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E-book firm lands AOL deal

Franklin Electronic Publishers signs a distribution deal with AOL Time Warner five months after the media giant shut down its own e-book publishing division.

E-book company Franklin Electronic Publishers said Friday that it has signed a distribution deal with AOL Time Warner.

Burlington, N.J.-based Franklin, known for its eBookMan handheld device, said it will disseminate books by authors from Warner Books and Little Brown and Co. Featured authors will include Nicholas Sparks, Brad Meltzer, Anita Shreve and Larry King.

The deal comes five months after AOL Time Warner ended its own short-lived e-book publishing effort dubbed iPublish, citing a weak market for the technology, and moved sale of digital reprints to its book group.

AOL Time Warner was not alone in backing away from e-book efforts. Random House also folded its electronic book division, AtRandom, last year. And author Stephen King, an early supporter of e-books, has yet to revive a digital self-publishing experiment that he put on hold in November 2000.

Such moves have had their affect on the fledgling industry, with several companies attempting to offer e-book text and devices going out of business. Last month, Digital Goods, formerly known as Softlock.com, which worked with Simon & Schuster as a distributor for King's Internet-only book "Riding the Bullet," filed for bankruptcy.

"It's still a very young market," said Susan Kevorkian, a research analyst at IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based research firm. "It always takes longer for a new technology to catch on with the mass market...I think it has to do with the industry still figuring out how best to sell and position e-books, and it's more of a natural evolution for a relatively new technology."

Kevorkian added, however, that she remains "pretty bullish" on e-books especially for the possibility that they present for students and professionals.

Publishing companies also haven't written off the digital format entirely. Earlier this week, Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster said it would release 23 Ernest Hemingway books in an electronic format.

Chris Strano, director of marketing at Franklin, said it is continuing to work with publishers to provide a viable way for them to produce digital works. In addition to AOL Time Warner's book division, Franklin says it has distribution deals with Vivendi Universal, Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, Columbia University, Collins U.K. and Merriam Webster, among others.

"There's no doubt that e-books have not met forecast from a few years ago," Strano said. "But with Franklin, it's about developing a strategy that does not require heavy investment...We are working to get across a simple solution so that publishers could produce e-books efficiently and effectively."