Corrections or additions?
This article by David McDonough was prepared for the August 30,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Reader Meets the E-Book
Trust Stephen King, master of the macabre, to be in
on the ground floor of a twisted and bizarre use of state-of-the-art
I am referring, of course, to the E-book, that new rage of the digital
age. King is offering his latest novel in downloadable installments
from his website. In our own corner of cyberspace, Leslie Burger,
executive director of the Princeton Public Library, recently put into
circulation six electronic books loaded into compact, hand-held
that are called "Rocket eBooks." Each Rocket eBook, produced
by NuvoMedia Inc., holds five to seven titles.
The idea is this: You go online to www.nuvomedia.com and buy a Rocket
eBook ($269). You select a title through a Web bookseller such as
www.barnesandnoble.com or www.powells.com and have it shipped to your
PC or Macintosh, where you download it onto your Rocket eBook. Or
you can skip the whole process and go to the Princeton Library and
borrow the E-book. Plainsboro Library, too, is getting in on the
with five Rocket eBooks that will begin circulating in September.
Technologically impressive? Sure. Innovative? Somewhat. Fun to use?
We decided to find out.
I chose one Rocket eBook to take home. I took the one holding seven
mysteries, among them the first of Janet Evanovich’s Trenton-based
Stephanie Plum stories, "One For The Money." Janie Wilkins,
Princeton Public Library’s information services librarian, gave me
a few pointers to put the performing E-seal through its tricks, and
off I went.
The Rocket eBook weighs about 22 ounces, about the same as the average
hardcover printed book, less than a laptop computer. It’s about the
size of a good-size paperback, 5 x 7-1/2 x 1/2 inches. It’s high-tech
looking, an industrial gray rectangle holding a 3-1/2 x 5-1/2-inch
I took it home and started in on Evanovich’s "page-turning"
novel. First note: the E-book is easy to power on and easy to use.
The E-book gives you a choice for commands: the touch of a hand or
the touch of a stylus, a pencil-like device that comes with the book.
The normal print is easy to read even for my aging eyes; the good
news is that the print can be enlarged to suit the reader.
The first buttons you find yourself making great use of, not
are the Page Forward and Page Back. When the E-book is turned back
on, it will begin where you left off, a nice touch (though hardly
as pleasing as those decorative paper bookmarks). There is also an
icon for bookmarking, making notes, and underlining text. (Of crucial
interest to librarians: all notations can be electronically removed.)
But now that we have familiarized ourselves with the operating system,
what about comfort of use? One of the first claims that NuvoMedia
makes is that you will want to take the E-book with you everywhere.
My own most important concerns: Could I take it to bed, to the
and to the dining room table? In all cases, the answer is yes. The
E-book is almost as practical as a regular book that you sit propped
up in bed with; in fact, since it’s a little lighter than a book,
it’s slightly easier on your lap.
The only drawback is that the screen does not contain as many
as a printed page, so you have to scroll down more often then you
would turn the pages of a book. This can prove tough on the modern,
spoiled reader, especially late at night when the next-to-the-last
thing you want is any unnecessary exertion. The last thing you want
to do is wake a sleeping spouse. So if you’re sharing a bed, the sound
of a screen being clicked and scrolled is more likely to disturb a
slumberer than the sound of leaves of a book being turned. The click
is not very loud, but in repetition could be disconcerting. I’m not
inclined to see how well an E-book works when thrown at my head.
My E-book experiment was equally successful in the bathtub. Although
a little more cumbersome in this situation than a paperback that can
be held in one hand, bent at the spine, it’s light enough to be
and the screen didn’t steam up. Of course, I have no idea how constant
exposure to dampness would effect its longevity, and naturally, you
would not want to drop it into the water — in fact, I predict
that you will soon be seeing signs at the Princeton Library:
Don’t Take The Rocket eBook Into The Tub." But hey, you’re pretty
much out of luck if you drop your library book into the tub, too,
although replacing it would be a lot less expensive.
By the way, NuvoMedia encourages you to take your E-book to the beach,
along with the five to ten summer novels you can load on board. If
only I had a decent three-week vacation coming my way, I’d like to
see what happens after a summer’s worth of exposure to sand and salt
air. Remember when everyone was going to take their video cameras
to the shore?
Taking an E-book to dinner proved to be the most problematic. There
are simply too many times during a meal that one needs both hands,
to cut your food, butter the bread, or make an important
point that requires hand gestures. Somehow the E-book seemed awkward
at the table, rather like an uninvited guest.
The E-book’s bookmarks, notes, and underlining capabilities were fun,
but frankly, they aren’t really needed when you are settling down
with a mystery. I supposed I could have underlined all the
restaurants mentioned by Evanovich, or scribbled little memos
to self: try the scungilli"), but I have never scribbled notes
in any work of fiction, and I’m not about to start now. And that
up another point: will verbs like "scribbling" disappear from
the modern vocabulary?
So have I now set one trembling foot in the future? I’m not sure.
Certainly the signs are there. There’s Stephen King, terrifying the
publishing world by selling his new book, "The Plant," the
story of a twisted vine that menaces a publishing house, on the Web.
King is using the honor system, telling his readers to send him a
dollar after each download. Of course, he has a built-in default;
if he doesn’t receive payment from at least 75 percent of his readers,
he won’t finish the book. In other words, if you want to know whether
Little Nell dies, you have to pay — Charles Dickens already went
that route. It paid off.
Time Warner launched iPublish.com last spring, and Random House and
Simon & Schuster have announced plans to create digital imprints.
(Random House is working with Xlibris, the digital publishing firm
that incubated in Trenton and is now headquartered in Philadelphia.)
Barnesandnoble.com is teaming up with Microsoft to open the first
major online store selling digital books. But aside from increasing
the value of said cyberstocks, what has this meant for most of us?
So far not much. The future for digital books, as I see it, lies in
textbooks, manuals, and business reports. The ability to make notes,
bookmark, and underline text will be particular selling points in
this market. Law schools and medical schools will love it, as will
engineers, and business people on public transport — it’s one
more annoying noise to add to the mix of cell phones and Palm Pilots.
But for the ordinary casual reader, it’s too much information, rather
like watching a movie on your computer and reading the accompanying
footnotes. Most of us don’t want to work that hard when we read books.
When you read a novel, there is only one thing you can do — read.
Or think. Or doze. None of which requires the touch of a button, or
— David McDonough
Patrons of the area’s many public libraries (ones whose
names don’t begin with the letter P) may be wondering why Princeton
and Plainsboro have eBooks and they don’t. The reason, says
Leslie Burger, is plain old luck.
The E-book trials are a project of the New Jersey State Library system
that has already provided state grants for computer equipment,
access, electronic databases, and shared catalogs to the public
The result is a network of powerful computer hubs around the state.
Now the State Library is conducting a statewide pilot project to test
of the suitability of E-books to library use.
"The New Jersey State Library decided that they would give
the chance to experiment with the new technology at the state’s
says Burger, "because these new devices are primarily designed
for individual use." She adds that New Jersey is one of the first
states, if not the only state, to devote money to this effort.
Qualifying libraries were divided into population groups, so that
no area of the state would be excluded. The state had pre-purchased
the Rocket eBooks, valued at $200 each; and provided another $1,500
for the texts to load onto them. Interested libraries were invited
to Trenton for a meeting and product demonstration.
"It was like `The Price Is Right.’ We didn’t have to write a
they pulled names out of a hat. You had to be present to win —
and we won!," she exclaims, like any happy winner.
Jinny Baeckler of Plainsboro Public Library, another lucky winner,
has five Rocket eBooks ("Far more exciting in theory than in
she’s quick to volunteer) that will begin circulating the first week
of September. "The idea of the project is to generate feedback
so that libraries around the state can act wisely and decide whether
or not to invest their community’s tax dollars in purchasing,"
Princeton has six readers, each pre-loaded with up to 10 titles. In
order to make room for more titles, the library offloaded the
which were found to be rudimentary and incomplete. Just one month
after placing its E-books in circulation, Burger notes the library
had 44 holds on its six books. They can be kept for up to 14 days,
and the overdue fine is $1 per day.
Content categories currently represented are Popular
Fiction (with titles by Michael Cunningham, Sandra Brown, Anita
Nicholas Sparks, and others); Mysteries and Thrillers (containing
the first Janet Evanovich mystery, as well as works by Mary Higgins
Clark and Scott Turow); Horror (featuring two novels by Stephen King,
plus the latest chapter from King’s E-serial, "Riding the
plus titles by Joe Lansdale and others); Science Fiction and Fantasy
(includes titles by David Coe, Peter Hamilton, Elizabeth Kerner);
Non-Fiction and Biography (with titles by Maria Shriver, Jon Krakauer,
Frank McCourt, and "The Unofficial Business Traveler’s Pocket
Guide"). There is also one E-book that’s a genre sampler and one
for children and teens that carries titles for grades six through
high school from the Princeton Regional School District’s summer
Many of the reading list books are in the public domain and were
free from Project Gutenberg or for a couple of dollars in
formats. For the rest, the cost is comparable to paper editions, $20
to $30 for a hardback, $6 to $10 for a paperback. The software
duplicating, so a different copy must be purchased for each device.
Because this is a pilot project, each E-book comes with an evaluation
form, developed by the lending library, that the user is asked to
complete. Each library has one year to collect and organize its
responses and report them to the state.
Given the popularity of the first month, Burger is already considering
buying additional devices with funds from her library’s own technology
and collection budget. She notes that the readers are evolving fast,
and the library will probably add different kinds of devices that
are already on, or are coming on the market.
When Princeton polls its library users on the desirability of the
E-book, Burger finds herself slightly out of the loop.
"During the few days we had the readers here for the staff to
try out, I didn’t have time. My husband did, and he loved it. Now
I can’t get one. They’re too much in demand."
— Nicole Plett
Strictly used, the term E-book can apply to any online
reading material, whether on a PC, a notebook computer, pocket PC,
or dedicated E-book device. If you owned the dedicated NuvoMedia
now available at the libraries, you could download a limited number
of your own documents to it. For instance, if you were going on a
trip you could load on a travel guide, a novel to read on the plane,
and a document with your itinerary and business notes.
One major player in the market, Gemstar International, has no plans
to add audio. It bought NuvoMedia and Softbook Reader. So the next
generation of what the libraries have will be issued under the RCA
label, sans audio.
Another big provider of E-books is, no surprise, MicroSoft, and
is going to offer a big extra — audio. "MicroSoft is the one
organization that is moving forward and is excited about adding audio
to text," says Markku T. Hakkinen, senior vice president of
Corporation on Bear Tavern Road (formerly known as Productivity
The Barnes & Noble website, www.barnesandnoble.com, is offering a
free current version of Microsoft Reader software with 100 free
Audio In a future version of the software you will be able to listen
to your book in the car, then pop it in your pocket for airport
IsSound is helping to develop this technology for MicroSoft, which
is working with most of the major publishing houses. The next version
of MicroSoft’s E-book, expected to be released by the middle of next
year, will contain the technology of IsSound.
But the real future of E-books, Hakkinen thinks, will be combo
not dedicated E-books. "We believe people don’t want to carry
around several devices," he says. He envisions one handheld device
that combines the functions of a cell phone, Palm Pilot, CD player,
and notebook computer with web access and leisure or business reading.
He contrasts the dedicated E-book reader, priced at about $300, to
the pocket PC, which lets you listen to MP3 music, have standard Palm
Pilot functions, browse the web, and read E-books, all for $500.
believe that will be a device with more mass appeal," says
Still, he does hope that IsSound can license its technology to
So why use an E-book instead of merely listening to a book on tape?
Even if you don’t have visual problems, you may want to switch
back and forth, from listening to reading. If you do have visual
the IsSound-based software lets you move with digital ease from one
part of the book to another, from chapter to chapter, paragraph to
paragraph, sentence to sentence. In contrast, a book on audio tape
has a linear stream of sound. "Our technology says there is more
to a book than just the sound," says Hakkinen.
— Barbara Fox
Tavern Road, Suite 301, Ewing 08628.
609-637-0099; fax, 609-984-8048. Home page: www.issound.com.
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