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Disney Debuts Subscription Digital Books

Disney Publishing today is launching an online subscription service offering families Web access to the empire's library of children's books.

Subscriptions for Disney Digital Books will cost either $8.95 a month or $79.95 a year, and can be purchased online or through gift cards sold in retail locations, according to analyst Sarah Rotman Epps, analyst at Forrester.

Epps got a preview of the service, which will go live today with 500 online books with more titles added each week, and which will be formally unveiled during a press conference this afternoon.

While Walt Disney's (NYSE: DIS) publishing arm is calling the service Disney Digital Books, Epps stopped short of describing the products as e-books, and is impressed by their features in comparison to e-books like those in EPUB format.

"I've decided that no, they are aren't quite e-books. They aren't portable, and they don't come in a transferable format like EPUB," Epps wrote in a blog post. "In some ways, these digital books are more than e-books: They're interactive, illustrated and in color. Maybe some day e-books will function more like Disney's 'digital books,' but for now the two products seem distinct enough to warrant different language."

The Disney online books also differ in that they can't be accessed by e-readers, Epps said, because right now, "e-ink" devices can't support the color or interactivity they offer.

As for future plans beyond the desktop, Disney executives said they are reviewing all opportunities, including mobile devices and perhaps color e-readers.

Russell Hampton, the president of Disney Publishing Worldwide, told reporters during a Web conference this afternoon that the lack of color makes the Amazon's Kindle e-book reader an unattractive outlet for children's books.

"We already offer young adult titles on Kindle today, but for books for ages 3 to 12, there's a lot of art and ... Kindle is still limited in terms of being black and white," Hampton said.

He did say, however, that Disney will focus on mobile platforms in the future for its titles.

"We chose to launch on the personal computer because it gives the closest experience to reading an actual book," Hampton explained. "As the technology evolves and there's an opportunity to distribute on other platforms, including mobile, we will be there," Hampton said.

He declined to say whether or not Disney planned to launch its own wireless e-reader in the future that would directly compete with the Kindle and other similar devices.

"Our goal is to reach as many consumers as we can, and right now the PC is the most ubiquitous, but as opportunities present themselves, we will look at them," Hampton said.

It's not surprising that Disney is getting into the digital book game, with the budding e-reader and digital book market expected to begin growing dramatically. Worldwide e-reader shipments for 2008 totaled 1 million, but should grow to 30 million by 2013, according to In-Stat, while iSuppli estimates 18 million device sales by 2012.

But those prospects have attracted a number of competitors. After Amazon's rollout of the Kindle 2 e-book reader and large-screen DX version earlier this year, Sony, Asus, Barnes & Noble and iRex Technologies have all unveiled plans for their answer to the popular Kindle.

Unlike Disney, however, these companies are banking the sale of devices and digital books rather than on subscriptions.

"Disney Digital Books won't impact the e-reader market directly, but it will contribute to feeding the growing demand for digitized reading content. It won't help (or hurt) device sales, but it will encourage the overall growth of digital reading as a behavior," Epps told InternetNews.com.

The entertainment giant is also uniquely positioned in the market to launch a service that cuts out the retail middleman, Epps wrote in her blog. "This product matters because every publisher I work with is dying to launch direct-to-consumer services, where they reap the revenue and manage the customer relationship directly rather than going through a retailer middleman," she wrote. "But this is a huge challenge for most publishers."

She added that Disney is likewise in a strong position because it owns its own content -- unlike most publishers -- and is a recognizable brand.

"What Disney's doing will have impact, and will serve as a model other publishers can look to as they figure out their own play," she said.

Epps also wrote that she found the service "engaging," especially a character-based visual browsing function that lets children choose a book by browsing through images of their favorite characters, rather than having to type in a title or author.

Update adds Hampton's comments from Webcast with reporters.