The fledgling e-book market took two giant steps forward last week with the announcements that Thomson will offer e-book readers later this year and that the first major e-book title -- from author Stephen King -- became an instant smash hit.
The New York Times reported that in the first day of selling earlier this week, the Stephen King novella, Riding the Bullet, had received 400,000 orders via the Internet. The title was released only online from such websites as Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. Some of the copies were offered for free and some for $2.50 each.
Almost simultaneous with the new King release was an announcement from Thomson and Gemstar that Thomson will begin selling e-books licensing Gemstar technology.
Thomson said that compared to the current consumer e-book reader on the market -- the Rocket eBook by NuvoMedia (recently purchased by Gemstar), which sells for $199 to $269 -- its new e-book readers would be more affordable, with added features. Thomson said it would develop a new version of both the Rocket eBook and a commercial e-book from Softbook Press, also recently purchased by Gemstar.
Jim Meyer, senior executive VP of New Media Services for Thomson, said his company entered the digital consumer electronic book publishing business because "we believe there is a compelling business to be made in offering affordable electronic books and services. We can bring the entire e-book category within reach of more people and more rapidly. And with our growing services business, we expect to realize revenue every time that content as a new title is downloaded into an electronic book."
Specifically, Thomson expects to release two series of e-book readers that will offer improvements in size, weight and functionality over the current models. The Rocket eBook series, aimed to novel readers on the go, will include a paperback-size reader weighing less than 1 pound with a 5.6-inch monochrome backlit touchscreen. It can store dozens of books and has a battery life of 20 to 40 hours of continuous reading. It would also have MP3 capability.
The Softbook Reader will be a higher-end version, smaller than a magazine and aimed to those who wish to read a full range of text materials, including magazines. It will have an 8.2-inch color LCD screen and built-in 56K modem.
Both Thomson and Gemstar said they would launch an advertising campaign later this year to promote consumer awareness of the e-book category. Although small, the e-book market has undergone a staggering upheaval in only the past three months, as various players jockey for position in what could be a major e-commerce and consumer electronics segment.
This week, textbook e-commerce site Fatbrain announced it would begin selling consumer e-book publications under a new division called MightyWords.
In January, Gemstar purchased NuvoMedia and Softbook Press (the two leading e-book makers), and in February, NetLibrary announced plans to acquire Peanutpress, which sells books to consumers via the Internet. NetLibrary, which sells books to institutions, started with an offering of seven e-books in 1999 and now offers more 13,700 titles (excluding the Peanutpress library).
According to Rawlinson, the market for e-books will grow as screen technology improves. Currently, PDAs in the Palm Computing platform and the new Microsoft-based PocketPC platform (due for release this spring) are able to download e-books.
Analyst Jupiter Communications, New York, N.Y., estimates 600,000 e-book readers (excluding PDAs) will sell this year, reaching 1.3 million in 2001 and 3 million in 2003.