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It took a contemporary master of macabre thrillers to awaken the media and public to the existence of e-books. This spring, with great fanfare, Simon & Schuster brought out a novella by Stephen King called Riding the Bullet-the first work by a best-selling author released exclusively for electronic publication, to be read only on computerized screens, not paper. King’s stunt made headlines and magazine covers, and the tsunami of demand for downloads of this e-book crashed Web sites and traditional publishing assumptions.

But the future of e-books may have less to do with Stephen King than with Eric Rowe and other less well-known authors. Rowe is a British potter who lives in the South of France, drawn there by the region’s clays and minerals, which have been mined for stoneware since Roman times. To help ceramists in other areas unearth their own raw materials, he wrote A Potter’s Geology. But he couldn’t find a book publisher in England for his manuscript. This was just too specialized a topic for a publisher in any one country. Still, Rowe was certain that there would be interest in his book from potters everywhere.

Half a world away, in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Tony Hansen read about A Potter’s Geology from a posting by Rowe in a ceramists’ online discussion group. Hansen owns Digitalfire, a company specializing in software for calculations in ceramic chemistry. Hansen offered to publish Rowe’s book electronically, selling the text on the Web as digital files in the Portable Document Format (PDF). PDF files are displayable on any Windows, DOS, Mac or Unix computer screen (and easily printed out) using the Acrobat reader software, downloadable free from Adobe Systems.

“I said I’d rather have my manuscript printed first,” Rowe recalls. But Hansen won him over by pointing out that e-publication would produce immediate worldwide distribution. Now the book can be downloaded from the Web and viewed on any personal computer. Readers of the e-book can search the entire book and zoom in on high-resolution photos-even contact the author via an online hyperlink. The economics look good too: E-books require no printing, binding, inventory or shipping costs, allowing these savings to be passed on to the author in the form of higher royalties. A Potter’s Geology has sold only a few dozen copies, but Rowe is optimistic: “It won’t be something that sells fast, but over a long time. It’s not a subject that will go out of date. Even so, in digital format it’s easy to update or improve.”

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