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Publishers Scramble to Make Electronic Books a Reality

In the past year, publishing kingpins have been promising to usher in the new age of the electronic book. But last week's e-Book World Conference at the Marriott Marquis showed an industry riven by as much schizophrenia as the presidential elections.

On one hand there was a whopping round of chest thumping from old-world publishing heavyweights like Time Warner's Larry Kirshbaum and The New York Review of Books' Jason Epstein about the auspicious future of electronic publishing. In the midst of all the boosterism, Random House made a pledge to grant e-book writers a whopping 50 percent royalty rate, compared to the 10 to 15 percent its print authors get. The very next day MightyWords, the e-book company in which Barnes & Noble invested $20 million last June, announced a radical downsizing: They will terminate half their writers' contracts; the remaining writers will receive a royalties cut of 50 percent to 70 percent of their current contract.

It was a much needed reality check. After all, though the industry is brimming with high-profile endorsements and practical promise, neither the demand for e-books nor the actual proceeds from e-book sales yet exist to justify so much controversy. For now, anyway, the e-book industry is more rumpus than reality.

Still, a shift is in progress—from romantic queries about the state of literature to practical questions of how the hell e-publishers are going to make any money. Last week's hubbub occurred right on the heels of an equally controversial ceremony at the Frankfurt eBook Awards which led everybody to believe that the industry was polarized over lofty political and theoretical issues: big-business print publishing versus insurgent indie publishing, old-world standards of literary quality versus the new-world celebration of literary ingenuity.

What became obvious at e-Book World is that the technology mavens and big-business publishers who have scrambled into the e-book fray have no time or patience for "whither content?" issues. It seems they've already decided to forego the gestation period where we get to bat around literary philosophy.


E-book world was an anticlimactic clash of two seemingly irreconcilable worlds: the fast-paced Babbittry of tech culture and the muddle of old-school publishing suits that crowded around the technology exhibitions. At the Microsoft booth, where the company is trying to promote its Reader software as the industry standard, a rumpled passerby queries a vibrant PR flack: "Can I play this on my Rocketbook?"

The publicist furrows and shifts a bit. "No, that's Gemstar's hardware—an actual reading device that takes a different format. This is software that you can download—or 'play'—on two devices, your personal computer and your PDA. When you read, it allows you to do things that paper books don't. My favorite part about Reader is the instant dictionary. You can click on a word you don't know and a definition will pop up. Then within the definition you [can follow other links], so it takes you in and in and in."

Now the visitor furrows and shifts. The Microsoft rep changes her tack: "Also, you can choose your own font size, so if you have eye issues you can blow it up like this." The single page on the screen transforms the text of Great Expectations into billboard headlines. The visitor grins at it a moment, then dodders off.

The fact is that the nuts and bolts of e-publishing just aren't that exciting. Which is why every industry needs its true believers, those willing to stand on a podium and convince the uninitiated. Jason Epstein, the venerated cofounder of The New York Review of Books, has successfully stoked his dwindling relevance by becoming the new industry's most lyrical, but also recklessly reductive, pundit. In his keynote speech he rehashed his three recent columns in NYRB (a book on the topic will be published early next year). "The World Wide Web will destroy filters that traditionally separated publishable work from the surrounding chaos," he croaked, struggling to maintain a tone that felt more like eulogy than elegy. "The profound human instinct by which people have always created order, distinguished value, and sustained markets, with its multitudinous babble, folly, wickedness, will create new filters. Distinguished and useful Web sites will prevail, will infuriate competitors, and readers will, sooner or later, find their way to desirable goods as they have always. New technologies do not annihilate human nature, which for all its flaws persists . . . into the distant electronic future."


It's one thing to get the young, hip music industry up to speed with next-gen high-tech publishing standards, but plugging in the old, stodgy publishing industry is another feat altogether. Addressing the hot-button piracy issue, Microsoft's Dick Brass soothed the e-Book World audience by saying, "We all can rest assured that consumers of books are much more honest than the kids who listen to rock and roll." It's true that publishing's mature, respectful audience may protect it from radical, disruptive shifts like the Napster phenomenon. But they will also make the book industry's transition into the new economy much more cautious and cumbersome.

The irony is that no industry stands to benefit more from electronic technology than book publishing, whose business model is horrendously flawed. Seventy-five percent of a book's cost goes toward distribution, ink, and paper, and bookstores can send books back if they don't sell, leaving publishers in the lurch. Electronic publishing can alleviate a lot of the problems—speed of production and manufacturing costs, to name two—which explains the industry's optimism and willingness to overlook the absence of demand. They are counting on younger readers to get over the squeamishness about look-and-feel and intimacy issues that have plagued e-books.

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."

If one thing has become apparent in the new-media world, it's that corporate monoliths are more likely to be built than toppled. We can safely stow dreams of a democratized publishing industry in the slush pile along with all the other delusions of techno-utopia. But we can hold onto the hope that electronic publishing will give a rigid, elitist industry a taste of meritocracy.

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