Clayton Collins

Will Digital Books Replace Ink and Paper?

Caitlin Lyons labors in the towering stacks as bibliophiles trickle into Boston's Brattle Book Shop. Many are repeat customers, here to browse an eclectic collection -- hundreds of thousands of loosely categorized tomes that spill from these two floors onto outdoor shelves in an empty lot.

It's an avalanche of paper, concedes Ms. Lyons, a recent English major with an ecosensitive streak. She acknowledges that this vast inventory, digitized, could shrink dramatically into an easily managed series of reads on a PC, PDA, or some dedicated device's screen. That, she says, would represent a loss. "Way too many things are becoming technological," she says, cradling a fragile-looking hardback copy of Benjamin Disraeli's "Sybil." "A bookshelf and a study? You can't do that on a disc."

Digital evolution has long since swept the audio and video realms, leaving holdout purists clinging to tubes, vinyl, and film. Holding back the broad digitization of books -- besides the special sensory experience they deliver in their traditional form -- has been a spotty digital inventory and the lack of a dominant device for displaying them.

But as habits change and content inventory nears critical mass (Google, to name one prospective repository, is still wrangling with copyright issues), digital books might finally gain a foothold, observers say -- not as a replacement format, but as an alternative delivery system not unlike the audiobook. Both the publishing industry and the reading public appear to be shaking the notion that for the beloved book, digital equals death.

"Around 2000, I think [publishers] thought there was going to be a brave new world and they were going to have a whole new thing, and I think that's part of what went wrong," says Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. What's clearer now, she says, is "there will be plenty of niches and plenty of space for books in digital form, not so much as a direct competitor, [but] as an added format."

In fact, digital loomed very large in the book-publishing world back at the beginning of this decade. No less than Bill Gates was referring to paper as a "reading 'technology'" nearing obsolescence. Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab was dabbling in "electronic ink." Booths at BookExpo America were crammed with devices from firms of all sizes. Partnerships bubbled.

"There was an enormous outpouring of messianism," says Richard Curtis, president of his eponymous literary agency and founder and president of E-Reads, a publisher of both print and electronic books. "In the next five years there was a backlash as the people involved realized that it was far more complicated than they thought -- technically, in terms of digital-rights management, and culturally." Even big firms such as Warner, with its ipublish, were left with little to show for their investments.

Today, more quietly and with adjusted expectations, the push for digital books has been renewed. Sony is tweaking its 10-month-old Portable Reader tablet. Giant book e-tailer Amazon is plotting its own move into digital sales, with a prototype product in testing.

Year-over-year growth at fictionwise.com, a leading digital-books retailer, moved from a fairly flat 20 percent in 2005 to a projected 28 percent this year, according to Steve Pendergrast, a spokesman. His firm markets its own reader: the eBookwise 1150.

"Sony's marketing grows the entire e-book market and gets people thinking about buying a device," Mr. Pendergrast says. "They shop around, and some percentage of them opt for ours instead of theirs."

Nearly half of his firm's e-book sales are now in romance titles, Pendergrast says, a category that was in low single digits as recently as 2004. Other areas likely to be well served, Ms. Nelson and others say: books with perishable information that are candidates for one-time use -- travel books, for example. The advantages are clear.

"There's portability, flexibility," says Mr. Curtis, who allows that he still likes an old-fashioned book before bed. "Can't read the 10-point type [of an e-book]? Bump it up to 12 points. Load 40 books into a device and carry it to Frankfurt or wherever." Still missing, says Curtis, is that "explosive spark" device that will appeal to a fast-fingered generation.

That means a device ripe for iPod ubiquitousness, industry-watchers say -- perhaps an efficient convergence device served by a content aggregator like audiobook giant Audible.com.

It might involve Apple. Last month, HarperCollins announced a pilot project in which samples of more than a dozen fiction titles could be accessed by users of the iPhone. The publisher said the move would gauge demand for a cellphone format. There are other pockets of promise. E Ink, in Cambridge, Mass., for example, has made recent strides in flexible plastic display screens.

Curtis's small, independent firm has persevered since 1998, he says, kept in the game through sales of print books. "Now the [e-book] industry seems to be established on enough of a basis for us to go on," he says. "We're moving forward aggressively."

Your Little Marketer

Think your talkative, trendy, Web-surfing 13-year-old might have a future in sales? She might already be in business. New forms of peer-to-peer, buzz-marketing campaigns - ignited and fanned by firms - are growing fast.

In a practice still widely unregulated, marketers enlist youths they see as having real sway over friends. The goal? Solicit the help of these influential kids in broadening sales in exchange for products and the promise of a role in deciding what the marketplace will offer.

Review a not-yet-released CD, score free concert tickets. Talk up a movie at a party, earn a DVD. The stakes are high: The 12-to-19 set reportedly spends about $170 billion a year.

Marketers insist their efforts are transparent, that kids' reactions are unscripted, and that word of mouth, done right, is inherently authentic.

At its first conference this week, the new Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) will invite input on an evolving code of ethics aimed, in part, at protecting children.

But opponents call the industry's youth-targeted component the odious next step in the commercialization of childhood, one that eyes ever-younger age groups, bribing them in a bid to cement brand loyalty and prompting them to wring friends for useful market data.

"Some of the forms that [buzz marketing] takes have to do with recruiting kids to be marketers and encouraging them to keep their identities as marketers secret," says David Walsh, president and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF) in Minneapolis. "So kids end up being junior ad people, and they're encouraged not to share this [even] with their friends."

Teens, he says, also often endanger themselves by sharing too much personal information, opening themselves to different kinds of exploitation. NIMF points out that at one marketer-facilitated online community, kids can create their own Old Spice "Girls of the Red Zone" calendar. And that signing up for membership at Soul-Kool.com, one of a handful of buzz-marketing firms that double as online communities, requires entering an instant-messenger address.

The 1998 COPPA law - the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act - guards those under 13 from marketers who would use such data for commercial purposes. NIMF would like to see it extended to cover older teens as well.

For now, self-policing is the rule. And industry insiders don't deny the existence of unscrupulous players. "There are lots of sleazy companies out there; it's absolutely a legitimate concern," says Andy Sernovitz, WOMMA's chief executive.

"[WOMMA] was formed by the companies that do protect kids, to clearly separate who is a responsible marketer and who isn't," says Mr. Sernovitz. He adds that NIMF declined to participate in the drafting of the code or speak at WOMMA's Chicago conference. (Mr. Walsh says his group prefers the broader public forum.)

For marketers, the power of online communities is hard to resist. Tremor.com, a division of Procter & Gamble, which is not a member of WOMMA, takes online teens through a series of screening questionnaires aimed at identifying "connectors," youths with vast social networks.

Only 10 to 15 percent make the grade, says Steve Knox, Tremor's chief executive. Those who do are offered membership and made two promises.

"One, Tremor is going to ... provide you with cool new ideas before your friends have them," says Mr. Knox. The second speaks to teens, who, as a group, feel ignored. "They're filled with great ideas, and they don't think anybody listens to them. So our second promise is: We will give you a voice that will be heard by these companies."

A letter is sent to parents explaining their child's role, Knox says, adding that youths don't receive tangible rewards beyond product samples, which go out in about 30 percent of cases.

Actually, the letter home is nothing more than a placard announcing a child has been selected to influence companies, says Bob Aluja, a professor of marketing at Xavier University in Cincinnati. It is addressed to youths on the assumption it will be passed along to parents. He says he has talked to children who threw away the notice.

The notice intended for parents is also incomplete, asserts Dr. Aluja. "They leave out that they're gathering research information from your child, they leave out that your child will be ... asked to participate in focus groups [for which product manufacturers] will give the child $75 to $150 a month. And they leave out that while they don't tell your child not to tell, they also don't say to the child 'When you go to your friends, let them know that you're working for Tremor.' "

"What these companies are doing is very intrusive, they're penetrating kids' private time," says Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, author of "Talking to Tweens." She counsels parents to hunker down with children in front of the computer. When ads pop up, asking them to take surveys or input personal information, talk about it. "[Ask] 'What do you think they're trying to do?' Just take the child through a growing awareness."

Others maintain that the young have the right to a private world, within reason. "If it's a new brand of deodorant or a new crunchy snack, and they want to feel 'first,' no big deal," says Marian Salzman, author of books on marketing, in an e-mail. "Teens are living in a world where everything is marketing, and part of coming of age is learning to say no."

Still, saying no to friends could mean applying marketing radar to once-safe relationships.

"I have a big issue with the corruption of what is a valuable form of commercial information: disinterested information," says Juliet Schor, a sociologist and author of several books, including "Born to Buy." "The more you do of this, the harder it is to know ... who's marketing to you, and do you have to suspect your friends?"

Once an exchange involves secrecy it is no longer mutually rewarding, says Ms. Schor. "It's a one-way thing in which the 'marketer child' is using the others.... It's teaching children to regard their friends as exploitable assets."

Schor cites the "rhetoric of secrecy" used by marketers such as girlsintelligenceagency.com (GIA), which she says attracts children 8 and even younger, encouraging, for example, product- centered slumber parties. (GIA did not return calls seeking comment.)

Ultimately, word of mouth could itself be the best protection against what some have termed buzzploitation.

"Buzz marketing ... is all about honesty," says Mark Hughes, a marketing consultant and author. "Undercover" marketing, he says, crosses a line from genuine word of mouth to manufactured buzz. That line may become clearer as groups like WOMMA help marketers find consensus on tactics.

Watch groups could then alert parents and youths about firms that cross it, says Mr. Hughes. Good word of mouth spreads fast, he says. "But bad word of mouth spreads about 30 times faster."

The Rise of Amateur Ads

Never mind those $4 million-per-minute Super Bowl commercials honed by ad agency all-stars and approved by corporate chiefs. In an industry built around buzz, the ads humming loudest today are often unauthorized. Even the ad space has gone wackily creative. For example:

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