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Why E-publishing is a Revolution in Slow Motion

By Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan

For all the hype, the impending e-revolution in book publishing has been awfully slow in coming. Observers generally blame the technology –it isn’t good enough yet, publishers haven’t figured out how to deliver their product, and consumers aren’t ready to give up paper for pixels.

But perhaps a bigger reason is the industry itself. Traditionally, book publishing has been an intensely collaborative effort. An agent typically sells an author’s book to a publisher, who then engages a copyeditor, book designer, jacket artist, compositor, printer, proofreader, publicist, and finally a wholesaler and sales force to deliver the book to retail booksellers. 

Each link in the chain is typically an independent business, and each attempts to get as much from and give as little as possible to the adjacent links. Authors argue with agents over commissions; agents argue with publishers over advances, royalties, and rights; publishers argue with their various suppliers over fees; and booksellers argue with publishers over discounts. It is a wonder that anything ever gets published, and hardly surprising that money is more easily lost than made.

From the outside, this unlikely coalition of adversaries has often seemed ripe for commercial streamlining [Village Voice], but efforts to do so have repeatedly failed. Even as all of the individual players – authors, agents, publishers - have changed, the chain has remained intact. Each link is forged by the technology of the book itself as a manufactured object delivering stored written language.

Nonetheless, the book is a 500-year-old technology and an obvious target for an Information Age upgrade [New Republic] Any gathering of the publishing industry in the past two years has been dominated by visions of new technologies, and attendant fears about what direction those technologies might take.

Yet for all the hype and fear, the revolution has so far failed to take place because each of the links in the existing chain has its own access to new technology, and each is attempting to reconfigure the others to its own advantage.

The Author

Begin with the author. Why can’t an author eliminate all intermediaries between himself and the reader and sell his own work online? To enormous media attention this is just what ultra-popular novelist Stephen King did with his serialized novel The Plant

King said he would add new chapters only if 50 percent of those downloading it paid $1 per chapter. By chapter four, however, only 46 percent were paying. So King killed the project, blaming his readers: [Wired] “First, many Internet users have the attention span of a grasshopper. Second, users believe that everything on the Web should be free or almost free of charge. And third, book-readers don’t regard electronic books as real books. [Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung] They’re like people saying, ‘I love corn on the cob, but creamed corn makes me gag’”.

Of course, even partially complete, “The Plant” netted King $463,832.27 online [Ottawa Citizen], a payday most authors would regard as a bonanza. So why give up on the experiment?

King can make more than that with his conventional publishing deals. Conventional publishing had  already made King (at 38 books and 225 million copies) the industry’s biggest brand name [Saturday Night] long before his online experiment began. Authors who don't have King-size followings have little chance of reaching even a fraction of those numbers [Wired] when new titles are appearing on the Web at the rate of half a million every eighteen months, a rate three or more times that of traditional book publication. Conventional publishing had already made King (at 38 books and 225 million copies) a household name.

The vast majority of traditional printed books already go un-reviewed. The possibility that an electronic book will be reviewed [Athens Daily News (Georgia)]in print is minuscule . Given sufficient time and money, an e-author can buy publicity or advertising, but legitimacy does not come cheap or quick. Though consumers do not base their buying decisions on a publisher’s imprint, overworked book reviewers do use that shortcut, and so do booksellers. No ad hoc advertising or publicity can begin to equal the service done for a new title by a long-established publisher’s imprint on the title page. 

The Agent

If the author cannot easily escape the chain, how about the agent? In the more distant past an agent would hand-deliver an author’s work to an editor, not infrequently during the legendary lunches of the industry.

In recent years, some agents have become “packagers” or “content managers,” delivering finished (copyedited and designed) texts electronically. But once they have so strong a grip on the first link in the chain, why should agents/packagers not try to extend it? Some do dream of empire [Publishers Weekly], but their pockets are not likely to be deep enough to defeat conglomerate-sized competitors.

The Publisher

Traditional publishers would seem to be in the best position to re-establish their business electronically – simply opening an e-imprint as another line of business, and establishing distribution of traditional printed books over the internet.

Some have done just that. Random House has launched an e-books imprint called “At Random” [CBC]. Rosetta Books is a new venture in the (r)e-publication of titles already published in print [Publishers Weekly]. A sign of how much advantage traditional publishers have in the e-book world came last fall when most of the first-ever International e-Book Awards went to major print publishers who had simply re-published their stars electronically [Salon]. The reason is simple. Straight e-publishers are not in a position to capture major authors. 

They can’t because though conventional publishers' royalties to authors might be small, they do guarantee payment. While the alternative e-publishing model might promise larger royalties, advances are small or non-existent. In some cases lesser-known authors pay up-front fees and are paid back as sales come in.

But when sales are nonexistent or low even compared to university press sales, royalties mean little. E-publishing, with its astronomical lists of works on offer sometimes seems to work against its own success – how to distinguish the titles worth reading from those that aren’t? How to stand out among the thousands? [Village Voice]  

Yet direct-to-consumer e-publishing by the majors faces huge obstacles as well [Wired]. One is that, as already noted, readers do not shop for books by publisher but by author: The web sites of even the most prestigious publishers generate few direct sales of e-books.

Author resistance is another obstacle. When production costs (printing, paper, binding, warehousing) go down, the relative contribution of the author to the final product goes up; agents and authors have demanded that royalties go up accordingly. Random House has offered a 50% royalty for e-published work, a dramatic increase over the standard 10-15% paid on a new hardcover book, but the struggle is far from over. 

Authors who wish to retain e-rights and sell their publishers only ink-on-paper rights collide with publishers who want to retain rights to future publication even in still-to-be-invented media. Authors who claim to own e-rights to books published before the current new media were invented may find their e-publisher in court with their print publisher. Random House is suing Rosetta Books [CBC], claiming that the authors who sold e-rights to Rosetta did not own the rights they sold. 

So far then, neither traditional publishers nor new e-publishers have found a way to make online publishing pay. Traditional publishers can afford to subsidize their electronic adventures, but already there is shakeout among the e-publishers.

MightyWords, an online publisher that has paid royalties, recently notified half of its 5000 authors [Wired] that they were being kicked off the site and the others that their royalties were being reduced. Xlibris, which launched in a flurry of promises about making it possible for anyone who wrote a book to get it published, also has restructured.

The Printer

If neither the author nor the agent nor the publisher can disconnect all the other links in the chain from one another and reconnect them to itself, it might seem unlikely that the printer could make it all work. But printers tell a different tale.  

When R. R. Donnelly & Sons, the largest book printer in the United States, formed a new partnership with Microsoft [Publishers Weekly], Donnelly celebrated with a manifesto in which all roads led to one virtually foreordained destination:

“Together, Donnelley and Microsoft will offer publishers a turnkey, hassle-free, end-to-end solution using Microsoft software for digital rights and transaction management, to create a massive repository in our servers to store tens of thousands of titles, convert them to e-book formats, distribute them through retailers, and collect revenue from readers while protecting the titles’ copyrights. We will be working with retailers to deliver e-books in whatever format readers ask.” 

At least at the technical level, a Donnelly-Microsoft partnership might seem closest to the gee-whiz vision envisioned by Jason Epstein, book publishing’s elder statesman and sometime prophet, in his recent Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future (Norton):

“Machines capable of printing and binding small quantities of digitized texts on demand are already deployed by Ingram, the leading American book wholesaler, by Barnes & Noble and other retailers, and in publishers’ warehouses, but future, less expensive versions that are now being developed can be housed in public libraries, in schools and universities, and perhaps even in post offices and other convenient places—Kinko’s and Staples, for example: in effect, ATM machines for books. Machines that can print and bind single copies of texts will eventually be common household items, like fax machines today” [p. 29]. 

In this vision of the future, the classic independent bookstore might survive as a showroom rather like a Gateway “Country Store.” The wares on display would be only samples [Sydney Morning Herald]. Copies actually purchased would be printed on demand or delivered to an e-mail address. 

In that case, why shouldn’t authors sell their e-rights directly to a chain of retail outlets, trusting in the stores’ clearly superior relations with the ultimate consumer and allowing the chain to coordinate all ancillary functions?

The Tactile Experience

Epstein’s vision is a reminder of the staying power of the ink-on-paper book. And none of the currently available technologies are alluring enough to wean readers from the traditional page. Asked if they would rather read a book from a computer screen or from printed pages, even confirmed computer nerds vote for the printed page. Gemstar (succeeding Rocketbook and Softbook) sells electronic readers designed to mimic the book in portability, but they sell for $300-$700, a significant deterrent even if all bugs had been worked out. Try asking a clerk to show you a Gemstar REB 1100 in your local Best Buy or Circuit City: You'll be greeted with a blank stare. 

Adobe offers software that allows the reader to hold a notebook computer sideways in the lap and read print displayed on a “page” whose top is the usual right side of the screen: a clever idea but not likely to reshape reading habits. Microsoft’s Reader is a Windows-related application that breaks even less with the model of the nerd seated at the screen. 

These major players have been actively forming partnerships with booksellers, but this time around, the old technology is likely to have more staying power [Washington Post] than the typewriter did against the word processor.

So are we at a stalemate?  Not quite.  Maybe the general consumer audience is simply the wrong initial target. Last January, when Adobe released its latest e-book software [Wired] the company said it was targeting the higher education and professional market rather than the general consumer:

“We believe that the early adopters are people who have a value for time saving, and reducing the bulk of papers they lug around,” Looney said. Adobe’s publishing partnerships will focus on content usually considered reference material.

This seems a strategy attentive to the differences rather than the similarities between the old technology and the new. Rather than ask whether you would rather read a book from the screen or the page, the question to ask is whether, when you are already at your screen doing research, you would like to be able to access entire books. 

In that context, the breakthrough may come not at the level of the individual e-book sold as comparable to the traditional book for straight-through leisure reading but at the level of the working library indexed, annotated, cross-referenced, and selectively stored.

If so, then perhaps e-publishing will arrive not as a mass revolution but as a gradual evolution. And perhaps rather than being a liability to progress, the durability of the traditional publishing chain will prove a protection against extinction. The book may survive, in other words, precisely because the balance among its players is such that it is difficult for any one to take over all the functions of all the others.

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