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The Future Of E-Books?

The big e-book for Random House next Fall will not be a novel, a memoir or a biography. It will be an information book about the Internet itself, Dr. Ian Smith's Guide to Medical Websites.

The choice is not a one-time gimmick, but what the publisher sees as the immediate future of electronic texts.

"The strength of an e-book lies in its exploitation of the Internet to reach a specific audience interested in a specific topic," said Mary Bahr, editorial director of Books, the publisher's digital imprint.

Even as authors from Stephen King to Elmore Leonard experiment with fiction online, Random House's decision to go for more specialized titles continues an opposing trend. Many observers think e-books work best as an information medium, not a storytelling one.

"All the hype is for trade books because people are fascinated by the idea of the paper novel going out of existence," said Stephanie Oda, publisher of the industry newsletter Subtext. "But nobody thinks that way about a textbook. The e-book is going to be big in education."

Statistics indicate that over the new few years, education/reference books will do better in electronic form than fiction and other mainstream genres.

In a study released last week by Jupiter Media Metrics, the research firm projected that 6 percent of college book sales would be in electronic form by 2005, compared with just 1.5 percent of consumer titles.

"Paper books are just fine for leisure reading," said Jupiter analyst Robert Hertzberg. "The e-book format is much better when you're looking for information."

AtRandom, which started at the beginning of the year, has seven titles available, among them Cameron Dougan's novel Because She Is Beautiful and the anthology Men Seeking Women.

Ten more books, none of them fiction, will come out in the fall. Besides Dr. Smith's medical guide, featured titles will include the advice books Miss Vera's Resource Guide for Boys Who Want to Be Girls and Carl Sherman's How to Go to Therapy, both of which will have links to Internet sites.

Bahr said AtRandom is satisfied with sales this winter, though early numbers are tiny: 26 copies of Dougan's novel after two and a half weeks, and 40 of Elizabeth Wurtzel's advice book Radical Sanity. But she believes fiction and other mainstream genres work best, for now, in a paper format.

"We felt that to publish fiction properly, it requires a lot of traditional publishing efforts: an author tour, wide and plentiful book reviews, along with all the attendant marketing," Bahr said. "With an e-book we were less able to do that."

Rival publishers, meanwhile, are sticking with fiction titles. HarperCollins recently started an e-book imprint that includes works by Joyce Carol Oates and Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian. Simon & Schuster, which began publishing e-books last fall, said it has had success with title by Jeffrey Deaver, Mary Higgins Clark and others.

"We see the market for fiction developing along both routes," said Keith Titan, the publisher's director of electronic business development. "And one of the best ways to grow the market for e-books is to increase the content offerings in many categories."

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