Do you dream of seeing your writing available to a global audience? Is that dream interrupted by nightmares of road blocks consisting of disinterested agents and unappreciative editors? Well, the information superhighway is now allowing writers to awaken from their nightmares and fulfill their fantasies by publishing their work directly as electronic books. Oh, but there's a catch, the superhighway isn't a rainbow, so there's no pot of gold at the end. At least not yet.
What in the Al Gore am I talking about? Electronic books, eBooks for short, are manuscripts stored on a computer in one of a variety of formats that allow them to be read directly from a computer, printed out at your desk, or downloaded to a portable reader. Purists may roll their eyes at the prospect of curling up with a PalmPilot, but, hey, the monks who spent years with quill and ink probably weren't fans of Gutenberg either.
Why have electronic books suddenly become feasible? Marcus Colombano, NuvoMedia's Director of Marketing says it's a matter of timing, "the right screen technology, encryption technology, web technology, and distribution outlets have made it possible now for eBooks." He says people who really enjoy reading and want the mobility of a reader that can carry many books are the ones buying the new products.
Among the advantages of eBooks are the abilities to:
● Buy books instantly, 24 hours a day, via
Jim Sachs, President and CEO of SoftBook Press, suggests that eBooks offer opportunities for new writers: "First, greater ease to get works published. Publishers have a limited number of titles, so good authors don't get published. There's no artificial limit to publishing eBooks. Second, increased compensation for authors. The economics of publishing eBooks is superior [publishers don't have to worry about warehousing, inventorying, or returns], so in the long-term authors will make more money, publishers can make more and books will cost less. Third, eBooks offer a new medium for authors. It is a book-like form that is page oriented, but adds the ability to hyperlink."
Going it Alone
Just about anyone with a modicum of computer skills can create their own eBook. In "Surf’s Up For Writers” (November 1998), I suggested that writers could use web sites to market themselves; well, those sites can also be the home of your eBook. All you have to do is convert your word processing file to a web document that uses what's called Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). You can have a vendor do this for you or do it yourself if you have a recent version of Word or WordPerfect. For example, in WordPerfect 8, I call up my file, click on File, Internet Publisher, Format as a Web Document, Publish as Web Document and, voila, it's done. Word has a similar utility. Alternatively, you can use a web authoring program such as Adobe PageMill or Microsoft Front Page. Once your book has been converted to HTML, you have to upload the file to the place where your web site is hosted. At that point, everyone with access to the Web can read your book.
If you're still banging out pages on a typewriter, you'll wish you had joined the information age sooner. To get your manuscript converted, you'll again have the option of sending it out to a company that will scan the text into a computer where it can then be converted, or undertaking this tedious task yourself.
As I noted in "Surf's Up," lots of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), including big ones like AOL, offer free web pages, so you can electronically publish your book for nothing. No more paying vanity presses thousands of dollars for books that will sit in your garage!
E-Commerce for Writers
So far so good, but if you publish it, will they read? Out of the bizillion web sites, how will your potential readers find you? Why would anyone want to sit at their computer and read your work? If your name is Tom Clancy, they will probably at least glance at the first chapter, but if your name is unfamiliar, the likelihood is that visitors will assume it's just one more piece of Internet junk. Real writers have their books in stores between hard covers.
Chances are if you just throw your book into cyberspace it will float there unobserved by all but your friends and relatives. To get attention for any web site, you've got to publicize it, either by paying for ads, which isn't likely to be cost effective for writers, or getting listed in as many search engines and linked to as many writing related sites as possible.
Let's assume someone finds your site and takes a peak at your novel. They were irresistibly drawn to read more and more. By jove, this discerning reader, who could be from next door or the next continent, loved your book. Well, unless they send you an email to convey their feelings, you'll never know it. And even if they do write about the way you moved them as no author had done before, unless you can afford to live on kind words (and keep in mind critics are more likely to offer feedback than fans), you'll realize that you haven't made a dime. You see, once the book is on the Internet, it's free for all to see and enjoy.
Well, that's not necessarily true. It is possible to protect your work through a variety of methods, such as requiring people to pay for passwords to have access to the complete manuscript or encrypting the files so they can't be downloaded, read or duplicated without payment first. It is the ability to control access that is of particular concern to publishers and has helped spawn a growing industry of eBook publishers and distributors who believe it is possible to make money with this format using these forms of copyright protection.
Paying the Rent
If you're looking for a big advance for your eBook, forget it. Ewan Grantham of EG&A publishing said he's the only one he knows of who pays an advance, which ranges from $100-500. On the other hand, royalty deals are significantly better than those offered by print publishers, sometimes going as high as 75% of the retail price. The reason for such generosity is that it costs practically nothing to produce and sell eBooks and so few people are buying them the payouts are minuscule.
Several eBook publishers charge nominal fees for converting even digital files into eBooks. Raccoon Siesta Press, for example, charges $100 for the basic conversion and storage of your book in its library. Steve Schneiderman said he started his company specifically to cater to unpublished authors. His philosophy is that books should be like computer shareware. A visitor requests and receives an electronic copy of your book and then is expected to send the author a nominal fee set by the writer. "The shareware principle has created some very lucrative cash flow for software authors," the Press says on its site. "Our question is why not extend this approach to books by unknown authors. While we cannot guarantee you'll get rich selling your books here, you may get some remarkable exposure." The problem with this model is that the people who are making money with shareware have developed really popular programs that are used by thousands, if not millions of people, the kind of appeal unlikely to be generated by a novel from an unknown writer.
Another impediment to eBooks being profitable for authors is the lack of distribution through the major channels. One exception is Barnes and Noble, which has a whole section in its online store devoted to eBooks and, according to a New York Times story, has sold about 15,000 copies. By contrast, Amazon.com, which one might expect to be on the leading edge of such new technology doesn't sell any eBooks. Carl Gish, Amazon's general manager, told WD publishers aren't bringing eBooks to them and that the customer base is very small. Gish does believe, however, eBooks' time will come.
Perhaps the best evidence that eBooks are not lucrative is that agents have no interest in them. The exception is veteran representative Richard Curtis who believes it is a viable market in the long-term. He has started E-Rights to help authors get the rights to their old books back (often a simple matter of making a formal request). Once the rights are recovered, the books can be digitized and he wants to make them available on an E-Reads web site that will be similar to Amazon and allow you to purchase books in different formats, with the author receiving 50 percent of the net profit. He plans to charge approximately $200-250 for scanning and converting to digital format. In the future, if the venture is profitable, Curtis hopes to also pay advances. His advantage, he believes, is his 30 years worth of connections with publishers, authors and agents who can provide content the other eBook publishers and distributors are unable to match. When his site is operational in the fall of 1999, Curtis expects to have 1,000 titles available. "One day the industry will be reversed," Curtis believes, "everything will be electronic and print rights will be considered the alternative."
Other eBook makers act more like vanity presses. Logos, for example, charges approximately $1-1.50 per page to convert a typical novel to digital format. What makes this route appealing is the company's distribution ability. According to Dale Pritchett, Vice President of Marketing, "everything we publish goes to Barnes and Noble. We take a file and two weeks later it's available at Barnes and Noble for sale."
BiblioBytes takes a slightly different approach. Publisher Glenn Hauman explained that he converts books and posts them for free on their web site. Depending on the work required to prepare the book, he pays 11-35 percent royalty, which is based on ad revenue. He sells ads on each page of the book and every time someone turns a page they get a different ad, which allows him to charge the companies that are advertising more money. A person could just print out all the pages of the book, but he makes it difficult because you'd have to do it one at a time, so most people are likely to page through and thereby generate more ad revenue and royalties for the writer. "We're open to first time authors who show professionalism," Hauman says, "but we can't hand-hold people who need help." One other element of the BiblioByte format is that it allows readers to offer criticism. "Feedback is merciless," according to Hauman. "People will stop reading and tell you what an idiot you are and how horrible your writing is. If you pay attention, though, your writing will improve."
From Mothballs to Megabytes
Writers who can best capitalize on the eBook technology now are those who have published books that are now out of print. "We set up a system to reach out to the writing community to submit previously published works," says Don Bottoms, President of Librius. "Now a book never has to be out of print." Since Librius doesn't have a large editorial staff (the case for all eBook makers), he adds, the company hasn't decided yet what to do about unpublished books. He is working with groups like Romance Writers of America and Sisters in Crime to see if they can screen material that might be converted to eBooks.
Since it costs so little to convert a book, old titles can be rejuvenated and sold as eBooks. Bottoms says his company can take any digital format and offer it for sale at no cost. The royalty is a whopping 75 percent of the digital price. Of course, the eBook is likely to sell for roughly half the price of a paperback and someone still has to buy it. Librius has agreements with 60 major publishers and hopes to direct readers to writers who they may be less familiar with. For example, you might get on the Librius email list and get a message to the effect that if you like Stephen King, maybe you'll like this other author's work.
A key to new authors being accepted is validation. Many people view the Internet as a dump for otherwise unpublishable manuscripts, but Grantham disagrees. "In the same sense that there are subsidy publishers in the off-line world, there are in the on-line world as well. If a writer sticks with a reputable publisher in either arena, they will know that their work is of some quality. Whether the bar is lower in some manner might be questionable, but, from my experience at least, you are just as likely to get rejected in either world."
Goodbye Book, Hello Electronic Tablet
The publishing industry does not foresee nor look forward to an electronic revolution; however, visionaries in the field predict significant changes in the way books are distributed. Sachs, for example, imagines a day when authors will hire editors to go over their manuscripts, electronically publish them and put them on web sites and sell them through retailers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. Nancy McAllister, who started Boson Books, adds "online book publishing is probably where paperback publishing was in the 1940s. By 1950 paperback books were entirely accepted. We cannot imagine that they were once objectionable."
Most electronic publishers do not expect books to be replaced. They view eBooks as enhancements, just as videos have helped the film industry rather than replace movies in theaters as that industry's doomsayers once forecast. From the publishers' standpoint eBooks are not yet a threat. "Without a publisher it's hard to get publicity and distribution," says HarperCollins' director of Internet development, Arty Kahzaei. He doubts books will ever be published just in electronic format, but does believe eBooks will be part of the future of publishing.
McAlister admits that after five years in the business, Boson still doesn't sell as many books as she expected. Still, she and most others in the industry are in it because they believe the future is rosy. "People love the feel of books, the smell of ink. It's like Captain Piccard on Star Trek reading his old book, but still reading most things on a computer screen," says Jon Noring of Omni Media Digital Publishing. "In 15 years, 95 percent of books will be electronic. Paper books will be like keeping the horse and buggy after the invention of the automobile."
Maybe, but don't throw out that list of agents and publishers just yet.
Beta vs. VHS
The eBook market is new and developing rapidly and several companies are rushing out products with a variety of formats. To their credit, the developers recognized the potential for a bruising battle over standards reminiscent of the video recording industry's Beta/VHS war and decided to quickly work toward a single standard. The major players, such as SoftBook and NuvoMedia joined with Microsoft and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop what is called the Open eBook standard that will be readable on any type of system.
Submitting to eBook makers.
Many web sites post guidelines for eBook writers. Boson, for example, asks for a description of the book and a 50 page sample. If those are good, writers will be asked to submit the complete manuscript. Boson is interested "in everything that's good." There is no advance and a 20 percent royalty. One of the major eBook publishers is Hard Shell Word Factory, which offers a royalty but no advance. Unpublished writers are asked to send a synopsis and first three chapters along with a cover letter. Published authors can submit a synopsis and either three chapters or a complete manuscript. Guidelines for various publishers are often very specific so check them carefully before submitting anything.
Some Sites To Check Out
Alexandria Digital Literature — http://www.alexlit.com/
I had the opportunity to test drive a SoftBook. Among its advantages are that you don't need a computer to use it, books can be downloaded to it from a telephone line with its built-in modem that is supposed to download 100 pages per minute, and the reader will hold up to 100,000 pages of text and graphics. The SoftBook has a handsome leather cover and looks like a large-print book. The default type size is about the same as an ordinary book so a full page is displayed, but one of the beauties of the format is that you can increase it so it is very easy to read. You don't need to scroll down pages, as you do with a computer, but can click a button to turn pages. It does have some of the conveniences of a computer, such as a touch screen that allows you to quickly move around the book or switch books, highlight text, place bookmarks and search the text. The demo model I looked at had the New York Times, Bill Gates' latest book, some technical documents, and books by Joseph Conrad and Jack London. The downside from my perspective is that it is heavy (2.9 pounds), almost like a notebook computer, and you still have to look at a computer-like display, which is not relaxing if you spend your day in front of one.
NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook reader has gotten the most ink of any of the new devices and probably has the most name recognition as a result. It is a nifty gadget, checking in at just 22 ounces and the size of a paperback. Choosing between the Rocket and SoftBook is like having a preference for hard or soft-cover books, at least in terms of size and reading comfort. The Rocket has a smaller capacity, roughly 4,000 pages, but otherwise similar features to the SoftBook, such as the capability to browse, annotate, underline and search the text. It also allows you to change the size of the print and the display orientation (lengthwise or widthwise). I liked its light weight, but prefer the SoftBook's larger screen, which also was more responsive to touch commands than the Rocket. To download books, the Rocket comes with a special cradle that attaches to a serial port on a computer. One of NuvoMedia's early advantages is that its reader and Rocket eBooks are being sold by Barnes & Noble's online store (more than 700 were listed in the catalogue). NuvoMedia also offers software that allows writers to convert their documents into RocketEditions.
Another player is Peanut Press, which has published more than 200 electronic books specifically for use on PalmPilots. The advantage of this format is that approximately 4 million people already own these devices, whereas the new eBook readers number in the thousands. Many users swear by them, but I can't see reading a book on the tiny screens. Peanut's CEO Mark Reichelt counters that the screen is about the width of a newspaper column and people are used to reading columns.
The biggest drawback of all the models is that they are still pricey, though the cost is falling rapidly and new competitors will soon be entering the market to force the prices down further. A SoftBook, for example, goes for $300 and a Rocket for $399. Sachs said books for the SoftBook reader are approximately 40 percent off the list price and cost less than the same book from Amazon or B&N because there's no shipping and handling. Rocket books, however, tend to be more expensive than paper ones. At the moment, few books are available in electronic format, but the number is increasing exponentially, and major titles, such as Stephen King's latest novel ($22.40 in Rocket format or $19.60 in hardback at B&N) and Monica Lewinsky's book were released simultaneously in print and eBook form. In addition, old classics are often in the public domain and can be obtained free in electronic format or for a couple of dollars.