The new head of an electronic publishing trade group has vowed to promote the growth of eBooks in schools.

Nicholas Bogaty, founder of the online intellectual property marketplace rightsworld.com, was tapped to head the Open eBook Forum earlier this month. Bogaty becomes the third executive director in the four-year history of the group, which aims to establish common specifications for electronic publishing.

By bringing aboard an industry pioneer as its new leader, the forum also intends to jump-start a movement that has been slow to catch on so far among consumers.

Part of the problem, Bogaty said, has been a perception that eBook reader devices are not compatible with a wide range of text formats—and thus are inaccessible to the average reader. “We want to tell the world that eBooks are not complicated, that they are actually geared toward everyone,” he said.

One step Bogaty is taking to address this problem is the enhancement of the Open eBook Publication Structure (OEBPS), the group’s XML-based specification for eBook content and presentation. Bogaty and his team are working on OEBPS version 2.0, slated for release this summer.

Like its predecessor, OEBPS 2.0 will be nonproprietary and based on open specifications, but the newer version will offer improved support for content-owner control over presentation, as well as major enhancements in areas such as navigation, linking, and metadata.

“[Four] years ago, when the idea of eBooks was first introduced to the publishing industry, technology providers were told to develop one standard format,” Bogaty said. “OEBPS—and especially version 2.0—is a perfect example of this kind of standard. It ensures fidelity, accuracy, accessibility, and presentation of electronic content over various eBook platforms.”

Like the current version of OEPBS, 2.0 will be available for downloading from the Open eBook Forum’s web site at no cost.

Bogaty also is focused on bringing eBooks to K-12 education. “The growth of eBooks in school libraries is a big aspect our members want to pursue,” he said, citing benefits such as their lower cost, greater accessibility, and the searchability of electronic texts.

Although eBooks are used in a few school districts now—Houston’s Aldine Independent School District, for example, opened an eBook library with 375 titles last spring—schools overall have been slow to embrace the technology.

Julie Walker, executive director of the American Association of School Librarians, agrees with Bogarty that eBooks hold promise for schools. But Walker doubts whether they will be accepted universally anytime soon.

“The penetration of eBooks has not been great [so far], because most school systems approach alternative formats very cautiously,” Walker said. School districts already grappling with tight budgets are wary of investing in unproven technology, she said, adding, “The jury is still out on this one.”

To alleviate such budgetary concerns, the Open eBook Forum is working with literacy programs such as Chrysler’s Operation Outreach USA to offer free eBooks to the underprivileged. Operation Outreach USA has a collection of 40 eBooks available to participating schools, which include Washington District Elementary in Colonial Heights, Va.

According to Washington District principal Paula Suggs, the school’s newly-launched eLibrary has received glowing praise from students and teachers alike.

“Our experience with eBooks has been very, very good,” said Suggs. “We can only allow our students to check out one [copy of a traditional] book at a time, but they can look at multiple [copies of] eBooks.”

Suggs did say she’d like to see more effort from publishers to expand the number of works they make available electronically, particularly textbooks. It’s a concern others share as well, and one Bogaty is working to address.

His first step as executive director of the forum was to move the group’s headquarters from Boulder, Colo., to New York City, establishing a vital presence in the epicenter of the major publishing companies.

“By being in the same city as our clients, we can establish closer relationships in order to standardize [eBook formats] and increase interest in the electronic book industry,” Bogaty said. “We can also better emphasize the benefits of this technology.”

The group also is negotiating business relationships with such education-oriented companies as McGraw-Hill, NetLibrary, and OverDrive, as well as individual schools.

By forming special-interest groups staffed by executives from technology providers and publishing houses, the forum seeks to address the concerns of both publishers—the security of electronic texts, for example—and consumers.

“We have the ability to place representatives from Microsoft, Palm, and Adobe in the same room as those from Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and AOL Time Warner,” Bogaty said. “Problems or concerns can be tackled head on and expeditiously.”

Since its move to New York, the group’s focus has been on promoting new markets, such as education. Bogaty cited the upcoming “Open an eBook … Discover New Worlds of Reading” campaign, which launches in May, as the first major thrust toward promoting eBooks in schools.

Representatives from Microsoft, IBM, and Nokia will join Random House, Scholastic, and Harper Collins, among other publishers, to promote the benefits of eBook technologies and products. Programs will include a free eBookstore for young readers, as well as ongoing initiatives by Open eBook Forum members.

“The support of these industry leaders will undoubtedly garner the interest we’re looking for,” said Bogaty, who added that when it comes to gaining momentum for electronic publishing, “it’s a matter of tenacity—this is a growing trend and we need to continue to coax it along.”

Links:

Open eBook Forum
http://www.openebook.org

American Association of School Librarians
http://www.ala.org/aasl

Operation Outreach USA
http://www.oousa.org