the short term, the market is still small and most publishers believe there will always be a market for the printed word.
"But the market for e-books and books online will grow and clever publishers realise that it's not a threat - they are still publishing, but on another medium."
Managing director of Penguin Press Andrew Rosenheim agrees.
"The threat is not the technology per se - it's whether or not the big publishers will dominate e-books as they do printed works.
"E-books are novelties right now, to publicise the technology, the e-book itself.
"But I think in time you'll see simultaneous publication of the book and the e-book.
"The purely digital book is still some way off, except for reference books.
"The fact you read Martin Amis on an electronic tablet rather than from a book is not terribly significant, but in a structured text like a reference book the presence of the software lets you find things out in a way you can't in a printed book."
But Rosenheim does not expect sudden change - at least not until the technology has moved further forward.
"Penguin doesn't publish e-books in the UK as yet. People just don't want to carry a mobile phone, a lap top, an organizer and a dedicated reading device as well - soon, though one device may do three or four of these things."
Improvements in screen technology will also, it is claimed, make reading from a screen less tiring.
Two of the companies which have pioneered these devices have combined as eBook-Gemstar and claim to have thousands of titles to choose from.
But reading this way does not come cheap - the devices start at $299 (£207).
Nonetheless, electronic book sales are forecast to rise from the present level of less than $100m (£69m) to more than $1bn (£690m) in 2005, according to consultancy Accenture.
"Our most ambitious projections show ebooks reaching 5% of total book sales over 10 years.
"I don't think it will ever take a big bite out of our book sales, it will add to them."
One of Transworld's authors, Frederick Forsyth, recently published five short stories on the net.
"Forsyth's stories are being published in book form in September, and I'll be surprised if we don't sell 1,000 times more copies that way," said Finlay.
But what of the people who actually write books?
Author David Lodge, whose new novel 'Thinks' is out in print only, sees the internet as a research tool rather than a sales medium.
"Now you can usually find a lot of stuff very quickly and you can look up newspaper articles from newspapers you read and threw away," he told BBC News Online.
But Lodge remains more comfortable with the printed word.
"I haven't read an e-book - I'm of a certain age and I'm used to books with pages that turn.
"And when I use material from the Internet I always print it out."
Despite this, Lodge has voluntered to judge new works in an internet venture for aspiring writers called 'getoutthere'.
And Lodge believes the the internet will help with sales of his new novel, Thinks.
"Amazon have made a very big order and they are featuring it and I've done a little article for them, so I think it will be significant."
World Book Day is significant, too, publishers agree.
"World Book Day is all good publicity - it does increase sales, especially of children's books," says Philip Jones of The Bookseller.
Transworld's Larry Finlay agrees.
"Children's book sales go up quite dramatically.
"Each of the past World Book Days has drawn lots of new people into book shops."
And as long as people visit bookshops, it perhaps matters little which format or technology they are buying.
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