* Publishers expect iPad to expand online readership
* Sleek design, Apple fanbase may draw in doubters
By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Book publishers predicted on Wednesday that Apple’s iPad would boost interest in online reading. But observers doubted the novel tablet computer would immediately revolutionize electronic publishing like the iPod changed music listening.
At the unveiling of the new device, Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs demonstrated a new digital bookstore and application, iBooks, in an effort to reinvent the way books are read and entice readers to easily shop for and read books online.
Major publishers including Pearson’s (PSON.L) Penguin, News Corp’s (NWSA.O) HarperCollins, Lagardere’s (LAGA.PA) Hachette Book Group and CBS Corp.’s (CBS.N) Simon & Schuster MacMillan, who will offer their books through the new reader, did not discuss the terms of the deal with Apple, but said they hoped it would bring e-readers more into the mainstream.
According to statistics released by the International Digital Publishing Forum, wholesale revenue from e-book sales in the United States almost tripled in the third quarter of 2009 to $46.5 million from $13.9 million in the same period in 2008.
The iPad, which starts at $499, is a half-inch thick tablet computer with a 9.7 inch (25 cm) touchscreen. It will compete with other e-readers like Amazon’s (AMZN.O) Kindle, which currently sells for $259 and Barnes and Noble’s Nook device.
“We love it, it’s a state of the art device that Apple always does well and now they have added books to their repertoire,” said Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for Simon & Schuster. “From a publishing perspective, this is a great thing.”
Several publishing houses said Apple’s new iBook store, and its established worldwide customer base through popular devices such as iPods and applications like iTunes, meant they expected to immediately expand their readership.
“Having our books easily available through its store will allow us to broaden the reach of our authors and connect with new readers,” said John Makinson, CEO of the Penguin group.
During the presentation Jobs displayed the iBook store whose design includes a virtual “book shelf” that shows the cover designs of books readers choose.
He also demonstrated how readers can change the font of the books they are reading.
“You can carry literally thousands of books around,” Jobs said. But he left the unveiling of the iBooks application until after other features of the device like reading newspapers, watching video games and movies.
Book industry observers, who had hoped the iPad would set alight an industry that has fallen under the shadow of growing industries such as video games, said it did not completely erase existing perceptions of e-readers, such as an unfriendly reading screen.
“Reading books on computer screens is not what people have wanted to do. It’s horrible on the eyes. I doubt this will be the Kindle killer anyone predicted,” said Seth Jayson, a senior technology analyst at Motley Fool.
“I have my doubts that people at Amazon are too worried about this,” he added.
A spokesman for Amazon did not comment on whether they were worried the iPad would affect sales of Kindle readers, but said in an e-mail message that customers would soon be able to sync their Kindle books to the iPad.
But Apple’s ability to set technology trends, the iPad and iBook store’s sleek design as well as its existing fan base would ensure reading books on the iPad would not be a failure, some experts said.
“The fact that this device is being released by Apple does indeed matter,” said Steve Hasker, president of Media Products, a company that tracks media usage. “It will create much more consumer adoption than previous tablet-like devices.”
Others, like author and publisher Karen Hunter, hoped it would energize interest in books with its light feel and color display and capture a higher percentage of the youth market.
“I don’t have to lug around a 1,000-page book now I have it in a platform that is light,” said Hunter.
“My only fear is that this will help us become a lazy fat society that won’t go anywhere or talk to each other because everything is now in a tablet,” she said.
Additional reporting by Sue Zeidler; editing by Vicki Allen