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Frederick Forsyth speaks to BBC News Online
The great thing is its versatility
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Tuesday, 19 September, 2000, 17:08 GMT 18:08 UK
Type cast into digital future

Forsyth: Reverting to type
After Stephen King started publishing his new book on the internet, Frederick Forsyth, the best-selling author of The Dogs of War, has followed suit. But if you think that means he's become completely wired, think again.

Frederick Forsyth has never actually read an online novel. He doesn't organise his life by palmtop. He doesn't actually own a computer.

Indeed the book he is now publishing online was bashed out on his faithful typewriter.

Yet he thinks online publishing could be the future.

Not that paper and ink has served him too badly - his worldwide sales are estimated at 60 million copies.

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And there might be some surprise in the literary world that a man known for never being scared to express an unfashionable opinion has taken to the new medium with such enthusiasm.

But there are sound capitalist reasons for his decision to publish online. "I've been watching the whole business of the internet, what it is and what it can do, for months and months, and I noticed this thing called e-commerce," he told BBC News Online.

"It occurred to me that of all the things you might want to buy, most of them you will have to have delivered to you in a Jiffy bag. But there is one product that you can buy online and have delivered to your desk, and that is the word. And what is my product? Words."

Phil Rance: It's early days

It's an opportunity which was spotted by Online Originals, the UK company through which Forsyth is publishing Quintet, a collection of short stories. Its website allows users to pay by credit card and download the books in a variety of formats, meaning they can read them either on their PC screens or on palmtop devices.

'Amazing' progress

The company, founded in 1997, was bought by a venture development company earlier this year, and now offers 80 titles for download. For Forsyth's book it will be introducing encryption which should prevent unauthorised copying of the books.

[My typewriter is] extremely hard to hack into, and so far it hasn't sent any chapters into cyberspace

Frederick Forsyth
Managing director Phil Rance says the pace of progress in online publishing had been amazing in the last few months. "When we took the company over, it still really wasn't on the agenda of the traditional publishing companies.

"But then Stephen King did his thing, and suddenly it all blew up and there has been an awful lot of development of the software and the devices as well. I think more and more authors will want to experiment."

Short stories like Forsyth's are ideal for online reading, he says, and although he admits that reading a full length novel on a palmtop or even on a PC screen can be trying, he is confident he has backed a winner. Books themselves could, eventually, be a thing of the past, he says.

"I think that's possible in the very long term. As the people who are growing up with these technologies take them for granted, I think yes, they will supplant books. But that's 25 years hence."

All very well

This is all very well, book lovers will say. But however fancy a palmtop is, however high the quality of print on "e-paper" becomes, there is somthing missing - the joy of books.

Books are nice to look at, nice to handle, nice to put on the shelf. Bookshops are wonderful places where you discover all sorts of things you never knew existed.

And Forsyth himself has sympathy with this view. "I'm a bit old fashioned, I still go into bookshops and buy the book," he says.

So how does he rate the experience of reading online novels? "Well frankly I don't. I have books," he says.

Stephen King: Scaring the publishers
Does he actually own a computer? "No I don't. I don't know how to operate one. I use a typewriter. And people naturally rib me considerably over my typewriter, and I have to admit it's very hard to get spare parts. On the other hand, it's extremely hard to hack into, and so far it hasn't sent any chapters into cyberspace."

Not the final chapter

But he is not worried by the future for the printed word as we know it. Electronic publishing is an alternative, he says, not a replacement.

"I would make the comparison that at the turn of the century we had newspapers; someone invented radio and people warned it would be the end of newspapers. Of course it wasn't. But then somebody invented television and it was supposed to be the end of radio, but it wasn't.

"In other words we now have newspapers, magazines, radio, television, video, the big screen cinema, they all co-exist together, and this is a new medium, that's all."

Evidence of his faith? Well, once his new book has a "reasonable run" in cyberspace, he expects it to make another appearance. In paperback.

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