January 22, 2001 10:15 AM PST

Random House turns to niche e-book sales

Random House is pushing further into the digital arena this week with a site update that will direct e-book readers to online retailers' shelves, adding unknown authors to its promotion efforts.

AtRandom.com plans to continue hawking top authors but also wants to target niche audiences with works such as Gersh Kuntzman's "Hair!"--a social history of mankind's quest to end baldness.

AtRandom Editorial Director Mary Bahr said the company decided that it wanted the e-book trial to include up-and-coming authors as well as marquee names that have driven some short-term interest in online publishing but have yet to prove their staying power.

"Our decision editorially is going to be much more based on the book's viability rather than the author's profile," Bahr said. "As we saw with Stephen King, profile doesn't necessarily equal a viable e-book."

The imprint will feature fiction and nonfiction books, the company said, with three of 16 new titles set to hit the Internet on Tuesday. Initially, the books will be offered in digital format for $9.95 each through retailers such as Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com and Contentville. Paperback editions that would cost between $15 and $23 are planned for further down the road.

The AtRandom division is Random House's latest effort to capitalize on a largely untapped market for e-books as a growing number of rivals mount direct-to-Web publishing efforts.

Although the Net appears to offer would-be authors the power to publish for nearly free, few individuals can match the experience and marketing clout of publishers such as Random House, and some early e-book start-ups have already folded shop.

As a result, deep-pocketed publishers likely will play important roles in developing the e-book market, analysts said.

"Random House is in a great position to make (e-books) successful," said IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian. "Not only have they launched this new imprint, but they have been instrumental in setting the precedent for the way publishers are adopting e-books and producing digital books."

Andres Sadler, a partner at Accenture's media and entertainment strategy practice, agreed that Random House has "a sound strategy."

"Publishing niche books or books catered to a niche audience can be an attractive proposition," Sadler said. "In an electronic store front, it's easier to find the books that closely match the interest of the reader than if you have niche-oriented books in a bookstore."

E-books still in first draft
While authors, publishers and booksellers attempt to stride into a new digital arena, analysts say the experiments have yet to create bestsellers.

Online publishing made some major inroads last year after author Stephen King made his first Internet foray with a 66-page novella, "Riding the Bullet." Readers downloaded some 400,000 free copies in less than 24 hours.

He followed with a self-published serial novel, "The Plant," but later suspended the project to pursue other work.

Other writers who have announced e-book projects include suspense authors Frederick Forsythe and Dean Koontz.

Nevertheless, consumers haven't embraced e-books, leading some smaller companies catering toward digital book or audio book audiences to become part of the list of recent dot-com casualties.

Earlier this month, online media company Audiohighway.com said it filed for bankruptcy protection because it lacked funding or a strategic partner to maintain operations. The Cupertino, Calif.-based company offered free audio content, including audio books.

In December, Bookface.com ceased operations. The start-up had built technology for delivering secure content online and had acquired the nonexclusive rights for free online display of more than 2,000 titles. However, the company was unable to raise the money it needed to move forward, according to Chief Executive Tammy Deuster.

"Being a content site, we were of course plagued with all the difficulties that were faced by many content companies," Deuster said. "We raised our initial seed money in March of last year, so when that ran out, that was sort of it for us."

 

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