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Random House bringing the classics up to date

The book publishing giant is offering electronic versions of 100 classic works online, including those of James Joyce and Charles Dickens.

Book publishing giant Random House plans to start offering electronic versions of 100 classic works online, a move that could be a significant challenge for traditional booksellers.

Beginning Wednesday, visitors to Authorlink.com can link to a co-branded site to buy and download e-book editions of works by James Joyce, Charles Dickens and other authors offered by Random House's Modern Library unit, Authorlink said in a joint statement.

The Modern Library collection will be available in Adobe Acrobat Reader, Glassbook Reader and Microsoft Reader formats, according to Authorlink, a marketing Web site for authors, editors and agents and one of the initial six literature Web sites to join the program.

"Since 1917, the Modern Library has had a mission of making world literature accessible to readers," David Ebershoff, Modern Library's publishing director, said in a statement. "In 2000, that means publishing the classics in hardcover, paperback and electronically."

The move follows Barnes&Noble.com's plan to partner with electronic publisher MightyWords.com to sell digitally downloadable and printable e-books.

The announcement by Random House, one of the biggest English language publishers, comes as publishers move into the digital arena with e-book initiatives and experiments that tap the Internet.

Analysts have said that although publishers may be gearing up to enter a new marketplace, the technology may be far ahead of the demand.

In the United States, less than 50,000 electronic reading devices have been sold, according to Internet research company Jupiter Media Metrix. It predicts that sales will be slow through 2005, reaching just 1.9 million--too few to support the market.

Despite the hurdles of consumer acceptance and piracy, publishers are confident that the marketplace for e-books is moving forward as readers look for more ways to read books.

"Avid readers need to have access to great books. With this program, it's conceivable that book enthusiasts will have universal access to the great classic works of literature," said Matthew Moynahan, senior vice president and general manager of New York-based Reciprocal Publishing. Reciprocal will act as the online wholesaler and protect, host and manage e-book content for the Modern Library.