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Page 3 of 4 -- Nevertheless, the number of books sold worldwide grew over 45 percent between 1999 and 2001. In the United States new book pages grew by 83 percent during the same period. In short, while there are many more books than there used to be, less and less of our factual data are stored in them.

Second, books have flourished because despite massive increases in computing power, electronic media often were less efficient than they appeared. The CD-ROM seemed the medium of the future by the early 1990s. But beyond reference publishing and specialized offerings, the CD-ROM let the publishing industry down. Without standardized user interfaces or convenient authoring tools, they were time-consuming both to produce and to use and not readily browsed in retail stores. (When did you last see one in a bookshop, except embedded in a thick technical tome?)

It is true that electronic books -- those made available as computer files displayed either on portable devices or computer screens -- have sunnier prospects than CD-ROMs. Major software manufacturers and publishing companies support standard formats. Sales of electronic books rose 27 percent in 2003, and titles in print rose 43 percent to 7,168, according to a report by a group of leading companies cited in Publishers Weekly. But the total revenue is still a modest $7.3 million. And dedicated reading hardware has so far been disappointing. Electronic paper? Philips Research Laboratories of the Netherlands recently announced a breakthrough, but no commercial release date has been set.

But the real limits to e-books are legal and economic rather than technical. As Stephen King discovered midway through the marketing of his serialized downloadable novel "Riding the Bullet" in 2000, they are easily pirated. Clearing copyright in images, a daunting enough challenge for printed books, can stifle new media. (For example, the online edition of the Grove Dictionary of Art, the standard reference in its field, has no image of the Sistine Chapel, the Eiffel Tower, or any work of Pablo Picasso.) As copyright terms have been lengthened and control over visual images concentrated in a few large sources, many experts believe the public domain itself is endangered.

Meanwhile, the transfer of electronic content to new hardware and operating systems remains a vexing challenge for publishers and librarians. That may be why the massive online database WorldCat lists over 3,200 libraries holding printed versions of Bill Gates's "The Road Ahead," while only 71 have electronic copies. Meanwhile, Britannica has reported rebounding interest in its printed version, available again since 2001 after a hiatus in the late 1990s.

Third, and most surprisingly, books survive because technology has made it much easier to write and publish them. Beginning in the 1980s, even the simplest word-processing programs enabled part-time writers to compose and especially to revise without fretting over white-out fluid, scissors, and rubber cement. And publishers started to accept authors' word processing disks, ultimately reducing composition costs despite initial glitches.   Continued...

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