When Simon and Schuster published best-selling author Frank McCourt's new memoir, "Tis," this month, the company didn't stop with paper and audio cassettes. It whipped up a digital version for electronic books. Ditto for horrormeister Stephen King's new novel, "Hearts in Atlantis," and other potential chart-toppers.
A year after they were first introduced, electronic books are slowly taking hold. Publishers are gradually moving selected titles from pulp to pixel. And pioneering book lovers who once flipped pages are now flipping buttons.
E-books are hand-held, battery-powered devices with illuminated screens that can store the equivalent of several novels, magazines or newspapers. So far, there are just two on the market: the $329 Rocket eBook and the $600 SoftBook.
On the eve of the e-book's first anniversary, several hundred publishers and hardware and software developers gathered in Gaithersburg last week to discuss the technology's future. The consensus: While their original prediction of paper's demise was premature, the e-book is here to stay.
"Nobody's selling tons and tons of electronic books yet," said James Sachs, CEO of SoftBook Press, maker of the SoftBook reader. "But just wait."
Analysts estimate that fewer than 10,000 e-books were sold last year. By way of contrast, U.S. sales of traditional books rose 6.4 percent to $23 billion in 1998, according to the Association of American Publishers.
So far, e-books have appealed mainly to gadget lovers and business travelers. But interest is growing in other quarters.
Schools and companies are looking into e-books to save paper and cheaply distribute material that needs constant updating -- such as textbooks, manuals and schedules.
At the Resurrection School in Dayton, Ohio, teacher Pamela Thomas and her fourth-graders have temporarily swapped their regular textbooks for Rocket eBooks to study the effectiveness of a paperless classroom.
Now the youngsters read "Peter Rabbit" and other Beatrix Potter stories aloud from glowing screens. At night they click through social studies and English textbooks. They can even look up an unfamiliar word with an onboard Random House dictionary.
"This is what's going to happen someday inside the classroom," Thomas said.
The Maryland State Department of Education is preparing similar experiments at Damascus High School in Montgomery County and Washington High School in Somerset County.
But e-book promoters concede that they must overcome several obstacles before they can mount a serious challenge to the 500-year reign of paper. For starters, e-books cost too much. Their liquid crystal display screens aren't crisp enough for concentrated viewing. And since the devices have only been available online, it's been hard for average readers to get their hands on them.
There also isn't enough to read. So far, just over 1,500 fiction and nonfiction titles are available for the Rocket eBook and SoftBook. Most aren't New York Times best-sellers, but chestnuts such as "Alice in Wonderland" and "Crime and Punishment." Their numbers are a drop in the bucket compared to the 45,000-plus titles published in paper last year.
As a result, the fledgling e-book industry is in something of a bind: With so few e-books in circulation, publishers are hesitant to spend money to convert their titles. Readers, meanwhile, won't snap up e-books without enough best-sellers available.
But some of these barriers are falling. This month, Barnes & Noble, which had been selling NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook online, began to stock the gadget in 31 of its 521 stores around the country (Baltimore isn't among them).
Last weekth acn nutygv itself a boost by agreeing on an open publishing standard. That means publishers can crank out a single digital version of their books that will work on the Rocket, SoftBook or any other device that complies.
"This is the one thing that makes it possible for all publishers to jump into this business," said Adam Rothberg, spokesman for New York-based Simon and Schuster Inc.
An even bigger boost may come from Microsoft. The software giant is developing a program called Microsoft Reader that's designed to re-create the look of the printed page on a PC, laptop or Windows CE hand-held computer.
The software will format text just as it appears on the printed page and have none of the icons or menus found on a Web browser. "The main feature of it is [that] you don't see the software," says Dick Brass, vice president for technology development at Microsoft. "Just like when you read a good book it vanishes in your hands."
Instead, says Brass, readers will simply click a page to turn it. Microsoft Reader will also incorporate ClearType, a sophisticated new technology that renders characters three times as sharp as today's text on color LCD screens.
Since general-purpose computers have the potential to reach far more customers than dedicated e-books, Microsoft is hoping publishers will have greater incentive to put more titles in electronic form.
But the biggest hurdle to the spread of e-books won't disappear soon: squabbling over electronic rights and royalties. Traditionally, the copyright of a paper book reverts to the authors when the book goes out of print. But if publishers can keep an e-book available indefinitely, what happens? And if it costs less for a publisher to distribute an e-book, should authors earn more?
Some writers are holding off allowing publishers to put their work on e-books until these issues are resolved. "We've been advising authors to go very slowly," said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild in New York.
E-book boosters, for their part, are willing to be patient.
Says Microsoft's Brass: "Remember, the second year of personal computers didn't tell you much either."
For more information
SoftBook Press Inc. (www.softbook.com)
NuvoMedia Inc. (www.nuvomedia.com)
Barnes & Noble Inc. (www.bn.com)
Microsoft Reader (www.microsoft.com/reader)