Electronic books always seem to have a good story to tell but have so far failed to produce a happy ending. So travellers are still hauling hefty paperbacks around on holidays and business trips.

What e-books promise is vast amounts of reading material in a single lightweight package that will not weigh you down. But their drawbacks have stopped them catching on. Now, however, publishers are hoping the ebook’s time may have finally come.

Like many publishers, Random House made a foray into e-books at the turn of the decade, says Fionnuala Duggan, interactive director at Random House UK, but then things went quiet. “It wasn’t for lack of thought or interest – it’s just because the consumer market didn’t happen,” she explains.

This is mostly because of technology limitations. Readers tend to consume fiction in particular ways – curled up on the couch, for example, or sitting on a bus or train. e-books need a digital display and readers rarely want to sit in front of a desktop computer, or haul around a cumbersome laptop.

“We are seeing a 30-40 per cent growth in e-books year on year,” says Nick Bogaty, executive director of the International Digital Publishers Forum (IPDF). “But as a percentage of the overall book industry, it’s still minute – it’s below 1 per cent.”

E-books have had slightly more success in the reference market. E-learning company Skillsoft, which focuses on technical and professional content, now garners 20 per cent of its revenues from its Books24x7 ebook subscription service.

But e-books need a truly portable device to be consumer-friendly. Whereas digital music has thrived on devices such as the iPod, the lack of a quality ebook reader has stymied market development.

Dedicated e-book devices, such as the now-discontinued Rocket e-reader, launched in 1998, did not capture the public imagination, partly because it suffered from the same display limitations as other e-book readers – displays are low-resolution when compared with printed paper books, and they constantly draw battery power.

One approach has been to merge audio and books. This is what Audible.com did with its audio book download service. The company sells audio books via its website and Apple’s iTunes music store. Now, it has bagged Ricky Gervais, who was previously providing his audio podcast free online. “Comedy is a very popular genre among people moving from the music market into the spoken word market. That’s the crossover point,” says Chris McKee, Audible’s UK managing director.

Now, traditional publishers are once again putting their weight behind the e-book market. “The truth is that it went dormant. But we’re looking at it again actively. Random House has been looking at new channels to market for a while now,” says Ms Duggan.

What changed? She highlights ICUE, a UK start-up that will provide e-books via mobile phone, circumnavigating the problem created by the lack of adequate dedicated e-book readers.

ICUE, which calls itself the first bookstore for WAP phones, currently has a thin selection of mostly classic, out-of-copyright, books.

The company has deals with 90 per cent of UK publishers, claims managing director Jane Tappuni, who vows to have 5,000 books available in a year’s time. The high penetration rate of mobile phones in the UK gives her a large potential customer base.

Others are attempting to breathe new life into dedicated e-book displays.

Sony is launching its eReader in the US, which uses technology from electronic display company e-Ink. The display draws battery power only when the image changes, unlike regular LCD displays, which use battery power whenever they are turned on.

Moreover, the display offers a higher contrast than LCD screens, and has a resolution of 170 dots per inch, compared with the conventional 70-100 dots per inch of laptops.

“The Sony device is designed to be an immersive reader. It’s designed for fiction,” says Mr Duggan. “It has a density about it, and the screen isn’t shiny. It wouldn’t have problems with sunlight. You can imagine reading from it.”

Netherlands-based Philips spin-off iRex Technologies will also launch an “electronic ink”-based ebook reader this spring, targeting content publishers in the news, education and professional markets who will, it is hoped, use it to distribute content to their customers, says Hans Brons, iRex chief executive.

But the historical problems with reading devices is not the only reason ebook sales have been relatively sluggish, argues the Mr Bogaty of the IPDF. The organisation’s 2006 ebook user survey revealed three significant concerns among customers.

First, they were too expensive. Second, the selection available was too small. Third, and perhaps most important, proprietary file formats and the digital rights management (DRM) technology, used to protect the ebooks from piracy, have created problems. Users are worried about the lack of interoperability between reading systems, the longevity of formats, and lack of flexibility of files once purchased. Microsoft, for example, uses its .lit format, while others include Palm Reader, Gemstar, Mobipocket and Embiid, and Adobe has its PDF format.

The IPDF developed the Open eBook format. Publishers can create ebooks in this format, which would then be easily convertible to the proprietary formats. That helps publishers by reducing the number of formats they have to support, but it doesn’t help consumers. The IPDF is hoping to update the format to be used directly by consumers, says Mr Bogaty.

But poorly handled digital rights management continues to pose a problem. For example, Adobe’s latest e-book publishing system requires users to enter passwords over the internet when they want to read a book. And you need to re-authenticate online. “If you’re not online, you just get a warning telling you that you have so much time left,” says David Stevenson, senior sales engineer at Adobe.

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