September 3, 2002, 12:00 AM

E-books that consumers really can take to the beach

Two e-book sites are reporting strong demand for books to download to handheld devices, making e-books as portable as the real thing.

Internet Retailer

Now that hand-held computing devices are widespread-14 million in use around the world, going up to 17 million this year, reports Gartner Inc.-e-book growth may follow. In fact, eBooks.com and Fictionwise.com say they are seeing stepped up demand for digital books downloaded to hand-held devices.

Both retailers, working with technology provider OverDrive.com, have expanded their e-book inventories to include hundreds of titles in the Microsoft Corp.’s Microsoft Reader format, which enables consumers to download and read e-books on hand-held devices as well as laptops and desktop PCs. Fictionwise also offers e-books for hand-helds from Palm Inc., which offers the format most popular among its hand-held customers.

Scott Pendergrast, co-owner of New Jersey-based Fictionwise.com, says the new capability is helping Fictionwise handle growth of e-book sales. “Fictionwise sells over 15,000 e-books a month now, and about 75% are read on PDAs,” he says.

“Part of our strategy is to offer as many e-books as possible in a wide selection of formats,” Pendergrast says. Fictionwise makes encrypted titles available in two formats, Mobipocket and Microsoft Reader, and unencrypted titles in eight formats. Mobipocket is a hand-held reader software system from France-based Mobipocket.com SA that is designed to operate on all PDAs.

Pendergrast says Palm formats are the most popular among Fictionwise customers, followed by Microsoft Reader (Pocket PC) and Adobe PDF files. Adobe is used only for laptops and desktop PCs.

Suzanne Cole, manager of acquisitions and publisher relations at Australia-based eBooks.com, says her company has received enthusiastic response from customers interested in e-books formatted for hand-held devices, which account for 32% of sales. The company, which does 86% of its business in North America, says it expects handheld-driven sales to continue growing, but to eventually reach a plateau because many of its books are educational/professional titles better suited for full-graphic, PC interface.

Whether or not PDAs are driving the interest, the e-book industry overall is experiencing strong growth. Sales at eBooks.com, for example, rose 36.7.% in July over June; the company reported average monthly growth of 21% from December to June. “The e-book world looks a lot better than it has since October 2000,” says eBooks.com founder Stephen Cole. “The available range of books is growing exponentially, the technology has stabilized, prices are dropping and consumer adoption is swelling almost daily.”

A study last month by the Open e-book Forum reported:

-- Random House Inc.’s e-book revenues doubled year-over-year in 2001. During the first quarter of 2002, revenues were the highest since the company began selling e-books in 1998.

-- HarperCollins’ e-book imprint, PerfectBound, sold more e-books in the first five months of 2002 than in all of 2001.

-- Average monthly downloads of Adobe Acrobat e-book Reader have increased by 70% from 2001 to 2002.

-- Simon & Schuster’s e-book sales grew in double digits from the first half of 2001 to the first half of 2002.

l Over 5 million copies of Microsoft Reader have been distributed for desktop, notebook and Pocket PC systems.

-- Palm Digital Media reports that nearly 180,000 e-books were sold in 2001, up more than 40% from 2000.

-- In 2002, McGraw-Hill Professional e-book sales are up 55% over the same period last year.

Fictionwise.com’s sales grew 400% last year, Pendergrast says. The company is experiencing growth in members as well. “We have over 50,000 members and are growing at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 a month,” he says.

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