The CD-Rom books market surely ought to be a vast and rapidly expanding one. Instead, it remains comparatively small and specialised, for two main reasons: the kind of stuff being produced and the prices being charged.
Most electronic books are multimedia productions, with the emphasis on visual effects. Although the visuals are often bargain-basement stuff by the standards of almost any commercial video or computer game, they're still expensive to produce - which partly, but only partly, excuses the ridiculous prices. And even where they're not aimed solely at children, they tend to assume a short attention span, a low boredom threshold and a readership satisfied with small and superficial doses of information.
Then there are specialist productions, mostly collections of historical documents, old journals, a few dictionaries and reference books. Too often they're what the pundits call "shovelware": masses of text dumped straight on to disk without a thought about format, appearance or convenience of use. They are a misery to read and, not surprisingly, they're pitched primarily at academic libraries, with prices that reflect the small and semi-captive market.
Somewhere in between there must be a potential demand for proper books on disk at affordable prices; especially for the kind of work that researchers and students will use for repeated reference. (Not many of us are going to want to read, say, a new novel in this format.)
One of the few serious efforts to fill the gap is London's Electric Book Company (0181-488 3872). So far it's produced five CD-Roms: one containing Jane Austen's complete works, one of Classics in Science from Darwin to Einstein, and three mainly political collections, with a clear slant to the left. There's a selected Marx and Engels, with almost all the bushy-bearded duo's important works, except the Grundrisse; a William Morris collection, including artworks, political writings, novels and poems; and most recently an almost-complete Antonio Gramsci. Gibbon's Decline and Fall is on the way.
Unlike so much else available in the electronic books field, these are genuinely useful and easy to use. The outer packaging isn't very enticing, but the texts themselves are clean, convenient and attractive. They're fully and efficiently searchable. Thus, for instance, I was able to discover within a few minutes that in Jane Austen's entire life's work there are no references at all to pigs, unless you count Elizabeth in Emma expressing surprise that there are no pigs in the garden. Marx's Das Kapital, by contrast, includes numerous statistics on pig-breeding, despite the author's descent from a long line of rabbis. And Darwin's Origin of Species completely fails to discuss natural selection in pigs, though it has a lot to say about pigeons. Just the sort of thing one always wanted to know.
Above all, they're sensibly and accessibly priced. The Gramsci, for instance, is currently £24.95, less than any two paperback editions of the six books it contains. I hope these first few disks are just the beginning of a major catalogue.