“This is so cool,” I thought to myself, as I clicked through to Amazon’s eCommerce site to pay Stephen King his $1 for the first installment of his new electronic novel, The Plant. One to two dollars per installment for the five-installment novel which King decided to distribute from his web site in Portable Document Format (PDF) is more than a fair price, considering that brand-new work from any author usually is available in hardcover only and retails for $20 to $30.

By cutting out the “middle men” of publishing and production, King has been able to earn a substantial profit while making his writing available to his readers at a drastically reduced price in a new and exciting format. More importantly, however, he has proven that electronic books are a viable medium to present long texts—and that people are willing to read them and pay for them.

It wasn’t long after I read The Plant that I had downloaded the Microsoft Reader software and purchased several electronic texts from the Barnes and Noble web site. I was able to find a number of titles by well-known contemporary authors, but mainly I stuck to the public domain texts they were selling for about $3.50.

By page 200 of Crime and Punishment, I was hooked. I loved the idea that I could carry all of my reading material on my Pocket PC. I also loved the idea that I could download and store nearly all the books that I teach in my American Literature course.

I’m excited about some of the possibilities of giving textbooks to students in electronic format. In addition to financial savings, time can be saved by eliminating tedious tasks such as the distribution, collection, and storage of books. Teachers no longer will have to chase down students who lose or don’t return their books. Students not only will be allowed, but also encouraged, to annotate and highlight all important and relevant passages in their electronic texts. These issues—along with the speed at which new information can be updated and redistributed—make eBooks a very attractive tool for schools.

In addition to making it easier to access and manage textbooks, eBooks have the potential to impact the way students read and analyze their school texts. The Microsoft Reader software not only allows students to highlight, bookmark, and annotate their eBooks; it also compiles all of these annotations into an index that is accessible from a special area of the book. Students can see a list of all the annotations they have made in a single book instantly and can reorganize this list as they desire. The ability to perform full-text searches of eBooks inevitably will help students who are searching for examples or quotes to support their essays.

Finally, users can download a special edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary for MS Reader, which is integrated very well into the software. Readers need only click on a word and select “lookup” from the sub-menu that appears. Readers can even look up words that appear in the dictionary definitions themselves. I’m convinced this feature will make students much more likely to look up words than they’d be if they had to use a paper dictionary.

One of the most exiting parts of MS Reader is the ReaderWorks application from OverDrive Software. This free download allows users to create their own eBooks for MS Reader out of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) files. The author of a document simply creates his work in HTML or in text format and adds it to a new ReaderWorks project, which will compile it into eBook format for MS Reader. In the commercial version of the Reader-Works software, authors can add cover graphics as well as sophisticated encryption to control copyright and distribution.

The benefits of a tool like this to the classroom teacher can be significant. Coupled with resources like Project Guttenberg and the web itself, teachers have the ability to compile their own textbooks and post them on school web sites. Unit introductions in literature books can be tailored to the information an individual teacher thinks is important, and selections can be chosen to best fit a given teacher’s taste. (Better yet, a given student’s taste.)

Of course, like any new technology, eBooks have some growing up to do. The first and biggest hurdle they need to overcome relates to the change in medium. My wife cringes at the thought of curling up on the couch and basking in the glow of a laptop computer to read her favorite book. In fact, lots of people I talked to are very resistant to the idea of reading for pleasure off of a computer. It just doesn’t feel right. We want to feel the paper. We want to bend the pages and flip ahead to see how many pages there are until the end of the chapter.

Other hurdles relate to the technology itself. In a school, for example, eBooks make the most sense when they are stored on a handheld device like the Pocket PC. The difference in physical dimensions between a handheld’s screen and that of a laptop computer, however, would make it difficult to render a textbook page with little more than text on a handheld. Microsoft needs to develop better multimedia capabilities to facilitate pop-up graphics with zoom capabilities. It’s also a mystery to me why MS Reader doesn’t support video, audio, or web links. That just seems like common sense.

Finally, eBook software makers need to establish standards for encryption and distribution. Currently, MS Reader has an encryption technology that works in conjunction with online bookstores so that when books are purchased and downloaded, they can only be viewed by the copy of MS Reader that has been registered to the person who purchased the book. Unfortunately, the version of MS Reader for the Pocket PC is one step behind the version for desktop computers, and handheld versions can’t take advantage of this encryption technology.

Furthermore, this is a proprietary technology that only applies to MS Reader eBooks. Most major textbook publishers are concerned about how they can prevent people from stealing their intellectual property, and the lack of available content is one of the things that has prevented a warmer embrace of eBooks by schools. If this technology is to be successful, developers of eBook software must standardize and simplify the process for protecting and distributing the hard work of authors and editors.

Despite my fondness for print media, I think eBooks are inevitable in schools. Perhaps they won’t replace all print books, but I think we will see them in growing numbers over the next few years. They just make too much financial, logistical, and academic sense. MS Reader seems to offer a good deal of features at a reasonable price (free). If Microsoft would like its MS Reader to be the first choice among schools, however, I think it will have to address some significant shortcomings in multimedia support and copyright protection.

Barnes and Noble’s eBook Store

http://ebooks.barnesandnoble.com

eBook Library for MS Reader

http://etext.virginia.edu/ebooks

MS Reader eBooks Directory

http://www.cewindows.net/scripts/linkman/linkmat.c gi

MS Reader Software

http://www.microsoft.com/reader

OverDrive ReaderWorks

http://www.overdrive.com/readerworks

Stephen King’s The Plant

http://www.stephenking.com