Amazon's Bezos Short-circuits E-books' Great Expectations

Posted: June 11, 2000

CHICAGO — The editorial cartoon projected above keynote speaker Jeff Bezos' head in the Grand Ballroom didn't need an explanation, and the founder of Amazon.com didn't provide one.

"I can't figure out how you caught malaria," a puzzled doctor says to a feverish, sickly looking patient.

"Well," the patient replies, "I did order that mosquito off Amazon.com "

The booksellers in the audience laughed, and Bezos chuckled - actually, he honked - with them. Nearly a thousand strong, mainly owners or employees of independent bookstores, they had come early for the opening educational days of BookExpo America, the annual gathering of about 30,000 book-industry professionals held here at McCormick Place last weekend, a rite of spring in which publishers display and sell their fall and winter wares, and booksellers scrutinize and buy them.

The balding, 36-year-old founder of the first Net bookstore spoke casually and wittily. You could almost hear the collective - if not completely cathartic - sighs in the room when Bezos bluntly stated that the electronic revolution in publishing is "not going to happen in the next two or three years," that "the quality of the display devices still isn't good enough" on e-books, that they're "not ready for prime time," and that paper remains "the world's best display device."

The Amazon.com boss also stripped some of the hype off the much-publicized Stephen King experiment, in which the best-selling novelist released his latest novella, Riding the Bullet, in free, downloadable form. Some commentators declared afterward that the large numbers who downloaded the material proved the existence of a huge market for reading books on the Net, but Bezos, whose own company accounted for 72 percent of the King downloads, didn't interpret the event that way.

"You could have printed that novella on a banana," Bezos told the crowd, "and people would have made time to read it. It is not a demonstration that the technology is ready. Particularly if the banana is free."

Easy for him to say, given his (by one recent count) 117.5 million shares of Amazon.com stock. But persuasive, too - also because of those 117.5 million shares.

The biggest service Bezos provided booksellers in his keynote address proved ironic. Five years ago, the affable Princeton grad represented the scary monster of the publishing future - a bookseller who understood the Net and planned to use it to steal sales from traditional brick-and-mortar shops, including chain stores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble.

This year, Bezos functioned as a calming technological bridge between traditional booksellers and still scarier and newer technological aliens on the horizon. The scariest one is "e-books," which, like the weather, is a notion everyone talks about, but no one completely understands.

"You cannot ignore e-books," Bezos cautioned, "because they are coming." But everyone, he suggested, would have sufficient time to think through his or her business plans.

One reason booksellers are confused about the e-book is unsettled usage. According to Your Guide to the Future of Publishing from Versaware, a "full-service technology partner" in New York and San Francisco that seeks to help traditional publishers digitize their wares, "everyone means something different when they talk about e-books."

Some companies define an "e-book" as any book in electronic form that looks like a real book - that is, exhibits the clarity and resolution of printed pages - when read on a screen. Other companies want to reserve that term for books in electronic form that possess more bells and whistles, such as sound and hyperlinks, than conventional books.

But most people and booksellers - including the book expo itself in its press material - regard "e-book" as shorthand for the handheld computers used to display books in electronic form. (Corporate lexicons are more likely to speak of "e-book readers" when referring to such devices as the Palm or the Glassbook Reader.) At the moment, a variety of competing software aims to make the downloading of books to a screen you already own a normal and acceptable form of publishing distribution.

Jupiter Communications, a leading analyst of e-commerce business, has estimated that the emerging market for e-books could reach $13 billion by 2005. But a recent Arthur Andersen study for the Association of American Publishers projected that same market, also by 2005, at $2.3 billion to $3.4 billion. Bezos poked fun at such numbers churned out by analysts, saying many are "made up out of thin air it's a great business model."

So, liberated by Time magazine's 1999 "Person of the Year" from obsessing exclusively about containers of books rather than content, the publishing masses streamed out toward three days of the activities that customarily define BookExpo America.

Most booksellers understandably tracked the progress of BookSense.com - the e-commerce Web site for hundreds of independent bookstores that will enable them to compete in marketing books over the Internet with Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and other established e-sellers when BookSense launches operations in the fall.

Finally, they sampled next season's highly promoted blockbusters-in-waiting, such as Ted Koppel's memoir Off Camera and Katie Couric's The Brand New Kid.

Still, for those who ventured toward the back of the football-field-size exhibition floor, there was no mistaking a cold, impressive reality, Bezos or no Bezos: scores of dot-com enterprises, many with fancy, sophisticated demonstration areas and press kits, teeming with their own versions of the future.

Microsoft - surprise, surprise - is already seeking to define the field. At a mini-theater set up along one aisle, staffers demonstrated what the company calls its Microsoft Reader software. It offers "ClearType" display technology, which Microsoft says "dramatically improves the resolution of liquid crystal display (LCD) screens" and "brings everything we all love about books" to "PCs, laptops and the Pocket PC," including "uncluttered format."

In other words, you'd never guess it came from Microsoft, king of the intrusive icon. The truth is, it displays pages that look more or less like pages - or at least pages on TV.

But Microsoft may not be able to steamroller its way in this field as easily as it has in some others. Glassbook of Waltham, Mass. also offered a handsome (printed!) Look at the Future of Electronic Books, and its version of the future strangely revolved around Glassbook products. And if we had the infinite lengths of cyberspace to work with, we might run through the on-demand digital book printing companies, the "digital rights management" outfits, and such mellifluously named operations as Xerox Docutech 6180 Book Factory.

So many dot-coms, so little time.

Given the scores of start-ups and established companies strutting their stuff at BookExpo, every press kit boasting of "strategic alliances" with familiar giants such as Microsoft or IBM, it's no surprise that even longtime industry experts acknowledged confusion. Michael Powell, owner of the popular Powell's Bookstores in several cities, told a reporter that he'd expressed his best judgment about trends in the industry on a Wednesday panel, only to realize by Friday that almost everything he'd said was wrong.

That may well have explained the hit Bezos made with booksellers - marketing trumps technology every time.

In fact, Bezos assured the nervous audience that "the physical world is still the best medium ever invented."

Could be. It is certainly, most BookExpo-ers would agree as they rest their noggins this week, a lot easier to understand.

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