The Free E-Book Market Economy

SAN FRANCISCO (08/29/2000) - The commonly held assumption about e-books is that many customers won't use them until elements of the interface - such as screen quality and annotation - improve. Read a book on a screen? Most people would rather file their tax returns.

But a new study shows that a large percentage of Americans are willing to read books on a variety of electronic platforms, including laptops, PDAs and dedicated e-book devices. They just won't pay for them.

In a survey of nearly 3,000 people sponsored by Seybold Research, 66 percent said they would read a reference book on a laptop or desktop. Forty-four percent said they would sample a business book on a computer. Roughly the same amount (46 percent) would read a city guide or travel book on a PDA.

Two-thirds of respondents, however, said they were "not at all likely" to purchase either an e-book or a device dedicated to digital reading in the next 12 months. Only 12 percent were "likely" to spend money on an e-book or e-book device in the next year.

The findings are consistent with the results of Stephen King's Riding the Bullet e-book experiment in March. The short story, which had as many as 400,000 downloads, was available for free at many sites, and publisher Simon & Schuster Inc. estimated that giveaways drove much of the traffic. The conclusions are also a variation on the lesson many content sites are now swallowing: You can craft popular, high-quality editorial, but you can't necessarily parlay it into revenue.

Despite the potent interest in digital reading, only 28 percent of those surveyed said they would engage in "recreational" reading on a dedicated e-book device. Even fewer (12 percent) would read a book for pleasure on a PDA.

The results of the survey were announced Monday on "E-Book Day" at Seybold SF, a digital- publishing convention taking place this week in San Francisco. The results were released the same day that Microsoft and Amazon.com announced their own e-book partnership. Specialty sites and portals are expected to soon follow Amazon and its main competitor, Barnesandnoble.com, which announced a similar partnership several weeks ago.

On Monday, Adobe Systems Inc. also disclosed its intent to acquire Glassbook, a Waltham, Mass.-based developer of PDF-friendly e-book software that competes with Microsoft Reader. Portions of Glassbook's technology will be incorporated in future versions of Adobe Acrobat. Financial terms of the deal were not revealed.

Glassbook's software is known for several innovative features, including one that enables readers to "borrow" copies from other users. The company also initiated EBX, an e-book standard that differs from OEB, the standard supported by Microsoft.

Not to be left out, Barnesnadnoble.com also made an announcement Monday. The bookseller will create a section on its site devoted to books in Adobe's PDF format. The relationship with the e-retailer will be an exclusive one for Adobe, but only "for a limited time."

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