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Book lovers fail to click with e-pages

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The subject line of the e-mail caught my eye immediately as I browsed through my overnight mail.

"For the love of God, PLEASE buy my book."

I knew the book to which the sender, Claire Berlinski, was referring. Earlier she had e-mailed me, unsolicited, the first chapter of 'Loose Lips,' about a woman joining the CIA.

Now came the pitch: "Surely you were a little bit intrigued? Look, I swear to you, it's a great book. And hey: I'm practically giving it away. It costs way less than a double latte and a scone." For $5.95, I could obtain the Web address, from which I could access the whole book.

Ms. Berlinski has picked a tough time to self- publish an electronic book.

A year or so ago, e-books were being touted as the future of publishing: Paper would go the way of papyrus, we were told, and we would soon all be curling up with personal digital assistants.

It was not to be, or at least not yet. Over the past three months, three of the biggest e-publishing enterprises have folded: AtRandom, Random Books' foray into the online world, closed in November. IPublish, belonging to Time Warner, shut down at the end of last year. Ten days ago MightyWords, half owned by Barnes and Noble, switched off its website.

"We do not believe that the market for digital content was large enough to support a separate company," said Barnes & Noble, whose disappointing e-sales prompted its decision to ditch MightyWords.

Berlinski is not necessarily arguing with that. So far she has sold only about 100 e-copies of her book. But she has used the web to get around a classic problem for first-time authors - how to break into the publishing world when you don't have a reputation.

"You cannot get published without an agent, and you can't get an agent unless you've been published," says Robert McCormick, chief operating officer of 1stBooks Library, an e-publishing venture which works with a lot of previously unpublished writers.


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