A new kind of palm reading

A Boston-based publishing concern is betting that PalmPilot users will pay to read books on the popular devices.

A Boston-based publishing concern is betting that 3Com PalmPilot users, famously loyal to free applications developed for the handheld platform, will pay to read books on the increasingly popular devices.

Peanut Press today announced that it will make contemporary fiction available for download to the PalmPilot. The company has signed up science fiction publisher St. Martin's Press and other independent publishers to provide content.

Industry watchers who expressed skepticism about the chances of the recently announced "e-book" give Peanut Press a better chance for success. E-books, which can only be read on pricey proprietary hardware, lack a user base that comes close to the PalmPilot's 2.2 million devotees.

However, 3Com handheld users already can access short stories and older novels with expired copyrights for free.

"We are the first to do this on the PalmPilot, to get the publishers' 'front list' of good books," said Jeff Strobel, cofounder of Peanut Press.

He added that more mainstream publishing companies have been receptive to the proposition. "They see this as an additional revenue stream."

Even so, the effort has some major obstacles to runaway success. For instance, it's far from certain whether many people will want to read books in anything beyond their tried-and-true print form--much less a screen that is a few inches wide.

Many PalmPilot users also are not yet aware that the devices are more than organizers, noted Scott Grigsby of ProxiNet, a company that makes a graphical Web browser for the PalmPilot.

"The majority of PalmPilot users don't even realize they can put third-party stuff on it," Grigsby said. "[But] that doesn't mean it won't work. Right now, the only thing you can get is old stuff, old books. And displaying text [on a PalmPilot] is very easy."

To succeed, Peanut Press must price their books cheaply--under $5, according to Grigsby. "The perceived price of a book is the physical material and printing and distribution," he added. Peanut Press, as an electronically distributed publisher, will be able to pass on lower overhead expenses to the reader.

Strobel would not disclose the projected price of Peanut Press's books, except that the PalmPilot versions will be "competitive with our paper counterparts. We figure the market will find the price. [Customers] are getting something of intrinsic value."

Peanut Press books for the PalmPilot will be available later this year.

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