\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n Spines are tingling across the book industry over Stephen King's latest story, a not-quite novel experiment in digital publishing that is shaping up as a major test of the mass consumer appeal of e-books. \r\n\r\nAs earlier reported, online readers are snapping up the novella, "Riding the Bullet," which was made available on the Web yesterday. On Barnesandnoble.com alone, more than 200,000 customers requested free copies of the story in a 24-hour promotion, according to the company.\r\n\r\n"We averaged 2.5 requests per second," said spokeswoman Lisa Lanspery, who concluded that the market for e-books has never been more ripe. "One day there's going to be a time when every book in print will be available in digital format."\r\n\r\nThe story of e-books is shaping up as a cliff-hanger for the $70 billion-a-year publishing industry, which has seen a flurry of deals aimed at transforming the printed word into pixels. And like many budding technologies, the outcome is far from certain.\r\n\r\n"Whether e-books is ready for prime time I don't know, but the interest is sure out there," said Scott Rogers, associate publisher of Osborn McGraw Hill. "Nobody wants to get left behind."\r\n\r\nFree digital chapters already are used to pitch best-sellers on sites such as Amazon.com. But the next phase is to bring full-fledged stories and novels to hitherto skeptical readers over a variety of devices, from personal computers to portable reading screens.\r\n\r\nThe Stephen King deal, sponsored by Simon & Schuster, is just one of a growing list of developments in recent months aimed at moving the market forward.\r\n\r\nToday, for example, digital publisher Fatbrain plans to launch a new Web site, MightyWords.com, to better promote its content to the mass consumer market. San Francisco-based Fatbrain has mostly focused on the corporate information market, selling software manuals in both print and digital formats.\r\n\r\nMicrosoft co-founder Paul Allen has invested more than $30 million in the company and its eMatter technology, which lets authors and publishers sell digital copies of books, magazine articles and other documents via the Net. \r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n \r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nWatch\r\nvideo\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nMicrosoft itself is investing in the e-book concept. The software giant has struck deals with publishing houses such as Penguin Books, R.R. Donnelley & Sons, Bertelsmann, HarperCollins Publishers, Penguin Putnam, Simon & Schuster and Time Warner Books to convert thousands of print titles into electronic versions. \r\n\r\nBertelsmann, which owns Random House and has a stake in Barnesandnoble.com, also has committed $16.5 million over three years to work with copier maker Xerox to print books on demand in response to Internet requests.\r\n\r\nOnline retailers are further getting into the game. On Monday, Barnesandnoble.com launched an e-books area on its Web site to promote digital books using software from Waltham, Mass.-based Glassbook. Amazon.com this week also signed a deal with the company to offer free copies of King's "Riding the Bullet." The company says its reader preserves the layout and feel of printed texts, while offering easy downloads and enhancements afforded by digital formats. \r\n\r\nBarnesandnoble.com's Lanspery said the King experiment is not the first time the company has ventured into e-books, but it is the most successful initiative so far. \r\n\r\n"This shows customers are waiting for the right content at the right price," she said.\r\n\r\nAlthough the King book has so far been offered for free on the site,\r\nLanspery said the company has been successful in selling e-books for cash in the past. The company has not broken out e-book sales from general revenues, she said.\r\n\r\nAnother key step in the development of e-books, analysts said, is coming in\r\nconsumer electronics, where specialized e-book devices have been on the\r\nshelves for months.\r\n\r\nEarlier this year, Gemstar International Group, a Nasdaq 100 company that's\r\nplanning to merge with TV Guide, swept into the electronic book business by\r\nacquiring manufacturers NuvoMedia and SoftBook, a move that could help push\r\nmarketing efforts forward. \r\n\r\nGemstar has also signed a deal with French electronics maker Thomson\r\nMultimedia to pursue the electronic book market. Gemstar said Thomson would\r\nlicense Gemstar's e-book technology and commit to a multiyear\r\nproduct-shipment plan.\r\n\r\nNuvoMedia has not disclosed sales of its Rocket eBook product, which first\r\nshipped in November 1998. But spokesman Marcus Colombano said the company\r\nwas "very pleased" with its performance so far.\r\n\r\nWhile established publishers are dabbling their toes in the digital river,\r\ne-books may offer a new venue for authors to get their works in front of an audience.\r\n\r\nFatbrain CEO Chris MacAskill said the Internet offers a fresh marketplace\r\nfor literary works.\r\n\r\nIn launching MightyWords.com, the company will get a new platform for marketing content from its eMatter initiative, which allows authors and publishers to promote 10- to 100-page manuscripts in exchange for a\r\n50 percent cut of sales.\r\n\r\nThe move will help position the company for an eventual spinoff of the\r\nMightyWords.com site, MacAskill said.\r\n\r\nMacAskill said the company has targeted midsized stories overlooked by\r\nprint publishers that are "too long for a magazine, but too short for a\r\nnovel."\r\n\r\nHe said King's story, at 66 pages, is a prime example of how e-books can\r\nbridge that gap.\r\n\r\n"It's the first thing to come out in this length I can think of since\r\nCharles Dickens had kids selling serial manuscripts on the street corners,"\r\nhe said. "The business model for short stories died out. But the Internet\r\nwill bring it back."