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E-Books' Promise of Convenience Is More Fiction Than Fact

Downloading glitches and a limited number of titles can foil last-minute plans to curl up for a digital bedtime story. But there's one advantage: no shipping fees.

November 08, 2001|CHRISTINE FREY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On those late nights when I'm looking for a bedtime story, I want to buy a book in my pajamas. But ordering online just isn't good enough because I still have to wait several days for the book to arrive.

E-books promise instant fulfillment.

Theoretically, as soon as I submit my credit card information, I have access to my purchase--a downloadable digital book. Unfortunately, technical complications delayed the delivery for a day or longer two of the three times I ordered e-books.

And the selection of e-books offered online wasn't much better than the titles on my bookshelf. The books available in digital form are largely limited to the classics, mass-market paperbacks and a bunch of obscure titles. A few sites offer more recent works, but the e-books cost almost as much as actual paper books.

The only substantial advantage to buying e-books: no shipping fees.

Before I could download the e-books, I had to download e-book readers. Adobe and Microsoft distribute the two most common programs, both of which are free at the companies' Web sites.

On my home computer with a dial-up connection, the 9.75-megabyte Adobe Acrobat e-book Reader took 32 minutes to download and Microsoft's 3.55-MB Reader took 11 minutes.

After installing the software, I had to activate the readers by registering with Adobe and Microsoft. When I visited the Microsoft Web site, the particular page that I needed was down. I could not activate the reader until the next day.

That was only the beginning of my problems.

Both readers include links to sites that sell compatible e-books. Starting with Adobe's recommendations, I visited eBooks.com at http://www.ebooks.com. After browsing through a few of the titles, I chose a Michael Connelly mystery, "Void Moon," for $4.95.

Once the site accepted my credit card information, it directed me to another page to download the book. When I clicked on the "download" link, however, I received an error message.

According to the site, my license for the book had expired. Thinking that the link was corrupted, I retraced my steps and tried to download the book again, but I got the same error message.

I e-mailed the site's support team and the next day received a form e-mail indicating that someone would personally respond to my inquiry.

The following day, Sinead wrote me. After checking that my license for the book was still valid, Sinead suggested that I clear the cached files in my browser so it would know which page to look for when I tried to download the book again.

It worked. When I returned to the site, it downloaded the book in less than three minutes.

I then visited Amazon at http://www.amazon.com to download a book for the Microsoft reader. For having the "Earth's biggest selection"--as the site boasts--its collection of e-books was disappointing. I wasn't interested in many of the titles, but I finally settled for a Jane Austen novel I hadn't read. "Persuasion" cost $2.69.

After I paid for the book, the site said I would receive an e-mail within half an hour that contained a link from which I could download the book. Thirty minutes later I had yet to receive it, and I decided to go to sleep without a story.

The next morning the e-mail was there, and it took only a few minutes to download.

Once I had gotten both readers to work, I wanted to find more e-books.

At Powell's, at http://www.powells.com, I found several books that had come out earlier this year. I was just about to download Jennifer Weiner's "Good in Bed" when I realized the site sells only e-books compatible with specific RCA hand-held devices.

Previewport also had several titles I was interested in, including the current New York Times bestseller "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen. I tried to purchase the book, but the site, at http://www.previewport.com, said it could not take me to a secure page to complete the process. When I resubmitted my credit card information, I received the error message a second time and decided to move on to Barnes & Noble.

After looking through the site's current-events e-books (all 11 of them), I selected the "more current events e-books" link, hoping for some additional options. Instead of displaying more titles, however, the site, at http://www.barnesandnoble.com, presented a list of subjects--fiction, art, business and so on--from which I could choose. I clicked on the "current events" link, thinking I would receive a list of e-books this time, but the site gave me a list of actual books, none of which came in digital form.

Thoroughly annoyed, I finally decided to check out the e-books available from the Adobe site. (Microsoft does not sell e-books directly.)

Of all the sites I visited, it had the most impressive collection, including several books that had just been published. One of those books, "Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds" by Gary M. Pomerantz, I had yet to buy in hardback, so I got the digital version from Adobe for $15.96.

It downloaded in less than five minutes. Now I'm going to curl up in bed with my computer and e-book.

*

Christine Frey covers personal technology. She can be reached atchristine.frey@latimes.com.

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