Will books become just a memory?

This story, about two St. Louis entrepreneurs, appeared in 1990. They were about 20 years early. Read Alan Kaufman’s recent essay about electronic books, “The Electronic Book Burning,” by clicking on this link.

Dust off the books on the shelf. Put ’em in a box and take it to a recycling center.

You might not need them anymore, if a small St. Louis company has its way. The home library of the future could be reduced to a shoebox full of memory modules, each about the size of a quarter.

VPR Systems Ltd. — headed by Robert Griesedieck, 66, a former brewing executive, and Michael Saigh, 37, a stockbroker and business professor — plans to introduce a hand-held electronic book by the fall of 1991.

Unlike other manufacturers, who are developing systems that use compact discs for text and graphics, VPR’s ‘video pocket reader’ uses an interchangeable, reprogrammable memory module.

Saigh and Griesedieck — who operate out of a converted suburban duplex in St. Louis County — say each module can store three to four textbooks. The entire Encyclopaedia Britannica could fit on as few as three. The video pocket reader shows 16 lines of text on a liquid-crystal display, operates on four AAA batteries, weighs about 8 ounces and will retail for less than $100. There’s a prototype, but working models won’t be available until January.

Who will want an electronic book?

Lots of people, based on the number of firms plunging into the business.

The players range from consumer electronics giants, like Sony Corp., to tiny start-up companies tinkering with circuit boards.

Sony, which gave Walkman to the world, unveiled Data Discman in July, a three-pound, $ 350 electronic book that uses 3-inch compact discs. Data Discman is available only in Japan.

Franklin Electronics in New Jersey and SelecTronics Inc. of New York both are marketing electronic Bibles and dictionaries in the form of hand-held calculators. Prices range from $50 to $300.

Seiko Instruments Inc. this summer introduced multilanguage pocket translators for Japanese, English, Spanish and French. The translators retail from $ 80 to $ 100 each.

Even a company in ”Silicon Holler” is getting into the act.

EMPRUVE Inc. of Knoxville, Tenn., is introducing Cornucopia, a device that not only provides full text and graphics, but will offer stereo audio and moving video on three screens, using digital video interactive technology developed by Intel Corp.

The flood of new gizmos merits a healthy amount of skepticism, says an industry expert.

”Every week, someone comes down the pike and says, ‘I’ve got it now!’ ” said Richard A. Bowers, executive director of the Optical Publishing Association, a trade group representing the compact disc, read-only memory (CD-ROM) publishing companies.

Bowers said the electronic book still has big obstacles ahead. The technology to develop a portable, inexpensive electronic book already is available. What isn’t available is an abundance of titles that can capitalize on new technologies.

”What we’re talking about is not a computer problem. We’re talking about a publishing situation. You can’t publish one book and build your company around it,” said Bowers.

That’s where the VPR inventors believe they may have a leg up on competitors.

Compact discs, while they can store tremendous amounts of information, can’t be erased and can’t store new data. And unlike the Franklin Bible, the video pocket reader can accept an unlimited number of texts.

Here’s how the video pocket reader will work:

Bookstores each are equipped with a toaster-sized ‘VPR Book Bank,’ containing numerous book titles with on-line access to additional titles.

A customer makes a selection and takes a voucher to a cashier, who automatically transfers a title to a memory module.

”It’s a special design that hasn’t been used somewhere else,” said Tom Domian, VPR vice president of operations. The modules will sell for about $20.

A central processing center records the transaction, providing publishers with instantaneous information to monitor sales and royalties.

”This is a point-of-purchase duplication process. It’s right in the stores, erasable and interchangeable,” said Saigh.

Saigh, a business professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, says the system gets new book titles to the public without printing, production, shipping and warehouse costs.

No trees, no lumber, no printing inks, no diesel fuel for trucks, no cut for wholesalers.

And better still, no remainder table.

Saigh cites Donald Trump as an example of the type of marketing nightmare publishers can avoid using the VPR system.

Random House paid the New York developer a $2 million advance and printed 500,000 copies of his book, Surviving at the Top, based on the success of Trump’s earlier tome, Art of the Deal.

Art of the Deal stayed on the best-seller list for two years.

Surviving at the Top survived seven weeks.

”Publishing is a very conservative business,” said Bowers.

”One of the greatest fears about traditional publishers is that they will cannibalize their traditional print markets,” said Bowers.

”They know for sure they can make money on print. If they blow away their print business, could they recover?”

Saigh admits he’s bucking a powerful, entrenched industry. After all, the printed book has been around for at least 534 years.

”We are battling a concept that the book is sacred,” said Saigh.

Indeed, the initial reaction from publishers, wholesalers and printers is, well, less than overwhelming.

”It sounds awful to me,” said Arlynn Greenbaum, marketing director for Little, Brown & Co. Inc. ”You can’t get it autographed and can’t put it on the shelf.”

”It’s going to have to be a pretty darned good invention to uproot a written tradition this long-standing,” said Dan Cullen, editorial director fo the American Booksellers Association, a New York trade group that represents bookstores. — Roland Klose

Published by The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper of Memphis, Dec. 4, 1990.