E-readers may not solve publisher woes yet

Posted at 11/01/09 10:05 PM

NEW YORK - Publishers hoping to halt a slide in sales with new electronic reading devices will struggle to get consumers to embrace them until the technology improves, experts say.

The gadgets -- such as Amazon.com Inc's Kindle and Barnes & Noble Inc's new $259 Nook -- have created an enormous buzz in the publishing world and marketers hope they will become popular Christmas gifts.

In some respects the new devices still compare unfavorably to the tactile experience of the printed page and lack multiple functions of more advanced technology such as smartphones, industry experts say.

Joe Wikert of O'Reilly Media Inc, a publishing company and media consultant firm, said e-readers are mostly "one-trick ponies," an extra device with only one function, in contrast to multifaceted products such as Apple Inc's iPhone.

So far, e-readers mostly provide "static reproductions of the print version," minus the advantages of hard-copy books that readers have grown accustomed to over the years, such as easily being able to pass a book on to a friend, Wikert said. The Nook, however, lets users share books.

Still, 2009 sales of e-readers are expected to reach 3 million units, according to Forrester Research.

Newer devices can store thousands of easily downloadable books at a time and allow access to certain websites, newspapers and magazines.

New tools, please

But while most experts praise e-ink, a display technology that strives to mimic printed text, the capacity for colors, embedded links, search options and video is still lacking.

These devices are "technologically not advanced enough for most content," said Paul DeHart, president of BlueToad Inc, a digital publishing company, and do not yet make it worth the effort of lugging around another gadget.

Bob Stein, formerly of the Institute for the Future of the Book, said the technology was still too foreign for most consumers. Until consumers have the control of simple "new tools that enable the creation of multi-modal content," digital publishing will face obstacles.

Publishers also need to increase the number and variety of e-books on offer, said Ross Rubin at the NPD group.

"Content needs to expand beyond bestsellers," said Rubin, "Text books are a very good direction."

Amazon says there more than 350,000 books available for its Kindles, which come in a $259 and $489 models, while Barnes and Noble says it has more than 1 million books.

Why wait for print?

But for some, this is the right time for e-publishing to reinvigorate the industry, while also addressing shortcomings of the new products.

One venture, Open Road Integrated Media, is already seeking to publish electronic versions of backlist books -- augmented with video -- as well as new titles on demand.

Meanwhile, news website the Daily Beast, which had 3.9 million unique visitors in September, has launched Beast Books to produce books on current subjects in a shorter time, with the e-version coming out first.

"You can crash out an e-book as soon as you've got the final text," said Caroline Marks of The Daily Beast. "I don't see the point of waiting for the print book."