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Also being revived are questions about traditional publishers’ exclusivity over their authors’ works. When Simon & Schuster made Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet available through online booksellers and e-book hardware and software firms, one site was pointedly excluded: Fatbrain.com. Since last fall, Fatbrain has been posting works it brands as “eMatter”: original fiction and nonfiction ranging from 10 to 100 pages (lengths that many people will be willing to print out). Subsequently designating the site for such pieces MightyWords.com, Fatbrain has targeted a segment of publishing that falls between magazines and books, where the modern economics of print have all but shut out a once-thriving sector of short stories and novellas. Simon & Schuster saw Fatbrain as a rival.

Fatbrain’s brief history shows how quickly e-book business plans and branding can change. A mere six months after launching the eMatter trademark and drawing attention to the similarly named Web site, Fatbrain decided to let its trademark lapse. “MightyWords was a name that could ring through to our professional audience, while eMatter is a generic term for the range of electronic documents we are publishing,” explains Judy Kirkpatrick, executive vice president and general manager of MightyWords. Already the eMatter 10-to-100-page category encompasses many of e-book publishing’s early milestones, including King’s Riding the Bullet. Simon & Schuster may not like it, but Fatbrain’s publication of an eMatter essay by science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke was the inspiration for King to test the digital publishing waters. Also fitting the eMatter designation: Eric Rowe’s 91-page A Potter’s Geology.

King and Rowe have something else in common: an abiding belief in the importance of traditional books. King has been widely quoted as stating: “I don’t think anything will replace the printed word and the bound book. Not in my lifetime, at least.” For Rowe, too, it’s not a question of digital books supplanting analog ones. “For some kinds of book,” he says, “the aesthetic pleasure of having the object in the hand will be difficult to replace.”

It should come as no surprise that proponents of e-books are not out to eliminate paper publishing. After all, most e-books attempt to replicate traditional books’ content and appearance. For the most part, e-books can be printed out with only minimal loss of information (primarily broken hypertext links). And for all their seeming differences, print and electronic publishers are putting out similar content. Eventually, digital downloads seem destined to become just one more format for readers, one more step on the convenience/cost continuum from hardcover to paperback to e-book.

At some point in the future, however, e-books and print are bound to diverge. Lurking amidst e-publishing today is the notion of multimedia books that seamlessly incorporate hypertext, sound and animation. A hypertext branching narrative in a novel or a history book, for instance, would be impossible to reproduce in a book.

A glimmer of tomorrow’s multimedia books, or m-books, may be discerned in a dark-horse contender among e-publishing file formats called TK3. Introduced by Night Kitchen-a New York startup headed by Voyager Co. co-founder Bob Stein-TK3 is the basis for a sophisticated literary software environment. The Night Kitchen TK3 Reader offers the most booklike reading experience on a desktop or laptop computer screen-complete with highlighting, corner-folding bookmarks, even Post-it-like “stickie notes.” And TK3’s easy-to-use multimedia authoring tools are meant, according to Stein, “to empower a new generation of authors who want to express themselves in the new media.” Using this hyperlink-sound-and-motion superset of traditional books to express themselves, such a new generation of authors would hasten Stein’s prediction that “the locus of intellectual discourse will shift from the print medium to the electronic medium.”

For now, the advent of e-books means not replacing print, but supplementing it-redefining publishing economics and opening the way for authors whose work has been kept from appearing between book covers. If e-books do nothing more, regardless of the success or lack thereof of new gadgetry to display them, this technology will have a profound effect on what we read and what we think.

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