Slow-Starting E-Books Find Niche Markets

The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 4, 2007; 3:47 PM

NEW YORK -- For a decade now, publishers have been hoping to wean readers off books and move them to electronic versions, which are much cheaper to produce and distribute.

It just hasn't happened, even with the support of an electronics giant like Sony, which put out a dedicated e-book reader last year. Inc. recently followed up with its own reader.

But if you look away from the mainstream publishing industry, e-books are already a success in a few niches, where they are giving rise to new ways of doing business. The standout example is role-playing games, but buyers of college textbooks and even romance novels are warming to e-books.

Witness Gareth-Michael Skarka, a representative of one of our newest professions: the e-book publisher. "E-book publishers" that reformat printed books into electronic formats have been around for a while, but Skarka commissions, edits and sells books that overwhelmingly never see print, and would never have existed if it weren't for electronic publishing.

"Most of our customers are fairly comfortable with the electronic format," said Skarka. He pulls in around $50,000 a year in sales, enough to make a living of it in Lawrence, Kan., where he is based.

The 156 e-books in Portable Document Format, or PDF, sold by Skarka's Adamant Entertainment aren't exactly highbrow literature. With titles like "Slavers of Mars," and "One Million Magic Items," they're aimed at people who play role-playing games _ the most famous of which would be "Dungeons & Dragons." Skarka's prices are mostly less than $10, but the e-books aren't hugely cheaper than printed books, because most of the PDFs are short.

Role-players buy lots of books, which contain rules for their games or expand on the imaginary worlds in which they are set. It's fiction, but it's more like reference material than the kind of long narratives you'd find in novels. Industry insiders see that as a big reason PDFs work for role-players.

"In general, it's not the 300-page prose novels that people want to read on the screen," said Steve Wieck, who co-founded one of the most successful publishers of role-playing games, Atlanta-based White Wolf Inc., in the early 90s.

Wieck started noticing that a lot of White Wolf's releases would be scanned by fans and pirated online. Following a "can't beat 'em _ join 'em" strategy, he and his brother started in 2004 to sell PDFs, gathering books from many publishers, including Adamant Entertainment.

Wieck and Skarka estimate that e-book sales make up 10 percent of the $25 million in annual RPG sales. DriveThruRPG alone does $2 million in business annually. By comparison, the Association of American publishers put 2006 e-book sales at $54 million, 0.02 percent of total book sales of $24.2 billion.

Marc Zuckerman, a role-player in Rockville Centre, N.Y., bought his first e-book six months ago, even though he already has, or at least may have, a print copy of the book. His copy of the superhero game "Villains and Vigilantes" got lost in a move. Originally published in 1982, it's long out of print but available on DriveThruRPG.

"It's really nifty to be able to walk into a gaming session and plug in my laptop and everything is there, as opposed to lugging 40 books," Zuckerman said.

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