To hear Kelly Ford tell it, the heyday of the electronic book was just over a year ago, in the spring of 2000. Back then, Stephen King had just released his sixty-six-page novella, Riding the Bullet, exclusively as a digital publication. Its success had set the publishing industry all atwitter with e-book buzz. Bookstore owners were trembling, writers saw their futures bright with pixels, publishers imagined zero-cost delivery, and trees everywhere breathed a sigh of relief.

Ford — the creator of an e-book fan Website, — was so pumped that, in June of last year, he organized ReBA Con (Rocket eBook Anonymous Convention), the first worldwide gathering of Rocket e-book fans.

Rocket e-books, created by Nuvomedia, were the first dedicated electronic book devices. They looked like paperbacks with their covers folded back, had backlit screens and could hold about ten novels at a time in digital format. They also had a rabid fan base of gadget freaks and folks like Ford, who just loved the idea of reading and writing digital works.

About 150 e-book enthusiasts from as far away as China and Israel gathered at the Marriott Hotel at Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco, to swap tips, sell self-published e-writing and generally ride the bullet of Stephen King’s electronic success into a future where books with screens would become as commonplace as pulp fiction.

Over twelve months later, electronic books still have more to do with novelty than best-selling novels. Industry experts say there are only about 70,000 people walking around with portable devices dedicated to serving up electronic books. And the audience for electronic books served up on personal digital assistants, desktops and laptops appears to be only a few hundred thousand strong. Even the best-selling e-books move only about a thousand copies. Hardly the stuff of populist fantasies.

So, what went wrong? A lot, quickly. And, much of it has to do with Napster, or at least traditional book publishers reaction to Napster.

Napster is online music-sharing software that made it possible for music fans worldwide to swap digital (MP3) versions of their favourite songs for free. It’s a type of peer-to-peer file sharing that is becoming increasingly popular. Napster let the digital-rights genie out of the bottle. To traditional book publishers, it demonstrated that unprotected digital versions of their books would become public property in an online medium where the credo is “information wants to be free.”

In fact, in Wired magazine last October, Web-rights advocate John Perry Barlow even asked, “Is there a bottle?” Talk like that gives the folks at places like Random House night sweats.

So did the fact that, forty-eight hours after Riding the Bullet was published online, the personal computer versions of the file had been hacked, and free copies started floating around the Internet.

The music industry’s reaction to Napster was a predictable legal one. The upstart was all but shut down, and now the status quo is struggling — unsuccessfully so far — to replace Napster with a viable digital alternative. The movie industry is attempting the same legal approach with Gnutella, while announcing a soon-to-be-launched pay-per-view movie download service.

The mainstream book industry is trying a two-pronged attack: one legal, one technical. In February, Random House tried to prevent an online e-book seller, rosettabooks, from marketing e-book versions of eight of its authors, including Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon.

Random House claimed it had the e-book rights to the novels. The publishing house’s lawyers argued that authors’ contracts as far back as 1961 gave Random House the right to publish there work “in book form” which the lawyers said meant e-books too.

In July, a New York district court judge denied Random House the injunction they wanted. Random House is appealing the decision, which was applauded by author’s groups. If the appeal succeeds, it could effectively allow Random House and other major publishers to hold up the electronic publishing of classic backlist titles.

Meanwhile, on a technical front, mainstream publishers are declining to publish top sellers and new releases in e-book format. And the less popular books they do release are priced just a touch below what you can find the print versions for on Needless to say, theyre not jumping off the sites.

“They’re just selling e-books for what the market will bear,” says Dan Snow, an ebook industry analyst and the co-author of Snow has been pushing traditional publishers for years to lower their prices as a way of discouraging piracy and even encouraging users to buy print versions too.

So far, they’re not listening. Snow says traditional publishers are only now starting to understand the world of e-books. “But these are the guys, much maligned as it is, who are going to be the ones to find a way to make it pay.” He says that the idea of a nearly free means of book distribution will be irresistible to traditional publishers.

Meanwhile, an industry move to develop an Open Ebook format got bogged down in a fight for dominance between Adobe and Microsoft. As a result, at least a half dozen different e-book file formats aren’t compatible.

The industry’s response means, right now, e-books are dominated by previously unpublished, e-book-only authors and the romance, sci-fi and mysteries genres. And, while e-book software, like Adobe’s Glassbook, allows publishers to turn on features that would let users share and trade electronic permissions, according to Susan Gibbons — the digital initiatives librarian for the University of Rochester — no major publisher has taken advantage of the features.

“Traditional publishers are very afraid of what will happen if they let even limited lending take place,” she said. That means, right now, libraries are left out in the cold when it comes to patrons borrowing e-books. And it means you can’t legally share or pass on any e-book you buy.

So, e-books are still an oddity, relegated to the true believers and early adopters. Thats frustrating for guys like Dustin Revin, whose Markham-based company,, is about to launch a third generation e-book called the hiebook. The hiebook has a 14-centimetre (measured diagonally) screen, can play MP3s, has a built-in audio recorder and can hold up to 128 megabytes of memory.

Users can upload publisher’s titles or create their own. The soon-to-be launched hiebook is also at the centre of a major U.S. marketing push by Safeway and Pepsi.

But Revin has no illusions about the early buyers for his product. “Our first market will be the loyal e-book enthusiasts out there,” he says. Revin believes it will be at least five years before someone will notice a fellow subway passenger reading an electronic book and think nothing of it. Maybe then the folks at ReBA Con 2006 will really have something to celebrate.


Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...