Two years ago, e-book evangelists were warning traditional book publishers that they'd better get on the e-book wagon fast, since the next two years were going to make or break them. It was a heady time: Accenture had confidently predicted that by 2005 digital books could account for one of every 10 books sold, and publishers were rushing to assemble digital book divisions. Well, turn the page. In 2001, the going got tough for e-publishing. By December, AOL Time Warner had closed its iPublish.com electronic publishing division. (Now the company outsources the distribution of its e-books.) By May 2002, one Jupiter Media Metrix analyst, once an e-book protagonist, said the whole thing was a dumb idea.
So this story is a tragedy, right? Not so fast, Shakespeare.
For one thing, Adobe Systems and Microsoft, which dominate the market for making software that supports e-books, aren't giving up their development efforts. Second, while it's true that Microsoft pulled its funding of a high profile e-book award at the world-famous Frankfurt Book Fair in April 2002, Redmond turned right around and unveiled the International eBook Association to promote e-books (and present its own set of awards).
And then there's the Old Man and the E: Viacom's Simon & Schuster book division said in May that it would make all 23 of its Ernest Hemingway titles available as e-books, along with approximately 1200 other e-book titles.
Despite the tenacity of promoters, the future is uncertain. For e-books to succeed, better-quality, more user-friendly and less expensive reading devices are essential. Competing software formats and other issues, such as secure transmission, copyright and fair use, need to be resolved. Reader resistance may also prove too strong.
The fragmented nature of the book market may make it impossible for e-books to become anything more than a niche product. After all, you can't find an e-book copy of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind on Amazon.com. But, as Scarlett O'Hara would say, "Tomorrow is another day."
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