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Publishers brace for selling bits of books online

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The publishing world is about to have its iTunes moment.

Starting next year, you'll be able to buy books by the chapter or page from This could do for the literary world what Apple's iTunes Music Store did for music: namely, free the content from its physical packaging.

Think of what it might mean if you could download just the literary greatest hits, say, Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" or Miller Williams' "Of History and Hope," instead of buying the poets' complete unabridged works.

Or sample the first chapter of Joan Didion's new memoir "The Year of Magical Thinking" before deciding whether you can bear to read her entire account of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.

Certain publishers, including Random House and O'Reilly Media, look at this not as the death of literature as we know it, but the start of something new. It's a way to do online what book publishers have done forever: breaking up literary works into tasty, digestible appetizers that leave us wanting more.

The book industry has been bracing for its extreme technological makeover since the late 1990s, when eBooks began offering electronic versions of books designed to be read on a screen. Now the long-anticipated digital transformation is happening -- but in ways the industry could hardly have anticipated from the early, dot-com-era euphoria.

Google and the Internet Archive are moving to digitize the world's libraries. If the vision becomes reality, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection will be able to search the world's writings for whatever topic comes to mind. And retailers like Amazon, which two years ago let everyone electronically browse pages with its "search inside the book" feature, are preparing to sell books off in chunks. Take that, Oprah.

Random House, the world's largest publisher of trade books, has already announced a plan for selling books by the byte.

Say you're looking for a Thanksgiving turkey recipe. You could pay Random House 99 cents to view the full, four-page recipe online -- with illustrations for how to properly truss the bird -- instead of purchasing the entire cookbook. Roll over, Julia Child.

Technical manuals, such as the "Cross-Platform Game Programming" guide from Steven Goodwin, might be available online for a premium.

Novels, by contrast, would go for pennies a page -- perhaps 20 pages for $1 -- to give you the opportunity to read enough of Kristin Hannah's modern-day fairy tale, "Comfort & Joy," to get hooked.

The goal is to stimulate sales of the printed version of the book -- at least until technologists develop a screen that makes electronic books palatable.

Tech publisher O'Reilly Media is trying a different approach with its collection of computer and business books: a subscription service called Safari Books Online. It provides unlimited online access to about 3,000 computer manuals.

While it's too early to tell whether online access fuels print sales, it has allowed subscribers to unearth musty titles in O'Reilly's catalog.

Fully 23 percent of what subscribers access online are books that are collecting dust in bookstores. They're looking at older editions of computer manuals to tackle problems with, well, older versions of software.

Books may disappear from retail bookshelves, but code lives on forever.

Of course, book publishers are not embracing all technological change. Consider the dispute between metropolitan New York's Big Five book publishers and Mountain View's equally muscular search company, Google.

The Authors Guild and publishers McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, Penguin Group, Simon & Schuster and John Wiley & Sons smacked Google with lawsuits when it set out to copy the collections of several of the world's leading libraries so the books could be searched online.

The Google Library Project fits with Google's mantra of organizing the world's information and making it accessible (and its unstated goal of collecting billions in ad revenue in the process). But it never sought permission from the publishers, which own the rights to works that haven't fallen into public domain.

We'll let the intellectual property lawyers hash out the finer points of copyright law. The larger issue, at least from the perspective of the publishers, is what happens once Google takes the printed word out of the library stacks of Stanford, Harvard, Michigan and Oxford universities and the New York Public Library and deposits the bits onto the Internet.

The great fear is that books -- which hold intrinsic value in the physical world -- will be commoditized once they are instantly accessible on the Internet for free. It's a fate that has already befallen another segment of the publishing industry: newspapers.

Maybe Steve Jobs will step in with a next-generation big-screen, wafer-slim iPod so we can download a lighter, digital version of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" from an iBooks store.

Contact Dawn C. Chmielewski at or (800) 643-1902.

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