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Hoping Web Success Strikes Twice: Denis Dutton’s Cybereditions

The New York Times, November 11, 2000

Denis Dutton, a cherubic 56-year-old philosophy professor, has spent most of his professional career writing books on the theory of aesthetics and teaching Plato in New Zealand. But recently he has turned into a minor media celebrity, a cyberpublishing prophet who is invited to speak at e-book conferences from Los Angeles to New York.

In barely two years, a Web site he created, Arts & Letters Daily, has become required reading for the global intelligentsia. A witty compilation of the best essays and reviews in philosophy, literature and politics, it has developed a cult following, especially among writers who compete to have their articles listed and editors who mine it for ideas.

Now he is hoping to replicate his success by selling sophisticated, quality nonfiction through his online publishing venture, Cybereditions. “With the Internet there is a place for specialized, low-demand books, the kinds of books that never made economic sense for traditional publishers,” he explained in an interview during an e-book conference in New York this week. Essentially Arts & Letters Daily and Cybereditions are like intelligent search engines, digging up the best material from dozens of places – hard-to-find articles in the first case and out-of-print books in the latter – and making them available electronically.

Although Mr. Dutton put Cybereditions online just four months ago, he conceived of it in 1997 to rescue scholarly and serious nonfiction writing from oblivion. Paradoxically, Arts & Letters Daily was originally intended as no more than a way to advertise Cybereditions.
Its address is:

“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the site would become so popular,” he said. Without ever having advertised, it attracts 760,000 hits a month by 92,000 different readers. On a typical day you might find a review of a book about the Marquis de Sade in The Independent (of London), an essay on Jacques Derrida’s religious faith in Christianity Today and a quirky piece about cell phones from Technology Review.

“We get several thousands of hits every time he posts one of our articles,” said The New Criterion’s managing editor, Roger Kimball. “It is very widely read in academic and journalistic circles, and I know of writers in Great Britain and Australia who check it every single day.” In November 1999, Lingua Franca magazine bought the Arts & Letters Web site, which had also entertained offers from Slate online magazine and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Cybereditions is meant to appeal to a similarly highbrow audience. Guided by a board of distinguished academic advisers, it offers a select list of previously out-of-print books with new introductions, supplementary chapters, updated bibliographies and responses to critics. “That’s why we registered the Web domain name,” Mr. Dutton told the conference audience, although that Web address is not yet in use.

Even discounting the hype surrounding e-books, there is little doubt that Internet-related technology is beginning to revolutionize the publishing industry. This fall virtually every major publisher either started an e-book division or formed an alliance to produce digital versions of its printed products. The success that mega-authors like Stephen King have had transmitting e-books directly to readers has led longtime editors like Jason Epstein, former Random House editorial director, to predict the eventual demise of the large publishing conglomerates.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Gutenberg Project offers digital versions of classic texts whose copyrights are in the public domain. And a few academic publishers have begun putting scholarly journals and monographs on line.

But nobody, Mr. Dutton was quick to remind the audience, is trying to do precisely what Cybereditions is. “Everybody in the e-book business is talking about Stephen King, airport novels or technical manuals,” he said. “But what has been virtually ignored – thank God – is updated, serious nonfiction. We happen to think there is a real market for it.”

Beyond making neglected classics available, Mr. Dutton is undermining some of Western culture’s most cherished assumptions about books. Traditionally it takes years to write, edit and produce a book, which, once it leaves the printer, is unlikely to be altered further. Only a few titles have enough sales to warrant further editions, and when they do, there is often a long lag before corrections and additions appear. Cybereditions, on the other hand, will let authors add new material to a book in a flash, in much the way a newspaper updates a story from edition to edition.

Just as photography undermined the singularity of painted portraits, so online book publishing complicates the notion of a book as a fixed, enduring object. “Books will become more like computer programs that are revised 1.0, 1.01, 1.02, and then perhaps a 2.0 version if the changes to the text are big enough,” Mr. Dutton said. “A book can be produced in a huge first printing and then be subject to what in the author’s view are very unfair reviews. With a Cybereditions book it is possible for the author to immediately add material which might clarify or rebut criticisms.”

At the moment Cybereditions offers fewer than a dozen books. So the project, like the e-book revolution itself, is still in its infancy and might very well go the way of Betamax. Still, Mr. Dutton said, he plans to acquire 1,000 more over the next two years. Among the first titles Cybereditions will be offering are Frederick Crews’s “Skeptical Engagements,” Brian Boyd’s “Nabokov’s Ada: The Place of Consciousness,” Jonathan Yardley’s memoir “Our Kind of People” and Mark Turner’s “Death Is the Mother of Beauty.” Noam Chomsky’s “Cartesian Linguistics” and Ihab Hassan’s “The Postmodern Turn,” a philosophical classic to which the author is adding two new chapters, are also in the works.

Prof. Steven Pinker at M.I.T., one of Mr. Dutton’s advisers, predicts that Cybereditions will find an audience among readers and writers alike. “Not only is he providing copies of hard-to-find books,” he said, “but he’s also offering the equivalent of a ‘director’s cut,’ with bonus tracks thrown in, to mix a metaphor. That can only make a book more valuable.”.

Mr. Dutton may have been born to be a publisher. He grew up in Los Angeles, where his parents were book dealers. (His brothers still own the two Dutton’s, a family store.) After college he did a two-year Peace Corps stint in India, training the residents to grow mushrooms in air-conditioned underground caves. (The industry never took off.) Next he studied philosophy with Sidney Hook at New York University and completed his degree at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

He taught at the University of Michigan for a decade before moving to Christchurch, New Zealand, to teach at the University of Canterbury. In 1973 he founded the journal Philosophy and Literature, whose annual Bad Writing contest rewards the academic who has most egregiously mangled the English language.

Mr. Dutton is an accomplished pianist (his favorite composer is Scarlatti, whose sonatas he plays from memory), and also plays the sitar (he learned in India), occasionally performing in Indian restaurants.

Associates say that Mr. Dutton seems to have the ideal combination, integrity and chutzpah, to be an intellectual cyberpublisher. “Denis has the instincts of an entrepreneur, but the values of a scholar,” said Mr. Crews, who was unaware that his 1986 “Skeptical Engagements” was out of print until Mr. Dutton contacted him.

Cyberedition’s backers are betting that profitability and scholarship are compatible goals. Susan E. Woodward, an investment banker who was the chief economist of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and her husband, Robert E. Hall, an economics professor at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution there, are investors. Ms. Woodward and Mr. Dutton met after she was quoted in a Fortune magazine article describing Arts & Letters Daily as her favorite Web site. When she learned that it was part of a larger book publishing project, she offered to invest and is now Cyberedition’s chief financial officer.

Mr. Hall, who filed a much-cited study with the court on behalf of Napster, the MP3 music-file sharing service, was largely responsible for Cybereditions’ decision not to encrypt its books.

“Traditional producers believe that enforcing their copyright means making sure everybody pays a high price for content, but that isn’t necessarily the best way to exploit your rights,” Mr. Hall said. “Tolerating a certain amount of leakage pays off. Given the serious nature of the books Cybereditions carries, the guy who illegally copies one is probably a low-value guy who wouldn’t have bought it anyway. But letting him see the book increases the chances he might turn to Cybereditions when he is looking for something he does place a high value on.”

Most Cybereditions titles cost $12.95 for an immediate download in either HTML or PDF formats, and will soon be available in print-on-demand editions. Mr. Dutton offers authors a royalty of 25 to 40 percent for the first 1,000 copies sold, compared with a range of 7 to 15 percent for traditional hardcover royalties. He calculates that Cybereditions will profit from any book that sells 120 copies or more.

For all his project’s technological allure, Mr. Dutton’s intellectual credo is notably old-fashioned. “We sometimes overemphasize the drama of the e-book revolution,” he said.

“What publishing needs is good books, and the Internet is a terrific way to present the highest quality nonfiction to a moderate-size market in an economic way,” he added. “But this is really a return to the cultural values that we had in the 40’s and 50’s. When the Internet makes the whole of the world’s library available at any time of the day or night on one computer, now that will be a real advance in the history of publishing.”