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ELECTRONIC BOOKS : We Have Seen the Future, and It Beeps

August 29, 1993|DAVID KIPEN | David Kipen is the editor of the "Film Producers, Studios, Agents and Casting Directors Guide" (Lone Eagle Publishing)

Even computer people agree that we'll be reading print on paper for at least 10 more years--which is an eternity in the computer world.

--Michael Crichton, "Electronic Life" (1983)

Earlier this month I drove out to the headquarters of Voyager, a young electronic publishing company in Santa Monica, to see how books on computer will soon be revolutionizing all our lives. There was a hand-lettered sign on the door. "Sorry," it read. "The demonstration scheduled for tonight will have to be rescheduled. There has been a power failure."

All the blackouts in the world may not keep electronic publishing from someday changing how we read. To be sure, there will always be purists who wax rhapsodic over the mystical properties of vellum and ink. You know these people. They're the ones who predicted that word processors would be the death of real writing, and who now call to say, "Sorry I haven't written, but my Mac's in the shop."

The rest of us want to know the same things about electronic books we always want to know about some sexy new technology: What's it do, what's it cost and what's it going to be marked down to the week after we buy it?

Easy answers first. An electronic book costs anywhere between $19.95 and $5,000, depending on whether you have a personal computer to read one on. With an Apple Macintosh, or, even better, with a laptop Mac Powerbook (a battery powered personal computer) it is now perfectly possible to read an entire book without ever once touching paper.

If you happen to be allergic to wood pulp, it's easy to see where something like this might come in handy. If not, come read over my shoulder while I put a Voyager "Expanded Book," "The Picture of Dorian Gray"--through its paces.

Just as USA today is sold in vending boxes designed to look like TV sets (white boxes on black stands with rounded corners), expanded books, or EBs, as they are called, come in packages designed to look like books. In both cases, the intent is not to deceive but to reassure. Smaller than hardbacks yet larger than mass market softcover, EBs resemble thinner, lighter trade paperbacks, complete with cover art. Take off the shrink-wrap, though, and the unfolded package looks a lot like a greeting card with a 3 1/2" floppy disk for a punch line.

Tucked billfold-style inside the greeting card are the simple, four-step installation instructions. Fittingly for an EB, these four steps also expand: into five, six, two and two sub-steps, respectively. Like turning on a computer, performing these 15 sub-steps takes almost an hour the first time, and almost no time from then on.

Of course, opening a regular, old-fashioned book takes exactly one step, and won't show up your electric bill next month, either. But traditional books don't have nifty electronic bookplates inviting you--backspace: make that "obliging you"--to type in your name. Presumably this is some kind of anti-piracy precaution, but I reacted to it with a wariness usually reserved for pizza-delivery outfits wanting to know my phone number. Under Ex Libris, I carefully typed in the name of "Ned Ludd," the early 19th-Century Leicestershire workman dedicated to the sabotage of all labor-saving machinery.

Instantly, "This book belongs to Ned Ludd" flashed up in a corner of the screen. I felt ashamed, as if I'd just been caught teaching a parrot how to swear. To make matters worse, Oscar Wilde's face, propped on one hand and looking extremely dubious, now stared out at me from a kind of pointillistic frontispiece.

Chastened, I tried to turn the page.

Page-turning in a book without any pages takes some getting used to. To turn a page, one presses the down key. Pages appear one at a time instead of the familiar two, and contain fewer than 20 lines. Since most books published nowadays run about 40 lines to a page, this makes for some very high page counts. "The Picture of Dorian Gray," for example--248 pages in Penguin paperback--tips the scales at 491 in electronic form. A Mac powerbook, with two expanded books inside, still weighs less than Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy."

Electronic pages also pose the same design problem movies on video do: how to fit a rectangular image onto a square screen. Movies, wider than they are tall, are formatted as a "letter-box" band across the center of the video screen. Because books are taller than they are wide, EB designers have resorted to a kind of vertical letter-boxing--perhaps key-holing would be a better term.

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