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A ruling by a US judge may significantly change the book publishing business. A district court judge agreed with electronic book publisher RosettaBooks that traditional publishing houses do not have an automatic right to print their authors in an electronic format.

This means that authors are entitled to sell their electronic rights separately. The implications for author and both publishing houses are obvious. Without a contract specifying both paper and electronic publishing, an author could have two contracts for the same book. This in turn could see two companies competing over the same book.

Unsurprisingly, the decision that electronic distribution is a new technology and should be governed by different agreements has not be greeted with joy by traditional publishers.

So will we see an e-book industry develop in the next few years? Maybe. Publishing electronically has the advantage of being very cheap and virtually one-price. One version saved on a server can become one million versions. The situation with paper printing is very different. This means greater risks can be taken, more books published and so on and so forth.

Practically though, the ease of publication could lead to a swamping of the market with inferior books. Plus, would recognised authors want to sell the rights to their books at lower prices (which they most likely would have to)? Would such authors also risk alienating their paper publishers by signing another contract for electronic publishing?

And we haven't even covered the fact that e-books have so far not proved too popular. No matter what anyone says, it will be a long time before we are comfortable reading huge tracts of text on a VDU.

We asked young, hip author and former book editor Nicholas Blincoe (who just happens to be Rob news editor's brother) what he thought about it all. "It's true that old publishing contracts leave the whole thing open. There have been a number of high-level seminars with the heads of publishing houses and the heads of big agencies to hammer this problem out. Everyone is trying very hard to sort it out."

But has he or anyone else he knows signed up with an electronic publisher? "I haven't signed anything and hardly anyone else has either." Would he think about it? "Yes, if the money was big enough, but there's not much money involved at the moment."

Would his publisher get shirty if he signed an electronic contract? "Well they would have been a year ago. But Internet books have not really taken off, so publishers are now far more relaxed."

It looks as though all publishers will do is extend contracts into electronic publishing as well, although one other possibility does exist: different versions of a book, catering for the different format. Author Douglas Rushkoff is already testing this out, as well as trying for more interaction with his novels. Check out his Web site here.

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