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Reader's CHOICE .... Despite the limited selection, e-books are taking off at libraries, universities and online retailers, (July 11, 2001).

SPEAKING OF "Brave New World," are you ready to download and read the sci-fi classic off a digital screen? Some people certainly are: The 1932 novel sold 200,000 print copies in the past year, and 1,000 electronic versions.

At a University of Virginia Web site, more than 3 million copies of e-books, including many written by literary allstars such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain and Poe, have been downloaded for free in the past 10 months. It is the only place - digital or dead tree - to find transcripts of the Salem Witchcraft Trials, which have been out of print for 30 years.

The Virginia experiment is so successful that it may revive many lost American classics. Now commercial book Web sites such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon are following UVa's lead by offering free editions of uncopyrighted works and are scouring the rare-book rooms for new material.

"Our experience shows that people find the technology persuasive. There can be no doubt now about the demand," said David Seaman, director of the electronic text center at the University of Virginia library.

Although there are several academic sites that allow many of the same titles to be searched or browsed online, the University of Virginia was the first, beginning in August, to allow downloads.

"If by Christmas we couldn't give away these titles, such as the Bible and Dickens," then UVa would know that the public was not ready for electronic books, said Seaman. By the end of 2000, they were averaging 9,470 downloads a day.

The small number of e-books in circulation still doesn't stack up anywhere near the 2 billion plus copies of print books sold every year. However, e-book proponents argue that it is still an impressive number considering that only 1 percent of all personal computers, laptops and digital notebooks are equipped with software that would make it possible to read e-books. Soon most new computing devices will come with such reading software already loaded.

"When that happens, there will be exponential growth," said Arthur Klebanoff, a longtime literary agent and the founder of Rosetta Books, which publishes as well as sells e-books. "They have to have the razors before you can sell them the razor blades." These devices, such as Microsoft's Tablet, due to be released next year, will be e-readers as well as portable entertainment and work units that will send e-mail, play music and keep appointment calendars.

"It comes down to a simple, prosaic issue: There just aren't many machines out there that people can read e-books on," said Michael Fragnito, president of, the online division of Barnes & Noble.

"Until they are in the marketplace, I don't think the market is going to grow with any rapidity," he said, estimating the boom will come within two years. Currently, some c-books can be read only on certain machines with proprietary software such as Gemstar. Others are available in the widely used Adobe Reader and Microsoft Reader software.

While free e-books are popular, that still doesn't mean that consumers will ever be willing to pay for them.

"Consumers don't want to pay a lot for e-books," said Barrie Rappaport, senior account executive for Ipsos-NPD BookTrends, a leading market researcher for the book industry. She said recent research shows that 77 percent of online readers think e-books should cost less than paperbacks and hardcovers. "Books don't just show up in people's computers, but the consumer doesn't see the infrastructure and costs that gets that to work," she said. Digital versions of newly released e-books are priced about the same as a hardcover. For example, Amazon is selling Stephen King's "Dreamcatcher" at $16.80 for hardcover; the downloaded version costs $16.95.

While consumers wait for reading devices to get cheaper and easier to use, the emphasis is on content: what people will read and how to convert millions of print books to digital files. This fall, will offer a new novel, "The Book of Counted Sorrows," by Dean Koontz, which initially is being published only in digital form. After is relaunched, the site will offer 10 to 15 original books a month, according to Fragnito.

Publishers are also speeding up the conversion of print books to digital files. When netLibrary, a provider of digital books, began selling them to public libraries 2 1/2 years ago, it had to foot the bill for converting more than half of the 45,000 titles it offered. In the past year, the 20,000 new titles added to netLibrary's list were converted by the publishers.

"Now they are at least willing to do it, and some are downright eager to offer us a digital version," said Marge Gannon, director of marketing for netLibrary, which is based in Boulder, Colo.

One reason for the delay in the conversion of older books to digital files is the fight over who actually owns the digital rights to thousands of books that authors sold to publishers decades ago. Most standard book contracts were silent on digital rights until the early 1990s.

Pushing that issue is Klebanoff, who shocked the book world in February when Rosetta began selling downloads of popular books, including "Slaughterhouse Five," "Sophie's Choice" and "The Promised Land." Klebanoff, who also owns the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, had persuaded marquee authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron and Robert Parker to sell him the digital rights to their eight most popular works.

The day after the Rosetta site went live, Random House went to federal court in Manhattan, contending that it owned the digital rights to those books, and also asked for an injunction against Rosetta from offering any more of the 20,000 titles on its back list.

"We believe that we control the publishing rights to our back list, our older titles. They are not avaiable for a nonRandom House publisher to apply for their own needs," said Stuart Appelbaum, a spokesman for Random House Inc.

Rosetta attorney Michael Boni argues that the interpretation of the word "book" in the standard contract that gives a publisher the right to "print, publish or sell in book form" should be given a very narrow interpretation. A hearing in the case was held in May before U.S. District Court Judge Sidney Stein, who has yet to issue a ruling.

Although there is lingering disillusionment in some quarters of the book industry because e-books stumbled when they were introduced last year, the consensus now is that e-books is a concept with a shelf life. While they may not transform publishing and reading, at the very least, they will be another format, such as the audio books, which are now used by one-fifth of all households.

"It has been overhyped in the past and now it has been underhyped," said Peggy Smyth, head of Arthur Andersen's media and entertainment division. "One in 10 people are reading e-books, but the key is that younger people are really gravitating toward it," said Smyth, who said the market for e-books should double in the next few years.

"They may not be for everyone, but certain genres of book publishing are going to the e-book," said Smyth, predicting that one of the earliest would be textbooks that would be downloaded to student laptop devices. "It would be nice to have textbooks with up-to-date information, books listing George W. Bush as the president of the United States," said Smyth, adding that one look at kids' bulging backpacks tells you this makes sense.

UVa's Seaman said that although a fair amount of traffic on his site is from high school students wanting "Macbeth," "the bulk of it is the general public looking for something to read. There is a gap between the emerging market and the publishers' willingness to feed it." Soon after his experiment, Amazon and Barnes&Noble started offering free e-books on their Web sites.

Seaman said one of the "wonderful" consequences is that his group and commercial sites are now seeking worthy books, with expired copyrights, that have been neglected by publishers, such as fiction in the early 1800s. "There were a lot of bestsellers," he said. "It was an active literary time," which featured works by authors such as Montgomery Bird, a contemporary of Nathaniel Hawthorne and James Fenimore Cooper. "These are books that are not in print.

They are not even in rare-book rooms," he said.

"The real excitement is in finding a lot of books that sort have been lost from the public view for a long time," said Fragnito of He said there is also a lot of great nonfiction such as biography, travel and military writing waiting to be reclaimed by the reading public.

When the Barnes & Noble Web site is relaunched this fall, it will offer 25 to 40 titles in the public domain. However, it will charge for the downloads because it is asking academics to write introductions that would explain the books' significance.

The popularity of e-books at libraries is also an early indication of the staying power of e-books.

"I think for most people who are not trailblazers in buying new things, the library offers an opportunity for people to have access to electronic books," said George Coe, vice president of Baker and Taylor, a giant wholesaler of books to public libraries.

Since January, patrons of most public libraries in Nassau and all of those in Suffolk, Brooklyn and Queens have been using netLibrary, which allows them to read, search or print from a limited selection of self-help or reference books from their homes. The libraries, which purchase the netLibrary service, then set the rules for how patrons can access it. Some let anyone with a library card use it from home, others require the patron to specifically sign up for it.

"We see providing digital content as an essential part of our services," said Sofia Sequenzia, deputy director of public services for the Brooklyn Public Library. She said that without a lot of publicity or awareness of netLibary services, some of the e-books already have been "checked out" five to 10 times since January. "That is not bad at all," she said.

Though most of those downloads are to personal computers and laptops, dozens of Long Island libraries are also lending for free the devices designed exclusively for some e-book companies. The Patchogue-Medford library has a three-week wait to check out these readers, often loaded with 10 titles. "There is very high patron demand for ebook titles," said Deborah Wiesehan, the library's director. She said patrons, mostly ages 18 to 35, are frustrated because there are so few titles available.

Christine Lind Hage, an official of the American Library Association who monitors e-book developments, said librarians tell her that patrons are curious about e- books. "They are not specifically looking for the title, they are looking for the format," said Hage. And usually they are disappointed.

"It is hard to get fired up about the Cliffs Notes of 'Hamlet'; they want John Grisham or Stephen King," said Hage, who is also the director of a suburban Detroit library.

Coe of Baker and Taylor said there is no way of knowing how many digital books are available, but he estimated a universe of 75,000. His company, the primary seller of print books to libraries, offers them 3.8 million titles. Of those, only 3,200 are digital.

However, at June's annual convention of the American Library Association, Baker and Taylor previewed "ED," a new service that will offer 12,000 digital books when it debuts in January.

With "ED," library patrons can access their books, from home at any time, to search through reference material. "Suppose you wanted to learn how to make lasagna. You can choose five Italian cookbooks, search for lasagna and then print out the recipes," said Coe, who said he expects that 2 percent to 3 percent of the $2 billion a year that public libraries spend on paper books will soon be diverted to developing electronic collections.

"There will still be a paper edition of a book that is in circulation, but when it has to be replaced or more copies of it are ordered, then they will turn to e-books," said Coe. "We are coming to a time when a book will never go out of print." Free Dowloads The top 12 book titles downloaded from the University of Virginia's digital library between Aug. 8 and May 31: Alice in Wonderland 18,630 Aesop's Fables 15,506 The War of the Worlds 11,834 The Origin of Species 9,768 Around the World in Eighty Days 9,515 Macbeth 9,230 Beowulf* 9,076 The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin 8,372 Romeo and Juliet 7,089 The Hound of the Baskervilles 6,825 Hamlet 6,724 Commentaries on the Gallic and Civil Wars 5,339 *Modern English translation SOURCE: University of Virginia; Photo courtesy of the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia

Rita Ciolli.