SAN FRANCISCO (06/05/2000) - The movement to buy electronic books has yet to become a stampede. In case it never does, Bookface.com is trying another approach: offering books for free. Beginning today, consumers will be able to read the full text of books online, as long as they don't mind the advertisements strewn along every page.
The text cannot be downloaded or printed out, so readers will be stuck reading at their computers. Bookface's founders say providing consumers with the chance to read books online will whet their appetites for the hardcover versions. "We encourage people to flip through the pages, much like at Barnes & Noble," says Tammy Deuster, Bookface's cofounder and CEO. "Once you find something intriguing, you'll want to finish the book." A reader who decides to close the deal will be nudged toward Amazon.com, although Deuster says Bookface does not have an exclusive arrangement with the bookseller. Time Warner's book division made a low-six-figure investment in Bookface and could pony up more funds. "We wanted to get the venture off the ground," says Laurence Kirshbaum, chairman of Time Warner Trade Publishing. "We will look to broaden our participation later."
Bookface declined to reveal any other information about its financing. Four major publishing houses have agreed to provide books to the site. Those publishers will receive between 30 percent and 50 percent of the ad revenues generated by each of their titles. "It's a brand-new way for publishers and authors to make money," Deuster says. Publishers also will "continue to make money on a book after it's no longer available in bookstores," he added. The site will have 1,000 titles available today, when its beta version launches.
But don't expect publishers to fork over their bestsellers as freebies.
Kirshbaum said he does not expect Time Warner to post its latest hardcover titles, though most of the books it offers will have been published in the last few years. Why would publishers want to give millions of Web users access to their current titles for free?
"Our belief is, right now we need to get people reading electronically, any way we can," says Kirshbaum, who announced last week that his company was jumping into the electronic-book business with the launch of an Internet-only imprint called iPublish. Books have largely managed to remain one of the last ad-free editorial forums. Won't some readers and authors be offended that advertisements are polluting their books? Kirshbaum doesn't think so. He believes that "the advertising model has promise." But he is granting authors the opportunity to opt out of Bookface.
Bookface's founders hope its users will provide the site with information about their interests, so the company can target its advertising. Even if consumers balk, the company says that simply tracking its customers' reading habits will give Bookface information that advertisers will find valuable.