NEW YORK -- Straight from the pages of science fiction, electronic books will land in the public's eye this fall with promises of searchable text and the ability to hold the equivalent of 10, if not hundreds, of volumes, in a portable device weighing only a few pounds.
Books that have been taken out of print could soon be available electronically. Readers frustrated by the minuscule type on the pages will be able to increase the size to their comfort level.
Electronic publishing is not new -- numerous authors already use the Internet to bypass traditional print publishers.
But many book-lovers don't like the awkwardness of reading off a screen, and the number of books has been limited as publishing houses fret over the ease of copying electronic text.
Technology apparently has found an answer, or so three electronic book companies believe.
This fall, NuvoMedia Inc., based in Palo Alto, Calif., will launch the Rocket eBook, a small 20-ounce device that is the size and shape of a paperback, complete with a stylus for highlighting and annotating text.
Also this fall, Softbook Press, of Menlo Park, Calif., will bring out a 3-pound device that will hold up to 100,000 pages of text.
Early next year, Middletown, Pa.-based Everybook Inc. will produce the EB Dedicated Reader, a 4-pound booklike device that when closed is about the size of a sheet of paper and when open is capable of electronically duplicating a book's layout, including text and graphics.
Although portable, these readers weigh the same as many of today's laptop computers.
Company officials emphasize they aren't trying to replace the book, but want to give people an additional reading option.
"The book, as we know it, has existed for 1,500 years," said Everybook president Dan Munyan. "There's nothing wrong with it. Not one feature of the book has to be given up."
All three companies will allow people to download texts from the Internet onto their devices, although the Rocket eBook, with the smallest capacity of the three, downloads the text via a PC, then onto the electronic book.
All three tout the screens on their devices, saying they are easy on the eyes and are reader-friendly. They all are using encryption technology, making it extremely difficult for someone to copy the electronic text.
And that has helped entice publishers.
"We see it as more than just an experiment," said Ted Nardin, group vice president for professional publishing at McGraw Hill in New York. "Someday, this is going to be widely accepted."
Jonathan Guttenberg, a vice president of new media at New York-based Random House, said he is also very excited about the new breed of electronic books, which he said is easier to use than previous prototypes.
Despite their enthusiasm, neither would say which texts might be available electronically this fall.
The creators of the electronic books are also close-mouthed. Martin Eberhard, chief executive officer of Nuvomedia, said the company had received a number of top titles from 12 different publishers to use for trials, though he would not be more specific.