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<nettime> E-Book Saga Is Full of Woe--and a Bit of Intrigue
by way of richard barbrook on Fri, 24 Aug 2001 15:47:35 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> E-Book Saga Is Full of Woe--and a Bit of Intrigue

From: Jim Morrison

E-Book Saga Is Full of Woe--and a Bit of Intrigue

Times Staff Writer

August 6 2001

Richard DeGrandpre wrote "Digitopia" as a warning about the false promises
of the wired world. Then it was published as an electronic book, and all
his predictions came true.

"Digitopia," issued by Random House in March, was never reviewed or
promoted or, it seems, downloaded. "My book is just dead," said DeGrandpre,
a psychologist.

So are just about everyone else's e-books. The publishing world's attempts
to turn electronic fiction and nonfiction into a lucrative revenue stream
has yielded only a trickle of customers.

Flaccid sales aside, publishers face even bigger challenges. Digitizing the
printed page has put the very nature of books up for grabs, unleashing
heated battles among writers, readers, librarians and technologists over
who should control electronic books.

"There's only one place e-books are popular: the courtroom," said
publishing consultant Lorraine Shanley.

This morning in San Jose, a judge is scheduled to decide whether to release
on bail the defendant in the most explosive e-book case yet.

A Russian graduate student named Dmitry Sklyarov was arrested three weeks
ago for writing a program that breaks the encryption on e-books. There is
no dispute that Sklyarov developed the algorithms that the program is based
on. Prosecutors say he was violating copyright law. Sklyarov's defenders
say he was merely trying to give owners of e-books some of the same rights
that owners of printed volumes have.

The first person to be jailed under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act,
Sklyarov could receive a sentence of up to five years.

"Arresting Sklyarov was insane, but there's an increasing tension between
people who need and use information and those who want to control it," said
Michael Mellin, a consultant who founded Random House's electronic
publishing operation.

Two years ago, e-books were heralded as a technology that would make the
traditional printed volume obsolete. Random House, like Time Warner, Simon
& Schuster and other major publishers, began developing an e-book line.

Enthusiasm was stoked by an Andersen Consulting study done for the Assn. of
American Publishers. It concluded that by 2005, 10% of book sales, or $2.3
billion a year, would be electronic. Another study said 1.7 million
specialized devices for reading e-books would be sold by then.

"E-books had a glow about them similar to what music videos had in the
mid-1980s," said Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum. "You weren't
cutting edge, you weren't a truly progressive publishing executive, if you
didn't see e-books as part of the great future for your imprint."

E-books are downloaded from online booksellers such as Amazon.com and
Barnesandnoble.com to specially designed devices such as Gemstar's REB 1110
or to desktop or hand-held computers equipped with the requisite software
made by companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Adobe Systems Inc.

Worried about being "Napsterized"--with their books freely distributed in
digital form around the globe--publishers enveloped their e-books with
digital locks to prevent transferring, copying and printing. Sklyarov is
accused of figuring out how to pick the lock.

Last summer, Random House, eager to demonstrate it would still be viable in
the post-paper world, officially announced its first 20 e-books, a list
that included such relatively well-known names as Harper's magazine editor
Lewis Lapham and economics writer Robert Samuelson.

But as the stock market drooped and the zeal for all things tech withered
last fall, Random House began to hedge its bets. The original low price of
$5 for each e-book download was doubled. The publisher also announced that
small regular print runs would accompany electronic publication.

The result, according to author DeGrandpre, was the worst of both worlds:
an e-book that no one cared about and a printed book that no one knew
about. The print version of "Digitopia" recently ranked 658,756 on the
Amazon.com bestseller list, about as low as it is possible to get.

"I tell people not to buy it," DeGrandpre said. "If it's going to be a
failure, it might as well be a huge failure."

'Technology Has a Lot of Catching Up to Do'

Cameron Dougan, whose "Because She Is Beautiful" was the only novel on the
first Random House e-book list, is somewhat more upbeat. "My experience was
bittersweet," he said, noting that "the technology has a lot of catching up
to do" but that at least now he is a published novelist. Still, when he's
done with his second novel, "I don't believe my agent will be pushing it as
an e-book."

While no industrywide statistics are being kept on e-book sales, consultant
Jim Lichtenberg says the market is practically nonexistent. "There's no
standardization in technology," he said. "It's all a big mess. This is like
having a car in 1905. It breaks down instantly, which means you have to
travel with your own mechanic--and since there are no roads, there's
nowhere to go anyway."

Equally gloomy is a recent study by the research firm Odyssey, which found
in a survey of 500 households that 40% had a "poor" initial impression of
e-books. Three-quarters of the respondents said they didn't care how good
the computer screen was, they preferred to read off paper.

"E-books are solving a problem that consumers don't have," said Odyssey
analyst Devin McDonell.

One reason for the consumer rejection may be all those strict controls the
publishers put on their e-books. The controls are backed up by the Digital
Millennium Copyright Act, passed by Congress in 1998. The act broadens the
rights of the producers of content while restricting those of consumers. It
is now a crime not only to violate copyright but to make tools that enable
such a violation.

It always would have been a violation of copyright to photocopy dozens of
copies of Dougan's novel and sell them on the street. Now, DMCA critics
argue, it's as if the photocopier itself is illegal.

That's the predicament Sklyarov is in. An employee of the Russian company
ElcomSoft, he helped develop software that removed certain restrictions
that were built into Adobe System's e-book software. Using ElcomSoft's
Advanced eBook Processor, someone could take a text on a computer equipped
with Adobe's software and make a backup copy, or transfer it to another
computer in his house, or make a copy for a friend--all things that are
supposed to be impossible.

Publisher Group Backs Software Maker's Arrest

Adobe Systems, which set Sklyarov's arrest in motion and was consequently
the subject of demonstrations and a boycott movement, has backed off,
saying it doesn't want him jailed. The Assn. of American Publishers,
however, continues to hail the government's action, saying Sklyarov's
software "facilitates theft, and makes it less likely that e-books will
soon become a popular reading format."

Both at the courthouse in San Jose and elsewhere around the country, more
demonstrations are promised today. They are spearheaded by the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, an electronic rights group that considers the
prosecution of Sklyarov an attack on free speech.

"When the [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] was going through Congress,
copyright owners were promising it would only be used as a shield to
protect their lawful rights," said foundation attorney Robin Gross. "Now
that it's a law, we find it's being used as a sword to smash competition
and squelch free expression."

Librarians such as Roberto Esteves, chief of information resources at the
San Francisco Public Library, are worried that they don't control their
material anymore.

"Air, we're buying air," he said, pointing to the example of academic
journals. "They were something you used to buy and put on a shelf. But with
electronic journals, if you stop buying them, they don't exist. You don't
have something to show for the thousands of dollars you spent over the

But Allan Adler, a vice president at the Assn. of American Publishers, said
that while publishers are often being portrayed as money-gouging bullies,
they're merely trying to stay alive.

If libraries were routinely able to convert their collections to digital
formats, and then offer their patrons remote access to that material, they
would essentially become and maybe even replace publishers.

Publishers, Adler said, "are extremely vulnerable now."

Random Worries About Rights to Classics

That's why Random House is continuing its fight against RosettaBooks, a
small New York electronic publisher. Rosetta acquired from three Random
authors the rights to digitally distribute their novels. Random is afraid
that it will have to renegotiate the electronic rights to its entire
backlist of thousands of classics. These are books it signed up long before
any publisher knew to ask writers for digital rights.

A New York judge denied Random's request for a preliminary injunction that
would stop Rosetta from selling the novels by Robert Parker, William Styron
and Kurt Vonnegut. Random is now appealing.

"The lawsuit is all about the future, and the potential for e-books that
has yet to be realized," said Random spokesman Applebaum.

At least one of the writers whose work is being fought over doesn't believe
that potential will ever come to pass.

"The e-book is a ridiculous idea," said Vonnegut, who hasn't read his work
on a computer and never intends to. "The printed book is so satisfactory,
so responsive to our fingertips. So much of this new stuff is utterly

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