Microsoft Gives E-Books A Boost With Literary Award

The innovative but still commercially unknown e-book industry received a boost from Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) today when the software giant announced that it will sponsor an e-book literary award with a $100,000 (US$) first prize.

Microsoft’s announcement at the influential Frankfurt Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany comes just after the nascent industry unveiled an international standard for electronic publishing. Microsoft said the first recipient of the award will be announced next year in Frankfurt, the permanent site for the awards.

Softbook Press and NuvoMedia, Inc., two e-book industry leaders, are also sponsoring the awards. A jury will select a total of seven awards, with a $100,000 first prize for a work originally published in e-book form, and six other categories with $10,000 prizes.

“E-Books are pointing the way to the future of reading and publishing,” said Microsoft vice-president Dick Brass. “It is a pleasure for us to participate in these awards for several reasons. Most importantly, we want to support and encourage literary achievements in this medium. We want to ensure the wide-spread availability of high-quality e-book titles for the reading public, and, more generally, to spur industry growth.”

Standard Format For All

While the industry has clearly made great technological strides, it has a number of hurdles to clear before it can be called a commercial success. One hurdle that was recently cleared was the drafting of a universal format for electronic publishing backed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Supported by e-book pioneers like SoftBook and Nuvo Media, publishing giants like Bertelsmann, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and online book sellers barnesandnoble.com, the industry drafted the Open e-book Initiative, which calls for international specifications that allow anyone to create content that will work in all compliant systems.

Microsoft suggested that the industry tackle the problem last year. Now that the mission has been accomplished, the company will move on to the thornier problem of convincing the public to drop their paper books and pick up an electronic book reader.

Can They Succeed?

Weighing in at nearly three pounds and, in the case of SoftBook, leather-bound, the book readers are capable of storing at least 100,000 pages of text and graphics, enough for hundreds of books. Users simply have to plug it into the nearest phone jack and have access to the titles they bought or download new ones. Most are illuminated for night reading and turn page-by-page like a paper book.

However, the devices cost $400 plus, can get lost or stolen easily, and the romantic connection readers have with paper will not be dispelled overnight. Despite these obstacles, many bright and experienced publishing executives feel that electronic publishing is the wave of the future. Microsoft is evidently hoping the same.

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