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‘Harry Potter’ steers clear of e-book format

Hillel Italie Associated Press

When “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” comes out on July 16, children from around the world will line up at stores or wait anxiously at home or summer camp for their copy to arrive by mail.

But anyone looking to read the book online, at least legally, should not even try.

J.K. Rowling has not permitted any of the six Potter books to be released in electronic form, not even during the peak of the e-book craze a few years ago. Rowling’s choice follows an industry trend. Young people supposedly are more open to new technology, but the e-book market works in an opposite way.

Adult best sellers such as Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and David McCullough’s “1776” are available electronically, but not books by Rowling and many other popular children’s authors, including Lemony Snicket, Cornelia Funke and R.L. Stine.

“It’s not like we haven’t tried this market,” says Jason Campbell, marketing director for Harper Media, a division of HarperCollins that oversees e-book distribution.

“We’ve done R.L. Stine and (Meg Cabot’s) ‘The Princess Diaries,’ and it didn’t work. ‘Princess Diaries’ has been our most successful young adult series in e-books, but it pales in comparison to e-book sales for Michael Crichton.”

Several reasons are cited, from authors preferring books on paper to concerns over digital piracy to competition from television and other media.

But the greatest problem is the lack of a popular reading device – a handicap that has held back the whole e-book business from the start.

“I didn’t think then, and I don’t think now, that there is a cool enough or interesting enough hardware to get the kids engaged,” says Barbara Marcus, president of the children’s books division of Rowling’s U.S. publisher, Scholastic Inc.

“One of the fantasies I had was of kids walking around, without backpacks, and somebody would say, ‘You have to read “Of Mice and Men” and “The Red Badge of Courage.” Here are the e-books.’ That fantasy hasn’t happened.”

The e-book market does continue to grow, although it remains a tiny part of the multibillion-dollar publishing industry. According to the Open eBook Forum, a trade organization, net revenues reached $9.6 million in 2004, nearly $4 million higher than in 2002.

The number of actual e-books sold annually has more than doubled in that time, to nearly 1.7 million copies, even as the number of e-books published has declined.

No separate statistics are available for children’s e-books, but many believe Potter would be a huge hit in the digital format, where even a few thousand copies is considered a best seller.

“I’m sure it would be a very big book very quickly and would probably serve as a terrific marketing vehicle to get people to buy the print book,” says Nicholas Bogaty, executive director of the Open eBook Forum.

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