Book Clubs Get the Message by Reading Online

The book club, a publishing staple, gets twisted and chopped up online.

Suzanne Beecher lays claim to inventing the e-mail book club.

Her "Chapter a Day" book club debuted in 1999 as a daily e-mail containing an entire book chapter from her to friends and family. The club consumed entire publications this way.

The nonprofit venture and hobby has since morphed into Dear Reader, a virtual book browsing feature that publishers and authors use to market their books.

About 300,000 people each day now use Dear Reader to read, for free, up to two-or-so chapters of any number of books featured on the site.

Dear Reader has a dominant following in e-mail book club circles, making Beecher an appropriate touchstone for vital signs for this wholly digital iteration of a publishing staple.

It appears, based on an interview with her Wednesday, that she and her competitors are beginning to be taken seriously by traditional publishers.

Beecher is pretty upbeat about her future. She points out how she no longer, as she once did, has to "knock down" publishers doors in order to get books to distribute.

Rather, she gets 40 or so unsolicited offers of books per day from these same interests.

Also, major book publishers once slamming doors in her face now embrace e-mail book clubs with the same verve as they do the more traditional variety.

"Things have definitely come full circle for me," she said, so much so that Beecher is featured in the latest edition of TV talk show hostess Oprah Winfreys magazine, O.

E-mail book clubs are part of the nightmare scenario that book publishers envisioned starting five years ago, when major universities and other interests began making entire books available on the Internet.

From the time of the first printing presses, books have been typically sold in their entirety, mainly because the technology behind book publishing didnt allow for an effective piecemeal distribution.

Moreover, that allowed publishers to have absolute control over what they published.

But once in a digital format, books can be viewed piecemeal, thus creating new ways of distributing them beyond what publishers intended, and loosening publishers control over their own material.

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Theres one major hurdle, however. Curling up with a book in a cozy nook has traditionally been part of the enjoyment of reading that is hard to recreate on personal computers.

Innovators are trying to hack away at this problem. But designers are taking baby strides.

For instance, what passes for innovative these days comes from Newport News, Va.-based ArcaMax Publishing.

A patent-pending technology it developed, and introduced last week, lets online book club readers pick up where they left off reading.

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The idea of a bookmark dates back centuries. But online versions of the same thing have so far been missing in action, wrote Hugh Spain, ArcaMax managing editor, in an e-mail to eWEEK.

In this way, readers can go at their own pace, rather than being force-fed some pre-determined amount of the book, as has been the practice of e-mail book clubs.

"In other words, everyone isnt on the same reading schedule," Spain added.

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