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Rivals book e-plans

Pubs Random, TW bow online strategy

NEW YORK — The fledgling market for e-books has taken a sharply competitive turn with two of Gotham’s top publishers unveiling rival e-publishing programs to be rolled out in the months ahead.

Random House, whose quiet pursuit of the e-books market has, until now, been limited to investments in such Web publishing firms as Xlibris and Audible.com, announced the creation of a full-blown e-books imprint, AtRandom.

This morning, Time Warner Trade Publishing, which introduced its e-books arm, iPublish, at a press conference in May, is expected to strike back with an announcement of its own.

IPublish will issue a raft of blockbusters online next month. It’s the most formal roster of e-books to appear to date, providing prices (some are free, some cost as much as $14.95), and release dates timed, whenever possible, to coincide with each book’s hardcover publication date.

“This is a list driven by the publishing company, not by an individual author,” said iPublish senior veep Greg Voynow. The iPublish list:

  • Sandra Brown’s new thriller, “The Switch,” which will appear both in hardcover and in electronic formats. Her previous bestseller, “The Alibi,” will also make its debut as an e-book.

  • Nicholas Sparks’ “The Rescue,” due in hardcover and digital format, along with the release of Sparks’ entire backlist online.

  • David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction account of John McCain’s primary campaign, “Up, Simba!,” which will appear only online.

Bowing soon

AtRandom will launch a few months later. Starting in early 2001, under the stewardship of Random veep and senior editor Jonathan Karp, AtRandom will publish new work by well-established writers exclusively in electronic form. Each book will also be sold in paperback, print-on-demand format, but won’t be shipped to bookshelves in a traditional ink-and-paper package.

Some of the highlights of AtRandom’s list:

  • “Out There: One Man’s Fearless Search for the Funniest Person on the Internet,” by humorist Henry Alford.

  • “The Secret of Life: Common Sense Advice for Uncommon People” by “Prozac Nation” author Elizabeth Wurtzel.

  • “Lost in Mongolia: Travels in Hollywood and Other Foreign Lands,” by New Yorker writer Tad Friend.

  • “Men Seeking Women: Love and Sex Online,” a collection of short fiction about Internet relationships, by such writers as Po Bronson, Richard Dooling and Gary Krist.

Random House also unveiled plans to launch the Modern Library online in the fall, as 100 books bearing that distinguished imprint will be made available for the first time in downloadable form.

Interest undetermined

The AtRandom and iPublish lists will be downloadable in different formats from a range of online retailers, but the number of consumers interested in obtaining these books online remains to be seen.

Karp said the AtRandom list specifically targets tech-savvy readers and those in their 20s “who will think nothing of reading online because they’ve been doing it all along.”

“It has a good shot,” Karp said, “at becoming a mass medium for twentysomethings.”

But neither Karp nor Voynow would say how soon the market will catch up with the hype, creating a viable audience for books that exist only in digital form.

“We’re the sound of one hand clapping,” said iPublish’s Voynow. “You need a place to buy them and devices to read them on. If all these things happen by the end of the year, that will be encouraging. But we don’t expect to see a revolution by the end of this year. We expect this to build over several years.”

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