PDF In-Depth

PDF eBooks are Here to Stay

July 27, 2000


Simon & Schuster's March 8 press release about Stephen King's eBook, "Riding the Bullet," was fairly low-key. Sounding like he thought it was more of a weird science experiment, King suggested he was "curious to see what sort of response there is and whether or not this is the future."

The PDF-based novella, "a ghost story in the grand manner," was published exclusively on the Internet on March 14. After just 24 hours, there were 400,000 orders - more than the first-day sales of his hardcover books - and I'm pretty sure this convinced King that eBooks are here to stay.

Some sites, such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Chapters initially offered the novella for free, while SoftLock headed up a group of vendors, including netLibrary, charging a nominal US$2.50 for the story. (Barnes & Noble and Chapters later began charging for the eBook.)

Over 400,000 copies of "Riding the Bullet" were downloaded in the first 24 hours - that's 4.62 per second.
Karl De Abrew

Things were hotter than expected, judging by the message that Keith Loris, president and CEO of SoftLock, sent to prospective purchasers, telling them that more than 200,000 orders had been received, jamming their server. That's US $500,000, which says this is a worthwhile venture. And that was just the first day.

A rubber bullet for Mac and UNIX users

The eBooks industry has turned heads recently. However you look at it, King's eBook release has been amazing. Consider that 400,000 copies were downloaded in the first 24 hours - that's 4.62 per second. And in contrast to the music industry, eBooks have come outfitted day one with (DRM) software designed to protect the rights of authors and publishers.

But what's good for the publisher and author isn't necessarily good for consumers. The majority of eBook systems lock their content to the individual machines of purchasers, preventing the rampant piracy said to go on in the MP3 world. And the DRM technology initially used for King's eBook worked only with PCs or hand-held devices. (Glassbook provided the encryption and reader software for the PC version.)

For the first two weeks after its release, Mac and UNIX users could not read "Riding the Bullet." This didn't go unnoticed - not by King's fans or the author himself. In a statement, King said: "As a dedicated and long-term Mac user, I am surprised and a little unhappy at how hard it is for Mac users to access the story."

A red-faced Simon & Schuster posted an apology on its eBooks page, noting that it was working with vendors to solve the problem and inviting readers to request an e-mail notification when a Mac solution became available. Amazon, a key distributor, approached Adobe and brokered a deal to offer a free Mac version of "Riding the Bullet," using Adobe's cross-platform PDF Merchant software for encryption and the free Acrobat Reader for viewing.

However, while there is a version of Acrobat Reader for Linux, it doesn't include the Bill's house to do their reading.

The eBook is cool

Let's talk about King's eBook itself and the download experience. I was so interested in this that I tried to ride the bullet four times. I started with Glassbook and SoftLock, then took a trip with Peanut Press and my Palm Pilot, finishing off at Amazon with a version for my Mac.

My first attempts at most sites weren't too fruitful. The phenomenal success of King's eBook seemed to surprise the distributors, who didn't have enough server capacity to handle the traffic. I finally was able to download the PC version of "Riding the Bullet" at the lower-traffic Chapters site in Canada. Since I'm already an owner of the full Glassbook Reader, I was spared the viewer download and grabbed the 394KB file in just a few minutes.

As I've mentioned before, the Glassbook Reader has an elegant interface that is much better suited to reading eBooks than are other PDF viewers. Plus, it has the benefit of supporting formats such as HTML and OEB. In short, I like it - and I think you should take a look. However, if you are a UNIX or Mac user, you'll have to stick with the Acrobat Reader - for the moment anyhow.

Aside from the initial jam-up, my downloads were trouble-free. I've used the SoftLock system before, and I can report that they've made many improvements to the purchase process, to the point where now it's quite seamless. The SoftLock system has the added benefit of encouraging the super-distribution model. Super-distribution lets you freely send copies of works you've purchased to your family, friends, and acquaintances. Upon opening, the recipient can only see a snippet or evaluation version of the content, but has an option to visit a secure online Web page and acquire the entire eBook.

In fact, you can check out my SoftLock-purchased copy [PDF: 410 MB] of "Riding the Bullet." See what you think - you'll be able to view the first seven pages.

The Peanut Press version, which works on PDAs running the Palm OS or Windows CE, had an interesting security feature. A custom copy of the book was generated on the fly at purchase time, with my name as the user name and credit card details as the password for the book - clearly not the sort of thing you're likely to pass around to more than your closest friends or family.

Last but not least, the Mac version of the eBook (encrypted using Adobe's PDF Merchant) that I downloaded from Amazon worked without a hitch.

Paper or pixels?

With all this hoopla about "Riding the Bullet," you're probably wondering whether or not it was a good read. Well, I'm not an avid Stephen King fan, but I read this one screen-to-screen in just under an hour.

Which brings me to my favorite hobbyhorse: throw out your printers, like it or not! All versions that I came across were disabled for print. It'll be interesting to see if this approach holds up over time.

Ironically, King seems to feel a strong tie to the printed word. "While I think that the Internet and various computer applications for stories have great promise," he said, "I don't think anything will replace the printed word and the bound book. Not in my lifetime, at least."

Of course, a few days later - possibly after calculating his royalties - King was apparently keen to try the process again. "If I were to do something like that, whether they wanted to or not, it would force a lot of people to read online," he noted.

This revolution has well and truly begun. As King says, "What's fun is fun and what's done is done."

This article first appeared on Adobe.com April 24, 2000. Reprinted with permission.

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