Will E-Books Get Lost in Translation?

WASHINGTON American publishers look at how the Japanese have embraced reading books on mobile phones and wonder if that response can happen here. The sale of electronic books for mobile phones grew there by 331 percent, from 1.6 billion yen (about $14 million U.S.) to 6.9 billion yen ($58 million) in 2006 over the previous year, according to the Digital Content Association of Japan.

The emergence of Apple’s iPhone has given one publisher, HarperCollins, new hope. And all eyes in the book business are watching whether two new electronic contributions will significantly alter the interaction with a medium that has been around since the Gutenberg Bible.

First, Amazon.com is scheduled to release the Kindle in October, which will allow users to wirelessly download books from the e-book store on the company’s Web site to a mobile phone without having to use a computer.

Meanwhile, Google is poised to start charging customers for online access to digital copies of books, according to published reports. Google did not respond by deadline.

HarperCollins said Aug. 15 that it has made samples of 14 new fiction titles available to iPhone users in a pilot project to determine whether there is an appetite for consuming novels in a mobile phone format. iPhone users can download the first 10 pages of chapters one and two for books like The Burnt House by Faye Kellerman, Now and Forever by Ray Bradbury and Obama by David Mendell.

HarperCollins officials said they liked the consumer response so far, but declined to share numbers.

Brian Murray, president of HarperCollins Worldwide, believes Americans have not been offered a good mobile phone to read books on until the iPhone came along. “The first time I saw one of our jackets on the device, it sizzled,” he said. “By pinching on the phone and expanding, you can zoom in and all of a sudden, I could read the pages.”

When it came time to select which book samples HarperCollins would offer, Murray says the publisher picked titles that were about to go on the market. “We really wanted to leverage the marketing efforts of the new hard covers,” he said. “We hoped people would go to the Web site and check them out.”

HarperCollins made the titles available through its Browse Inside application, which allows users to access a digital library of 8,000 books. Murray said the company’s research shows that when consumers can browse titles electronically, it increases sales from 6 to 10 percent. (Other similar applications include Amazon.com’s Search Inside! and Google’s Book Search program.)

But consumers will not have the ability to the buy the entire digital versions of the 14 books until HarperCollins determines over the next few months if there is enough of a market to make the effort worthwhile. Feedback from consumers who use the Browse Inside function to download a book to the iPhone will be one determining factor. Another will be if Apple can sell 10 million iPhones by next June (current sales are at about 1 million). “For it to be a business for us, we need to see greater adoption of the iPhone,” Murray said.

Yet, skeptics like Charles Golvin, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, doubts whether U.S. consumers are ready to bury themselves in a book read on a tiny electronic screen.

“I am pessimistic that [reading books] will generate significant revenue on mobile phones,” Golvin said. “If that content is available in other media, those experiences will be much better just because the [mobile phone] screen is small and the functionality is clumsy.”

Even with the iPhone, Forrester’s Golvin remains less than sanguine. “The [reading] experience is not as good as the other media,” he said. “And when consumers have a choice of multiple venues, the [mobile] phone is usually the last choice.”

Golvin also considers it “way to early” to even ask American consumers if they would prefer to read books on a mobile phone. “When the numbers you will get are in a fraction of a percent, it is not worth spending the time or money to gather the data,” he says.

(Forrester’s research, which includes Canada, shows that of the 72 percent of the population with mobile phones, 21 percent download ringtones, 11 percent check the weather, 10 percent download games, 9 percent read news, 7 percent download music and 5 percent watch video.)

The winning formula for reading books on small screens requires the right device hooked up to a network of content, which is what made the iPod work, says Evan Schnittman, vice president of business development at the U.S. Division of Oxford University Press. “It is digital immersive reading that is the issue,” Schnittman says. “Research reading, which is extractive by nature, is best done electronically, but for immersive reading the computer screen is horrible. And that’s why the iPhone is not the device for immersive reading.”

Schnittman thinks it will take another five to 10 years for digital reading of full-length books to catch on. “It will be a $5 billion industry at worst and a $15 billion at best,” he said.

Although the January 2006 introduction of the Sony Reader, an ink-reader device with a six-inch screen and the capacity to hold up to 80 books, prompted publishers to ramp up their digital libraries, it doesn’t seem to be the right device either, Schnittman said. He called the introduction “an anemic launch at best” when considering how few digitally converted titles were available.

Publishers have also experimented with consumer-generated books. Last year, HarperCollins, through its Avon and Harper-Teen group divisions, ran two campaigns where editors created the “story arcs” for a six-week writing event. Participants then wrote and posted chapters based on the story line, and other consumers voted on the most compelling one. The chapters with the highest votes were then reviewed by HarperCollins editors and published authors. The authors provided writing tips. A final e-book edition was published and given away free to contest players.

Through the contest, HarperCollins made readers aware of authors they had never heard of before, and of the Avon and Harper-Teen brands. The Harper-Teen contest, which was cross-promoted through MySpace, generated more than 100,000 unique visitors, 25,000 contest participants, and average page views per visitor in the double digits.

Penguin Books and De Montfort University in the U.K. also conducted what it called a “wikinovel” experiment called “A Million Penguins” to determine if a diverse group of people could produce a novel with a “believable fictional voice” on a Web site. In the end, it was praised for innovative thinking, but the final product received harsh reviews. One blogger call it “a flailing, abstract, Dada-ist vision of interactive literacy.”

And Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, made a graphic version of the Philip K. Dick novel A Scanner Darkly available last July on the Amp’d mobile phone platform as part of a marketing tie-in with the Warner Brothers film of the same name. “We were aware that the Amp’d audience is young, hip and technologically savvy, so we felt our A Scanner Darkly movie tie-in edition was well suited for our maiden mobile-phone promotion,” said Matt Shatz, Random’s vp of digital. “People are increasingly reading all kinds of published materials on computers and other electronic devices, including phones, and we believe this trend will continue.”

But Ben Vershbow, associate director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based think tank funded by the MacArthur Foundation to study books in the digital age, believes the publishing industry is taking the wrong approach with such experiments, including the HarperCollins iPhone effort. While Vershbow praises the industry for trying new things, he said the efforts are “aimed primarily at adult readers and try simply to recreate, with a few modest digital enhancements, the experience of print reading. I see little evidence that the industry is actually trying to develop new forms and experiences that take the electronic environment fully into account, or that they are engaging in any serious way with younger people who have grown up with the new technology and could handle something more sophisticated than digital facsimiles of print texts.”

Vershbow said his institute is not trying to overthrow the old medium of the printed book in favor of new technologies. Rather, he said, “we’re thinking about how reading and writing are changing in the context of the Internet, and our experiments try very consciously to build some of the Net’s social, peer-to-peer elements into texts,” he said. “[The publishing industry] is not doing the long-range thinking that is necessary.”