The best thing since Gutenberg?

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The e-book revolution is near, says the former c.e.o. of Random House. Nicholas Clee reports</p><p>
The organisers of the Frankfurt eBook Awards were in London this week, promoting the awards to journalists, publishers and agents. Those who wonder what kind of an impression this initiative can make in its first year should note that the chairman of the International eBook Award Foundation is Alberto Vitale, former chairman and c.e.o. of Random House, and that he is putting his considerable energy and authority behind it.</p><p>
"I believe very strongly that e-books are the most startling and exciting development since Gutenberg," he says.</p><p>
The awards, which will be presented on 20th October at the Frankfurt Book Fair, have a total fund of $150,000 (&pound;93,750). A grand prize of $100,000 (&pound;62,500) will go to the best original e-book, and there are $10,000 (&pound;6,250) prizes for the best original fiction and non-fiction e-books, the best works of fiction and non-fiction converted to e-book, and for technological achievement.</p><p>
Submissions must be available in Glassbook, Rocket eBook, Softbook or Microsoft Reader formats. The judges will include the science writer James Gleick, the historian Daniel J Boorstin and Walter Mosley, author of the Easy Rawlins novels.</p><p>
While the e-book market is in a very early stage of development, and dedicated reading devices are not yet widely available, there has been a flurry of activity this year as publishers, booksellers, distributors and authors prepare for the revolution to come. Stephen King was the first mainstream bestseller to publish straight to e-book, and Douglas Adams is to follow suit (The Bookseller, 16th June).</p><p>
A further sign of the impetus behind e-books is the commitment of software giant Microsoft, developer of the Reader format and the largest funder of IeBAF, which also has backing from NuvoMedia, Softbook Press, Contentville, Glassbook and others. In addition to administering the awards, the foundation aims to promote e-books in general, and to be a source of information for the publishing and writing community.</p><p>
IeBAF's president and executive director is Roxanna Frost, who has a background in librarianship and who previously worked in Microsoft's emerging technologies group. "At some point," she says, "you have to put a stake in the ground. These awards will be an exciting way of stimulating the industry."</p><p>
Mr Vitale is keen to get across the message that content holders should commit themselves to electronic publishing early. "Maybe the UK is about a year behind the US. But what's a year?" He also suggests that, with goodwill, new business models may be devised that will satisfy all parties involved in the creation and dissemination of texts: splits of revenues between authors, publishers and distributors. "There should be initial agreements, which are subject to review."</p><p>
He believes that the proposed direct sale of Stephen King's next e-book will be unusual, and that publishers will have as great a role in electronic publishing as they do in producing and selling printed books. "Consumers will need more guidance than ever before, and authors will continue to need editors," he argues. "As e-books develop, the name of the publishing house will have more weight."</p><p>
Mr Vitale suggests that we are witnessing the creation of a huge additional market for publishers' output. "In the next five to seven years, the book business will grow, but at a slow pace. But it could be that the electronic book market will have reached the same size."</p><p>
Publicity for the Frankfurt eBook Awards in the UK is being handled by Midas (020 7584 7474).</p><p>
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