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Random House to digitize a whole mess o’ books

Europeana, the EU’s online repository of digital books, may be experiencing birth pangs, but Random House in the U.S. seems convinced that the market for digital books is where the future of publishing lies.

The Huffington Post reports that the multinational publisher is implementing a broad new initiative to digitize thousands of its titles, including books by John Updike and Harlan Coben. The move, which Random House CEO Markus Dohle says is an attempt to “extend our reach” to the people who are reading books online will see the house’s digital library balloon from 8,000 titles to more than 15,000.

The deciders at Random House are targeting the online market as the one segment of book buyers that appears to be increasing:

Random House’s vice president for digital operations, Matt Shatz, says e-book sales have increased by triple digit percentages in 2008, thanks in part to Amazon.com’s Kindle reader, but he declined to offer [a] specific number. E-books remain a tiny part of the overall market, widely estimated in the industry at 1 percent or less.

Publishers have never exactly been early adopters of new technologies, so it is interesting to see one of the industry heavyweights embracing digitization in such a concerted manner. It remains to be seen whether this move will pay off financially for the firm, or whether they are placing their efforts behind the digital version of eight tracks. Still, the move seems fairly low-risk: for a modest outlay up front, the house will have access to a burgeoning market in a format that is environmentally friendly and immune from factors like returns of unsold copies.