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Publishers Scramble to Make Electronic Books a Reality

The advantage of the e-book model in our speed-freaked world is that it leapfrogs the typical nine-month incubation period (at minimum) that it takes for a manuscript to hit the shelves, meaning e-books can be specifically targeted to current events. Simon & Schuster, in fact, announced a plan to publish one of two books on Election Day, depending on the winner. (Now they can publish both, at no extra cost.)

As for fiction, e-publishing is ideal for book addicts who consume a steady diet of a certain genre—particularly romance or science fiction. They can sign up for a subscription model and get a new volume dowloaded each month. Publishers are also heralding the advent of a new kind of short-form text, around 60 to 120 pages, which is longer than an essay but shorter than a book. (Hunter S. Thompson's short story "Screwjack," for example, or the condensed version of Robert Kiyosaki's massively successful Rich Dad's Guide to Becoming Rich.)

Hilary Liftin, director of electronic business development at Time Warner, also hopes it will allow publishers to take bolder chances: "With lower publishing costs we can take bigger risks with experimental writers we publish. We can slice and dice parts of books and bundle them, tailoring books to specific reader feedback. We can take risks with book in digital form and if people respond, take them to print."

But what about those promises that e-books would democratize publishing, allowing anyone the technology to make their work available to the masses? There are online "vanity publishing" services like Xlibris and iUniverse that enable authors to self-publish, but is it worthwhile to increase the number of published authors if nobody reads them?

"Publishing nowadays is about marketing. It's easy enough to make it available—anyone with half a brain can get published," says Steve Roth, founder of Open House, a Seattle-based writers' consortium, as he loads up a lunch plate with stir-fry chicken and chocolate-dipped fortune cookies at e-Book World's buffet. "Traditionally, the gatekeepers to culture, the people who controlled what people read, were editors. And that power has shifted in this century almost completely to the marketers and the reviewers. But the reviewer won't even hear about it if there's not marketing."


Those who stand to benefit most from e-publishing are the writer-entrepreneurs who can rest on the laurels of their own, established brand. Stephen King made a pretty good case for it when he published Riding the Bullet online and sold more than 400,000 copies in its first 24 hours. The John Grishams and Danielle Steels of the world essentially don't need the services offered by publishers anymore—they're more likely to have their agents edit their work than their publisher, they don't need much marketing, and they may be better off setting up their own online publishing stores and selling to fans directly.

A panel at the conference noted that this potential for publishing autonomy encourages the sort of cross-platform self-promotional acrobatics you see among next-gen writers like Dave Eggers, Elizabeth Wurtzel, and Michael Wolff (go to: www.burnrate.com). But where does this leave the important literary works that might be rotting away in the corner of a closet without the brand machinery to force them out into the public, or literary figures who'd rather spend their time writing than sucking off a bunch of talk-show hosts? Shouldn't the world of e-publishing have some grace to offer them?

The great challenge for e-publishing isn't to publish more authors, but to create better ways of vetting new authors—of discovering all the worthy gems that might have languished in obscurity. Ironically, Time Warner, the company that might swallow the new-media industry whole if the AOL merger goes through, is the first publisher devising a model that favors the little guy. While most of the other big companies are dickering over rates and royalties before there is either demand or proceeds, Time Warner seems to realize that the issue now isn't just about divvying up the booty, it's about identifying the booty-snatchers in the first place.

Time Warner Trade Publishing president Larry Kirshbaum prides himself on nothing more intensely than the discovery of a little-known professor's first novel: The Bridges of Madison County. He says the Web is a critical instrument in discovering just this sort of talent. "iPublish is the first major attempt by a large, established publisher to recruit new talent electronically. We look at iPublish as if it were a separate entrepreneurial company. You take a group of pioneers and put them physically outside your offices and you hopefully free them from the shackles of your ongoing bureaucracy."

Kirshbaum's new democratic model is embodied in a new online vetting system in which writers and readers will evaluate each other's work; those that rank highest will be sent directly to Time Warner's top editors. Kirshbaum knows that "people are scared that if the big guys take over they are going to ruin it. First of all, nobody is taking anything over. Second of all, [we recognize] that the Web is a major instrument of democracy—for better or worse—and we might as well use it to our advantage."

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