NEW YORK - Miles from the wealth of Manhattan, on a strip mall just off the Long Island Expressway, the e-book revolution advances.
Here is the home of Data Conversion Laboratory, a leading electronic processor that takes thousands of education, medical, government and other texts and makes them into e-texts. Its clients range from publishers such as McGraw-Hill and Reed Elsevier to the Library of Congress and the military contractor McDonnell Douglas.
"We're constantly looking at what's developing," says company founder Mark Gross. "For instance, we're doing a lot of business with military manuals. If you're in Desert Storm and you're trying to fix a tank because the wheel just got loose, you don't want to start going through a bunch of paper books."
Much of the talk about e-publishing comes from corporate offices in New York City, but much of the actual work happens at companies such as Lightning Source, netLibrary and DCL, located in a cluttered two-story facility in Queens between a dry cleaner and a glass works store.
Walk around DCL and you'll mostly see computers. No magical transformation from paper to digital takes place; essentially, it happens online. DCL will receive raw computer copies of a book, edit them and reformat them, periodically sending them back to the client for review. A job can take anywhere from a few weeks to four months.
There are different levels of e-texts, depending on what a client is willing to pay. A publisher might simply want a replica of the printed page adapted to the computer screen - no links or tags - for as little as 50 cents a page.
For a more complex job, like a medical encyclopedia, DCL will reformat the text to allow for countless links, tags and the organization of graphics. The cost could be $10 a page or more.
"The trend seems to be going to high-end, although you still have materials like hospital records or personnel records that are transferred cheaply because they won't need to be researched," Gross said.
Publishers depend on DCL and others because the work often proves so complicated. The industry has been willing to invest millions for the new technology, but it prefers leaving truly technical matters to outside experts.
"They just don't know how to do this kind of thing; it's not part of their tradition," said Stephanie Oda, publisher of the industry newsletter Subtext.
"Also, a lot of publishers got burned back in the mid-'90s by CD-ROM. They set up their own CD-ROM departments and when the CD-ROM market tanked they lost millions. I don't think that will happen with the Internet, but publishers are still taking it fairly slowly."
DCL was founded in 1981 and has evolved with the times. In the 1980s, it was formatting material for word processors and later on it did the same for CD-ROMs. Gross estimates his company converted about 10,000 titles last year and says it did between $3 million to $5 million in business.
"We've been growing steadily the past few years," he says.
Although DCL digitized George Washington's memoirs for the Library of Congress, Gross doesn't have much interest in traditional trade books and doesn't see an immediate market for them. Like other industry analysts, he believes the current demand is for scientific, technical and legal texts.
"Someone trying to fix a tank in the desert really does need access to 50 volumes squeezed into a laptop, and so does a lawyer researching case law," he said. "I do, however, have my doubts whether a traveler on an airplane really NEEDS his 50 favorite novels on an e-book for immediate access."