LAKE FOREST — David Mann turned his passion for reading and his love of computers into a business.
In 1991, he co-founded SoftBooks Inc., a Lake Forest company that makes electronic books.
"I always wanted to be a publisher," said Mann, 36, president of the company. "I read about a book a week. I decided to combine my technical and literature interests."
Mann, a computer consultant who attended UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton, teamed up with some friends from UCI to publish books on floppy computer disks or CD-ROMs.
The CD-ROM--compact disc, read-only memory--is based on the same optical technology as the music compact disc.
Besides music, CD-ROMs can store vast quantities of text, video and computer animation--more than 600 times the amount on a typical floppy computer disk and enough space for hundreds of books.
Electronic books have been staples in science fiction novels for years. But getting people to read CD-ROM books hasn't been easy. A book is something to curl up with on the couch; desktop computers aren't so cozy.
But software companies have begun publishing engrossing titles that take advantage of CD-ROMs' dazzling animation and video features. At the same time, prices for the CD-ROM drives required to read books electronically have fallen. About half of the personal computers sold this year will be equipped with CD-ROM drives.
"The early electronic books focused on quantity, not quality," said Bruce Ryon, multimedia analyst for market researcher Dataquest Inc. in San Jose. "They put mounds of text on a disk, and little else."
Ryon isn't predicting the death of the paper book. But CD-ROMs are becoming an affordable alternative for some people, he said.
SoftBooks wasn't the first on the market with electronic books. World Library Inc. in Garden Grove in 1990 launched the first of its "Library of the Future" series, which contains the text of hundreds of books on a single CD-ROM. Such works have paved the way for other publishers to go electronic.
"We take your standard paperbound book and add the enhancements of multimedia," Mann said. "We complement the paper book by adding dynamic interactive lessons, video clips and audio."
"Quick and Easy Spanish," published in 1991 as the company's first title, has 2,000 pages of lessons and illustrations, plus about 20 video clips. It sells for $49.95.
The book shows video segments of someone pronouncing a word so that the reader can learn proper pronunciation. The books can flip pages automatically and repeat lessons that must be memorized.
With sales of CD-ROM drives gaining momentum, Softbooks is poised to benefit. Its seven titles are laid out much like paper books, with pages, indexes and tables of contents. Much of the initial work that Mann did was to create an interface that is easy to use and also supplies researchers with any necessary page and source documentation needed for footnotes.
"With our books, you don't need to learn how to use software," Mann said. "That's a contrast to companies out there that create complicated software that makes you spend more time learning how to use it than reading it. Once a person reads one of our books, they pick up any other one."
Mann is beginning a campaign to get publishers of electronic books to adopt his software interface as a standard. He is making his software code available to publishers for free so that a simple standard for electronic books can emerge.
"That is the only way we will get more people to read electronic books," he said. "We want to use the technology to add features like video and audio, not to get them lost in a computer program."
With his computer program already written for the book format, Mann said, he can publish an electronic book within a month after an author approaches him. The main chore is electronically typesetting the book, a process for which Mann created an automated program.
So far, the formula has spelled success. Though the privately held company does not disclose sales or profit figures, Mann said that revenue increases have allowed the business to grow consistently.
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