When E Stands For Eek

If you want a progress report on the current fortunes of the e-book, you could do no better than the International eBook Awards, which were announced Oct. 20 at the Frankfurt Book Fair. And the winners were--drumroll, please--on second thought, hold that drumroll. Because it turns out the winners were just regular paper-and-ink, hardbound books. Which, yes, come in an e-book format, too. That's how they qualified for the awards. But there's nothing particularly e-bookish about either David Maraniss's "When Pride Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi" or E. M. Schorb's novel "Paradise Square." Upset by the high pulp content of the contest, at least one of the contest judges vocalized his dismay: Stewart Brand, who is also the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, called the whole affair "somewhere between a joke and a debacle."

Dick Brass tried to put a good face on it by saying that the purpose of the awards was to gain attention for e-books--and in that, at least, they succeeded. Brass is Microsoft's man in charge of e-publishing and the one who dreamed up the International eBook Award Foundation. Poor guy. When he announced the awards a year ago, e-books were just taking off and needed every scrap of publicity they could get. Then in March, along came Stephen King with a novella called "Riding the Bullet," which he published exclusively as an e-book, and 400,000 people ordered it in two days. That news incited a land-rush stampede among conventional publishers to convert books into bytes. What got ignored in the frenzy was the one salient fact about King's endeavor: he had published a book that, at 65 pages, would never have been published conventionally at that length. That's the beauty of e-publishing. It can be long or short and sliced and diced into a variety of formats. But because the awards stipulated that only full-length manuscripts would be eligible, the judges couldn't even consider King's novella as a contestant.

Even as the International eBook Awards were being handed out, another awards program was being announced that may more accurately reflect what's going on in the world of e-publishing. The Independent e-Book Awards will recognize electronically published novels of conventional length, works as short as 2,000 words, hypertext and digital storytelling. One of the award's organizers is M. J. Rose, the first star of e-publishing, whose novel "Lip Service" was so successful as a self-published book on the Internet that it was picked up and published by Pocket Books. "We're not after the books that big publishing is putting out," Rose says. "We're looking for other things." Plainly the people behind the Independent awards have a better handle on the ever-shifting shape of the e-publishing landscape. And they're picking up more credibility by the day. One of the judges for the Independent awards is Jason Epstein, the highly respected former editorial director of Random House.

No one connected with publishing, electronic or otherwise, denies that e-publishing is already having a big impact on the way books reach readers. But clearly e-books have so far failed to capture the imagination of consumers. Readers rightly want to know why they should buy electronic versions of books that cost the same as paper versions and then read them on expensive handheld devices that aren't nearly as much fun to touch or handle as ordinary books. Dick Brass insists that the day will come "when electronic books replace print." The one thing we know for certain after the Frankfurt ceremony is that that day is even farther off than we thought.