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BOUND BOOKS DOOMED? PUBLISHERS BRACING FOR NEXT HIGH-TECH CHAPTER

Books made of paper will soon be obsolete, so go electronic before it's too late.

Such was one battle cry that went up at the annual conference of the Association of American Publishers. Some 200 of the nation's senior publishing executives gathered for the three-day huddle here, where they sat in a dimly lighted meeting room as a range of speakers discussed the future of books and bookselling.When the group first met 25 years ago, in Cherry Hill, N.J., it was a more gentlemanly time and the focus was on how to sell books more efficiently. This time, all eyes were on the technological monster banging loudly on everyone's door.

"Will electronics replace the book?" asked Edward A. Morrow, a past president of the association, bookstore owner and panelist. "Our answer is yes, it will."

Several publishers were visibly dismayed by the comment. One closed his eyes wearily, another shook his head and another dropped his face into his hand.

Morrow reassured them. Printed books won't disappear, he said, but, like vinyl records, they will become collector's items in just a few years. The mass market, he said, will belong to electronic books and multimedia. "For every reader who dies today," he said, "a viewer is born."

- Mary B.W. Tabor