E-readers steal spotlight at book fair

Google announces plan to sell electronic copies of books

FRANKFURT, Germany -- The old media hardcover still has pride of place at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but at the 2009 edition it was Kindles and cross-media that were all the rage.

Google stole the show with its announcement of Google Editions -- a new scheme that will allow it to sell electronic copies of books over the Web. The plan, which is set to launch in the first half of 2010, is a direct challenge to Amazon, as the online retailer rolls out its Kindle electronic book reader worldwide.

Many in Frankfurt predicted that 2010 will be "the year of the e-reader," citing Barnes & Noble's new device and Apple's long-rumored Tablet, which is expected to hit the market sometime next year.

The stodgy book trade has been slow to adapt to digital technology, but publishers are now scrambling to find business models to fit the new paradigm.

One of the more interesting unveiled in Frankfurt last week was Open Road Integrated Media, a digital publishing company launched by former HarperCollins head Jane Friedman and indie film producer Jeffrey Sharp ("Boys Don't Cry"). Open Road plans to tap backlists of well-known authors, reissuing books in electronic form, as well as e-publishing new authors. Sharp will also develop backlist and new titles for possible feature film and television exploitation.

Speaking to a packed conference room, Swedish producer Jenny Gilbertsson and publisher Eva Gedin showed how successful the collaboration between book and film worlds can be. Head of development at Stockholm group Yellow Bird, Gilbertsson acquired the rights to Stieg Larsson's then-unpublished Millennium trilogy of crime novels.

The first film, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," is already the most successful Scandinavian feature of all time, with boxoffice revenue closing in on $100 million worldwide. In several territories, such as the U.K., the films are being released almost simultaneously with the translated versions of the novels, providing substantial cross-promotion potential.

Overall, however, the mood in Frankfurt was somber. Attendance figures -- 227,000 visitors, 160,000 of them industry -- were down from last year and many events -- including Random House's must-attend annual party -- was canceled.