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You Say You Want an E-Book Revolution?

Time Digital, December, 2000

Readers and writers of the world, unite: a flood of electronic books and reading devices are hitting the market, but don’t burn your library cards just yet

Stephen King is angry at me. He doesn’t call, He doesn’t write (or rather, he writes all the time, just not to me). Actually King is not so much angry at me as he is at people like me. You see, the other day I was downloading the third part of his new e-book, The Plant. But after I had visited and given Amazon my credit-card number so it could bill me for $1, my laptop froze. My second attempt was also a bust, since it turned out I didn’t have the software necessary to read the formatted file. Finally, on my third try, I succeeded and settled back to learn the fate of Carlos Detweiller, The Plant’s psychotic protagonist.

That’s when I heard that King was getting steamed – not because readers weren’t paying him (most were), but because some readers were paying him only once, and then downloading the book onto several different devices (laptops, Palms) or printing it out on paper and passing it around. In fact, by late August, King had worked himself up into a right old snit and decided to double the price of subsequent chapters. He even threatened to abandon writing The Plant entirely unless readers paid every time they downloaded a portion – something that I, alas, had failed to do.

A strange transformation was under way. Last March, King launched the e-book revolution when he invited readers to download his novella Riding the Bullet directly from the Internet. More than 500,000 immediately accepted, and the traditional publishers, shocked that one of their star authors had the temerity to sidestep them, scrambled to respond to the event. But just a few short months later, this populist hero who had accused publishers of caring only for their wallets was sounding a lot like the enemy himself. Assuming the pinched tone of a merciless accountant, King issued a threat: After Part 3 is published, “we will make a go, no-go decision based on the pay-through,” he announced.

In chat rooms all across the Internet, King devotees were grumbling. Some judged The Plant mediocre; others resented waiting a month for each chapter. “I’m becoming increasingly less willing to indulge his whims,” wrote one. Is it fair that “the cyberpublic must now endure some berating as ‘dishonest people’ from King and even threats, because some of us, we are told, have been ‘bad’ and not paid? Well, I will pay $1 for a good read, but not to receive a tongue lashing for human nature being what it is!” As so often happens in revolutions, the mob was turning on the King.

Was Riding the Bullet a novella or just a novelty? Doesn’t the good old book– you know, the paper kind–work just as well as it did when printing was invented nearly 600 years ago? Judging by the tidal wave of electronic reading devices and e-books washing over the American consumer this holiday season, the industry, at least, is gearing up for the great e-book bonanza. This fall virtually every traditional publisher launched an e-book division (or formed an alliance) to produce digital versions of its printed products. Random House and Barnes & Noble both invested in vanity cyberpresses, and Time Warner (the parent company of this magazine) established, a division consisting of iRead, iWrite and iLearn for developing and publishing e-books. Among iPublish’s first e-titles are Living the Gimmick and Selling the Invisible either of which might aptly describe these early days of the e-book, a period that one true believer, Microsoft’s vice president of technology development, Dick Brass, calls the Model-T era. already has an online e-book store and currently offers 4,000 to 5,000 e-books. plans one for early next year. In October, RCA and Gemstar released two handheld reading devices, which they–perhaps a bit hopefully, given that the less expensive of the two goes for $300–predict will sell between 3 million and 7 million units in 2001. Microsoft Reader software was released this summer, and a dedicated book-size reading device and tablet PC are in development.

Projections of e-book use are extremely optimistic: Andersen Consulting, for instance, predicts the new medium will see a whopping $2.3 billion in sales by 2005. But the numbers that came out of a recent publishing conference were not encouraging. Only 12% of those polled said they were likely to purchase an e-book in the next year, whereas 66% said they were not, including 40% of those who had already tried them. Even insiders are skeptical about the e-publishers’ promise to offer a greater variety of choices. For anyone who has recently stopped in at a Borders or cruised through, lack of choice is not exactly a burning issue. “How many readers walk into a bookstore, look around and say, ‘Is that all there is?’ asks Jonathan Karp, publisher of Random House’s digital division.

Most observers believe that as a result of obstacles such as these, the e-book revolution will take hold slowly. “The shift to e-books as a primary reading source will take at least 10 years, so you can’t expect much to happen in the next year or two,” says publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin. A lot has to happen before acquiring and using an e-book are as easy as going to the local bookstore or ordering a paperback online. The competition between software standards, now being fought primarily between Adobe and Microsoft, must be settled, and a uniform format must be agreed upon. Encryption and security issues have to be dealt with in order to avoid the rampant bootlegging and file sharing that has plagued the music industry. The gap between traditional publishers’ belief that e-books be priced similarly to printed books, and the Internet culture’s conviction that information “wants to be free” must be closed. And despite marked improvements just in the past year, reading devices, while full of nifty bells and whistles like instant dictionaries and programs that let readers scribble notes in margins, simply must become lighter, more powerful and easier to read.

Still, there is reason to believe the American consumer will want e-books, although he isn’t yet aware of this desire. Although fewer than 50,000 e-book readers are currently in use, the fact that 7 million Palms are in circulation indicates a wish for portable text devices. And with the guarantee of secure access to major newspapers and magazines, as well as hundreds of best-selling books by the likes of Patricia Cornwell and Robert Ludlum, the sleek, new RCA devices should stimulate demand. Like calculators and the Walkman, they will soon become much cheaper, dropping an estimated 50% within six months, according to Gemstar CEO Henry Yuen.

Even given the inevitable technological glitches and cultural resistance to e-books, there is no doubt this is a transformative moment in print culture. Breaking books down into a digital format–whether read with some sort of electronic device or as a traditional book via print-on-demand technology–is the key. In fact, two revolutions are taking place–one for writers, and the other for readers. It is safe to say that in the future, many, many more people are going to be “published,” and their works will be read in many different formats. The book is dead. Long live the book!

Although the U.S. has never really been a nation of readers, it has always been a nation of writers. Walk into any coffeehouse or community college in the land, and you will find plenty of would-be authors complaining that their masterpieces have failed to grab the attention of some arrogant, dim-witted New York City editor. Self-publishing has always been an option for the determined author. In his forthcoming study, Book Business, Publishing: Past, Present and Future, veteran Random House editor Jason Epstein tells of 18th century writers who would parade around the village square, drumming up support for their books. With the advent of the Internet, the vanity press has gone cyber. “Soon writers and readers will meet again on a worldwide village green,” Epstein writes. “On the World Wide Web, future storytellers and their readers can mingle at leisure and talk at length.” What Gutenberg’s movable type did for readers, the digitized book is doing for writers.

As much as the new e-revolutionaries are riding on King’s coattails, they are also trying to avoid his mistakes. Best-selling author Frederick Forsyth recently announced he was releasing an e-book story collection, Quintet. But he took pains to distance himself from King’s project. “Does anyone want to wait 10 months to find out what happens at the end?” he says. “That might have worked for Kipling or Dickens, but we’re too impatient. And I’m bothered by King’s threat to stop if not enough readers paid. What about the honest guy who pays for six chapters and gets stranded? I don’t want to go down that road.” Forsyth also decided to forgo King’s anti-corporate, self-publishing path, choosing to release Quintet through London-based OnlineOriginals, an e-book publisher whose The Angels of Russia was the first nonprint book ever shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. Although Forsyth’s book may receive less attention than King’s, it undoubtedly represents an advance in the evolution of e-books.

Even authors without the clout or resources of a King or a Forsyth can self-publish today without breaking the bank or leaving the house. For $100 or less, (which is partly owned by Barnes & Noble) or Xlibris (partly owned by Random House) will format your manuscript, design a color cover, print it and offer your book for sale. While the work will not be edited in the traditional sense, at least it will be on sale to the public. Authors get a 20% to 25% royalty on each copy sold, but they must promote the book themselves.

This is precisely what Brandon Massey did when he could not find a publisher or literary agent for his suspense novel, Thunderland. An African-American systems analyst in Atlanta, Massey, 27, had even appealed to his hero Dean Koontz, who recommended the unpublished novel to his agent. Says Massey: “The agent told me that the market for horror was ‘a bit soft’ at the moment, and at that point I thought, ‘Man, if Dean Koontz can’t get me in the door, what hope is there?'”

In March 1999 Massey instead placed Thunderland with a print-on-demand publisher that his online writers’ group had an agreement with (the company was later purchased by While most self-published fiction sells 200 to 500 copies altogether, in just 18 months Massey sold about 2,000 copies, both through his own website and online book retailers. Of course it helps that Massey is an indefatigable self-promoter who arranged an endless string of book signings and publicity events. His constantly updated website has received more than 12,000 hits, and more than 100 other writing and black-related sites link to it.

Thunderland received a Golden Pen Award from the African American Online Writers Guild and is being considered for paperback publication by Random House. “When you approach an editor as a self-publisher, you are no longer an unknown writer saying, ‘Help me publish my book.’ You have a track record,” Massey says. “You can say, ‘I’ve sold x number of copies, and my website gets thousands of hits per month.’ You bring a lot more to the table.” That said, Massey is not sure he wants to go the traditional route. “Look, I’m no John Grisham, but I’ve had a reasonable amount of success on my own,” he says. “For a writer to become really popular, you need to create a body of work, and I’m curious to see how far I can get publishing another three books this way.”

Self-publishing isn’t only for novices. A number of established writers have found that digitized books can jump-start a novelist’s career. Douglas Clegg had published 11 novels with large New York City houses, but he was frustrated that they didn’t want to publish his books as quickly as he liked to write them. So he hit the fast lane himself. In May 1999, he got Dorchester Publishing to sponsor the serialized publication of Naomi on the Internet. Each week thousands of subscribers received a free chapter. In addition to the sponsorship money, Clegg sold Naomi’s hardcover and paperback rights — effectively getting paid three times.

Last summer Cemetery Dance Publications, a small press specializing in horror fiction, beat out two other publishers with a five-figure bid to sponsor Clegg’s current novel, Nightmare House. Readers can visit the house at Clegg’s interactive website (to the strains of–what else?– Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre), and his subscriber list has grown to 6,000 people.

Clegg is living proof of Massey’s theory that the self-published author has additional leverage. “The media attention I’ve received has completely changed my bargaining position with publishers. Suddenly they want me to do two books a year, they’re breaking me into hardcover — none of this stuff was on the table before Naomi,” he says. Clegg adds that self-published writers must be savvy businessmen, whether by generating publicity or distributing their work free. “Giving away fiction on the Internet doesn’t hurt print sales and actually helps a writer build an audience,” Clegg says. “There are 18 million to 20 million addresses on AOL, and I need only a small fraction of those people to hit the New York Times best-seller list. If I can offer something free to everyone, then the few who are interested might go out and buy my books.”

After years of creating advertising copy and screenplays, M.J. Rose wrote a novel. The problem was that the publishing industry wasn’t ready for her. She found an agent, but Lip Service, her erotically charged thriller, was rejected by a dozen publishers. Many editors who liked the book feared that it fell in between recognized fiction genres and would be difficult to market successfully. “So I had the idea of putting my book on the Net as an electronic download. I asked my agent, Look, if I were able to sell 1,000 copies, could you go back to the publisher and say, “Hey, this is how you market the book”? The agent said she could, so Rose spent a year researching and developing a marketing and self-publishing plan before finally posting the book in June 1998. By January, she had sold 1,500 copies, offering digital downloads for $9.99 or a printed version for $12.95.

Lip Service was eventually published by the Doubleday Book Club (the first time the book club had ever chosen a self-published novel) and the Literary Guild, and then in hardcover and paperback by Pocket Books. Rose’s breakthrough attracted a lot of publicity, as well as a job covering the e-book industry for the online Wired News. After spending hours on the phone giving advice to aspiring e-authors, she felt compelled to put together a book on the topic. In January, St. Martin’s Press will publish How to E-Publish Your Book (co-authored by Angela Adair-Hoy), which Publishers Weekly has called “the definitive guide to self-publishing on the Net.” It will appear both in a print and an electronic edition (the latter comes with more than 500 live links). “No doubt about it. E-books have completely changed my life,” she says.

The danger, of course, is that thanks to the new technology, every author who can publish his book will assume he should. Imagine a scenario in which there are as many novels (and probably romance novels at that!) in cyberspace as there are websites — an undifferentiated stream of purple prose so vast that no search engine could ever navigate it. And Rose fears that there will be such an onslaught of new e-books that success stories like hers won’t be repeated. So she offers aspiring e-book authors some very conventional advice: “The first thing you should do when you’ve finished your book is to try to get an agent,” Rose says. “If you can’t get an agent, then don’t self-publish that book. The book you should self-publish is the one your agent sends out that gets positive rejection letters. But if only your mother, your best friend and three other writers think your book is fabulous, that’s simply not good enough.”

Perhaps e-books are like the proverbial Trojan horse: once they get a foothold inside the gates of print culture, they will disgorge an army of digital soldiers, who will completely transform the landscape. In essence, that is what is already happening. With so much money and so many major corporate players placing bets on e-books, the (unintended) consequence will be to create more digitized content than the world has ever seen. Most publishing executives admit that nobody is quite sure just how all this digital content will ultimately be consumed–whether via reading devices, computers or the good old printed page. In the long term, that isn’t really the point. What is significant is the degree to which our most basic assumptions about how publishing works are being turned on their head. “The entire publishing model is changing from print and distribute to distribute and then print,” says publishing consultant Shatzkin. While publishers have traditionally overseen the form and content of books, in the future they will concentrate on the content alone. “Precisely how you are going to read a book is irrelevant,” he says.

The implications of this are enormous. Maybe the idea of carrying an e-book device loaded with 20 novels on your summer vacation will never take hold. But picture a world where nothing goes out of print. Where you can have a copy of any book inexpensively printed for you while you withdraw cash from an ATM or sip coffee at Starbucks. Imagine buying cookbooks one recipe at a time, or creating a personalized travel guide that covers only the particular locations and activities you’re interested in for your next vacation. Or an e-book reader programmed with all the textbooks you will need for medical or dental school — at a significant discount from the printed editions. Wouldn’t it be nice to see your kid no longer struggling to carry that enormous knapsack full of schoolbooks? Some of this is already happening. Vital Source Technologies in Raleigh, N.C., has released VitalBook, a device that students at New York University School of Dentistry and other schools are using to store four years’ worth of curriculum on a DVD. The books are frequently updated and leased to students for a fee. enables you to choose from dozens of sites, including Frommer’s, Insight Guides, Blue Guides, the Financial Times and, to design your own travel guide as a printed spiral book or, in the future, an encrypted text file for a PDA. This past summer, Borders headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich., installed a print-on-demand machine that can produce a 300-page book in 15 minutes. Barnes & Noble and Ingram, the nation’s largest book distributor, have already placed large-capacity print-on-demand facilities in their warehouses.

Like most significant cultural changes, the digital-content revolution will take root among generations not yet set in their ways. And in the future, inexpensively stored e-books may be used for their promotional value. For example, take an author whose first novel is well reviewed but doesn’t sell many copies and goes out of print. When it comes time for her second novel to come out, perhaps the publisher will give away an e-book version of the first one in order to stimulate interest and build an audience, Shatzkin suggests. Others predict that e-book readers will evolve into a hybrid of the jukebox and the E-ZPass, enabling us to surf the Web while making micropayments for bits of content, whether it be books, magazine articles, recipes or even videos and music.

And it all started with the book. These changes will eventually make reading and writing more convenient. But whether it is zapped onto a screen or printed and bound in a matter of minutes, the sign that a real revolution has taken place will be that we won’t care how the book got there.