CHICAGO -- Jerry Stiller's baggy eyes grew bigger, and his mouth opened slightly, in a puzzled way.
He had just been asked what he thought of electronic books.
''Does that mean you get shock treatment when you read?'' the actor wondered, shortly after speaking to a Sunday breakfast gathering at BookExpo America. ''I keep hearing they're putting books on a computer. Does that mean you don't get royalties?''
Stiller, promoting his memoirs at McCormick Place, was just one of thousands trying to figure out just what was happening in the publishing industry. BookExpo America, the annual national convention which ended Sunday, has traditionally been a time to meet, eat and make deals. But this year it also served as an ongoing educational program, preparing everyone from authors to booksellers for an increasingly digital future.
''I've been going around the show and talking to various people about e-books, wanting to make sense of it all,'' said David A. Goehring, vice president of Perseus Publishing, based in Cambridge, Mass. ''And it was very difficult because I kept getting letters tossed back at me and not information. I think a lot of people are trying to make sense of it.''
It seemed anything with an 'e-' in front or a 'dot.com' at the end could draw a crowd. Lectures and panel discussions on e-books, electronic rights and related issues were standing room only. The most talked about speaker wasn't a writer but the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos. Companies either ignored or nonexistent two years ago had all the attention they could handle.
''There seems to be a 'dot' in every sentence now,'' said Stephen Corrick, a literary agent from Chicago. ''It's been around the fringes, but this is the first time it's gotten to the middle of the discussion. It's a period of great excitement and confusion.''
After a year marked by Stephen King's electronic novella ''Riding the Bullet'' and multimillion dollar investments by everyone from Microsoft to Random House, few were doubting that online bookselling and on-demand printing would catch on. The question was when. Some said in a decade, or three years, or six months.
''I think people will see this as one of the most significant moments in publishing history,'' said Michael Powell, owner of Powell's Books, a major independent retailer based in Portland, Ore. ''It's coming down the road at lightning speed.''
Statistics released over the weekend confirmed how quickly the market is changing. A consumer study guide reported that books sold online tripled their market share between 1998 and 1999, from 1.9 percent to 5.4 percent. More than 50 million titles were purchased by adults and no one doubts that number will increase, significantly.
On the Net: http://www.bookexpoamerica.com
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