The Princeton University Press relaunches e-book initiative

Princeton University Press first ventured into e-book publishing in 2001, when it converted 300 of its books into electronic format. But there was little consumer interest in reading books on a screen and no easy, uniform way to do it. So the Press decided to wait for the market to mature before expanding its e-book offerings.  

The wait is over. With improved, user-friendly reading devices, particularly Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony Reader, and more people accustomed to reading on smaller screens, the Press, like many publishers, has jumped back on board. Last summer the Press published its first e-book formatted for the wireless Kindle reader, The Subprime Solution, by Robert Shiller, which can be downloaded in less than a minute.  

“Every publisher needs to be in this space now,” says Priscilla Treadwell, who joined the Press as electronic-publications marketing manager in the fall of 2007. As of early January, the Press had sold about 390 copies of Shiller’s book in e-format and 38,000 in print. Sometime this year the Press plans to make hundreds more of its previously published titles available as downloadable e-books or through library aggregators — companies such as Ebrary and Netlibrary that distribute e-books in packages to libraries in a subscription model. And the Press expects to digitize up to two-thirds of its new titles every year, says Treadwell.  

As of September 2008, trade e-book sales were up more than 55 percent over 2007, according to the Association of American Publishers (AAP). Still, e-books represent less than 1 percent of wholesale book sales. Although the AAP does not have data on the demographics of e-book readers, says Edward McCoyd, director of digital policy at AAP, publishers are providing “everything from history books to novels to self-help books in e-book formats.” Print best-sellers and romance novels, he says, have proven popular.  

The industry continues to sort out the pricing structure for e-books. The Princeton University Press prices its e-books at the lowest prevailing price of the print edition: That is, if the retail price of a hardcover book is $40 and the paperback is $20, the e-book price is also $20.  

Devices like the Kindle and the Sony Reader might hold the key to future e-book growth due to their compactness and portability — they are slim and the size of a trade paperback — and their ability to mimic the print-book reading experience better than reading on a computer screen. The Kindle was due to launch a new version Feb. 24.

With the Sony Reader, which debuted in 2006 and ranges in price from $299 to $399, a user purchases books from Sony’s e-book library through an Internet-connected computer, then downloads titles to the device. Sony’s next version — due out this year — is expected to be wireless. With the $359 wireless Kindle, which debuted in late 2007 and sold out before the holidays in 2008, owners browse, purchase, and download e-books right on the device.  

Janet Temos ’82 *01, the director of the Educational Technologies Center at Princeton’s Office of Information Technology, does most of her novel and popular nonfiction reading on one of her handheld gadgets — which include a Kindle, Sony Reader, and iPhone — because they are environmentally friendly and portable. The print on both the Sony and the Kindle is clear, and it’s easy to increase the font size, she says. The readers are good for popular reading, she says, but there are limitations with illustrations — neither device has a color display. “I only would buy a book in print if I couldn’t get it electronically or it had illustrations,” says Temos.