Onboard the eOriented Express

For much of my youth, we didn't have a television. This marked us. My family, unusual in many respects, bore a conspicuous blemish the shape of a television's absence. Instead, we had bookshelves—lots of them. As a result, I was woefully out of step with much of the essential childhood knowledge, like which toy I had to have based on the commercials that ran during "Captain Kangaroo." I also read far too many books, some scandalously outside some teachers' narrow "appropriateness" boundaries. Once, given a seventh grade reading list, I said I'd already read every book on it the teacher called me a liar outright. Impossible that my mother had left The Outsiders just sitting on a shelf at home for me to read at my leisure, I guess.

So you find the bibliophile before you extolling the virtues of econtent, which promises—as if one of our culture's greatest aspirations—to put an end to paper. But if I mourn the passing of literary leisure, I mourn something that ended before my time. Yes, some still read for pleasure, but as a society, we are expected to ingest ever more information and, as such, seek the most expedient means to slurp up what we need to know. Without a doubt, the browser/search engine combination has caused a tectonic shift in the way we expect to locate and consume the information we seek. When pressed to know, we search and find. Then we can use "find in document" to skim for terms that further simplify the task of gleaning just enough to hurry us on to the next thing. Reading reduced to the intellectual equivalent of a rushed noon-time buffet.

Oh, but there are advantages. Expected to keep an eye on as many technological trends as I am, I have become a world-class keyword skimmer. At lunch with Quinn Daly and Jim Till from Xythos the other day, we nibbled on a few of the industry's topics du jour, one of which was BarnesandNoble.com's decision to discontinue eBook sales. Statistically, it seems a strange time to jump ship. According to the Online eBook Forum (OeBF), retailers report that sales of ebooks are up on all counts: revenues are up 30%, unit sales are up 40% (as compared with only 5% in traditional publishing), and the number of titles available has climbed 144%.

Regardless of ebooks' mixed signals, the ebook imprint of HarperCollins, PerfectBound, remains bullish on digital publishing's future. Sean Abbot, the imprint's editorial director says, "We think ebooks will be even bigger than audio and we're very heartened by the trend we're seeing in ebooks and the digital publishing world in general." But his enthusiasm bears a significant caveat: "Overall, ebooks must be published—not just digitized."

That distinction hearkens back to the Web's early days, when companies simply posted existing promotional material on semi-static sites. We quickly noticed the info-hopping tendencies of Web readers and made sites dynamic, interactive, and filled with links to provide additional information and context. PerfectBound, says Abbot, seeks to "enhance the reader's experience and yes, change the reader's experience." There are ways, according to Abbot, "to exploit ebook technology that deliver to the reader things they would not have access to otherwise." The company made a significant e-investment this year by releasing an Agatha Christie ebook collection tailored to ereading tastes shaped by electronic media experience: before readers even get to the TOC, PerfectBound offers a link to ebook extras. One novel, They Came to Baghdad, includes a link to an essay about Christie's life in Baghdad.

When an author like Christie—who conjures up images of a leisurely read while sitting in the parlor sipping tea—starts getting downloaded for reading on PDAs, our reading habits have definitely changed. Abbot's reading habits certainly have: He packed dozens of books on a long-distance bike ride last year—trekking up and down the Canadian Rockies with a library loaded on his PDA. He also "use[s] ebook technology to the fullest," he says, by digitally highlighting passages and writing notes.

Abbot emphasizes that PerfectBound functions much like any other imprint, with marketing strategies and business plans, but says they are always looking for ways to leverage the medium to enhance the reading experience. "The future of publishing is electronic," says Abbot. "I feel very fortunate to be part of the action." So do I.