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Barnes & Noble opens 'world's largest eBookstore'

Barnes & Noble Inc., which withdrew from the nascent digital-books market in 2006, said Monday it has re-entered the growing field and launched “the world's largest eBookstore.”

The New York retailer, which operates 777 U.S. stores, boasted that its online book shop has more than 700,000 titles. Included in the tally are about a half-million books in the public domain and available as free downloads via a partnership with Google Inc. Works whose copyrights have expired or were never copyrighted at all, including William Shakespeare's plays or Dante's “Divine Comedy,” are considered public domain titles.

Barnes & Noble's online efforts, which began in 2001 and ended five years later because of lackluster sales, were revived earlier in 2009. In March, it acquired Fictionwise, an online electronic bookseller, for US$15.7 million. Fictionwise continues to operate as a business separate from Barnes & Noble's online bookstore. The moves come as Amazon.com Inc. is growing its slice of the fast-growing eBooks market. A year after Barnes & Noble bowed out of eBooks, Amazon in November 2007 launched the Kindle, which lets users wirelessly download books on the device without having to hook it up to a computer. The Seattle online retailer has since released two other versions — the thinner Kindle 2 and a large-screen Kindle DX. Amazon offers 300,000 books for download on the Kindle.

While Barnes & Noble does not offer a similar gadget, it announced a partnership with Plastic Logic, a start-up company that is developing an eBook device that would compete with the Kindle. The Plastic Logic reader, expected to be the length and width of a sheet of notebook paper, would have wireless download capabilities similar to Kindle and be on the market in early 2010.

Barnes & Noble described the bookstore as an “every-device strategy” in which electronic books purchased from its online store can be read on multiple devices. But the company said its books would not be compatible with the Kindle and Sony Corp.'s Reader. Instead, its digital books can be displayed on iPhones, BlackBerries, computers and the proposed Plastic Logic device.

The digital-books market, though a tiny fraction of the US$25-billion U.S. book market, is expected to grow over the next five years even as the market for books is expected to flatten or decline. Aside from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, the leading players in the emerging market include Google, whose book-scanning project has become the subject of regulatory scrutiny.

The European Union on Monday said it would hold a hearing on Sept. 7 to review a legal settlement that Google had reached with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers to make out-of-print books available online.

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