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E-Publishing: A Quick Trip Through Its Past, Present, and Probable Future

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In 1999, the e-publishing community (including e-publishers, e-published authors, and e-book fans) was filled with optimism. Authors were told that e-publishing was the wave of the future. Some pundits predicted that, as early as 2003, e-books would outsell print books, and many boasted that e-books heralded the demise of print books altogether. Naysayers were resoundingly booed and generally considered obstructionists to the bright new electronic future.

By 2000 and early 2001, a writer could choose from more than 100 electronic publishers. Larger companies like MightyWords, a.k.a. FatBrain, a.k.a. eMatter, offered thousands of electronic titles, ranging from ponderous treatises to slim pamphlets. In 2000, Stephen King added fuel to the fire with his own e-book, Riding the Bullet, which sold nearly half a million copies within the first week (while hundreds of thousands of copies were given away free). Perhaps inspired by King’s success, a number of commercial print publishers, including Random House and Simon & Schuster, launched heavily funded e-publishing divisions. At the same time, companies like iUniverse and Xlibris began massive campaigns to woo authors to subsidy print-on-demand programs.

But Stephen King’s next e-project, a serialized novel titled The Plant, was canceled in mid-book due to lack of sales, much to the dismay of those who wanted to find out how it ended. In 2001 and 2002, many of the major publishers shut down or dramatically scaled back their electronic divisions. In 2002, MightyWords closed, the Frankfurt Book Fair discontinued its e-book awards, and the International e-Book Award Foundation folded (it was subsequently resurrected by Microsoft). This past year, Gemstar discontinued its e-reader and e-book service, and Barnes and Noble stopped selling e-books.

Smaller independent e-publishers have collapsed too. In the fall of 2001, I put together a list of 90 e-publishers for the first edition of my book Writing.com: Creative Internet Strategies to Advance Your Writing Career. When I checked that list in July 2002, 35 of the companies had closed, and 16 were not accepting submissions.

Not Dead Yet

Does this mean e-publishing is dead? Not at all. It means is the industry has gone through a necessary shakeup–and is still in the developmental stages. According to an article in the Washington Post, one problem contributing to the “bust” was that “e-book creators paid way more attention to publishers’ requirements . . . than to what readers really want from an e-book.” E-books (especially those from commercial publishers) were often seen by customers as overpriced–some cost nearly as much as a hardcover original. E-readers (such as the Gemstar e-book) were also slow to catch on, costing $300 to $600. Many book-lovers undoubtedly wondered why they should pay that much money for a device on which to read books when they could just as easily spend it on books.

As Deb Staples, Publisher of SynergEbooks, points out, “Most of the larger companies that folded or scaled back had to do so because they put way too much money into starting the company up in the first place. Many of them started with offering too many digital choices, which means they would’ve had to purchase a lot of very expensive conversion software. Their marketing budgets were overpriced and caused them to lose most of their working capital very quickly.”

Arline Chase, publisher of Ebooksonthe.net, agrees. “Conglomerates want big bucks and millions of customers. The market share isn’t large enough for them to bother with right now.” As for the demise of smaller companies, Sandy Cummins, of Writers Exchange E-Publishing, notes, “Most of the fly-by-night companies who hardly edited their books have shut their doors. Thus the overall quality of the e-books is improving–and our reputation is improving with it.”

At the same time, the unbridled optimism of the early days of e-publishing seems to have vanished, or at least been toned down. Chase says, “Most people have lost faith in [e-publishing]. They expected an overnight sweeping change from paper to e-books and that didn’t happen, any more than movies dying when TV was invented. We believe e-books are still in their infancy and they will become a part of the general publishing picture. We do not believe they will ever ‘replace print books,’ but they will become more popular and will become an entertainment and informational avenue many people will enjoy.” She adds, “We do not expect to get rich on this venture, but we do expect to publish some good and important books and to have fun doing so.”

What Works, What Doesn’t

The e-publishers that have risen to the top are those that were able to operate on a small scale. There simply isn’t a sufficient market for e-books to fuel the requirements of a huge corporation, but the market can sustain a publisher who literally works out of the garage, as Angela Adair Hoy did when she founded Booklocker.com. It can’t sustain a company that is accustomed to hiring full-time personnel in a single corporate office, but it can sustain a company that outsources editing and other tasks to a network of editors, proofreaders, and designers who may live thousands of miles from the publisher.

The biggest problem facing the e-publishing market is the fact that it arose primarily as a solution to problems facing authors (the difficulty in getting published) but not problems facing consumers. Typically, a successful product fills a need, but it’s hard to argue that the consumer’s need for books is unfilled. Rarely does a reader walk into Barnes and Noble and sigh that there is nothing to read.

Another problem facing e-books is that, at present, they don’t mesh well with the current economic model of how books are bought, sold, and handled by end users. Consumers don’t view books as just collections of words (which could be read as easily on a screen as on a page); they view books as tangible products. A book is something one can buy, read, loan to one’s sister, give to a friend, donate to the library, or sell to a used-book store. Avid readers use these same methods to acquire books (including books that can be obtained no other way, such as books that are out of print); e-books may never be able to compete with the library book sale, where you can buy a bag of paperbacks for $5. It’s also hard to imagine, as yet, how one will be able to wrap up an e-book download and give it to one’s nephew for Christmas.

Economic factors may ultimately help, though. Sticker shock is increasing in the book market; it’s hard to accept that a paperback now costs as much as $9. If e-books can offer a comparable value for a lower price, then they will begin to fill a customer need–the growing need for books that one can afford. However, even inexpensive e-books will still be in competition with used books (in stores online and off) and library book sales.

Another need that e-books might fill is in the nonfiction reference market. Having just transported 40 boxes of books from one home to another, I can attest that if half those books were electronic, it would have spared my back and my moving bill. It would also make looking up information far simpler. Instead of having to thumb through three or four books on the shelf, one could do an electronic search of one’s reference collection and find the answer to a question in minutes. It’s no coincidence that Booklocker.com, which focuses almost entirely on nonfiction, is regarded as one of the most successful independent e-publishers and e-book distributors in the industry.

I believe the question facing the e-publishing industry, therefore, is whether it can become consumer-focused. E-publishers need to stop asking, How can we persuade consumers to buy the books we publish? and start asking, How can we publish the kinds of books consumers will be willing to buy and read electronically?

Moira Allen has contributed more than 200 articles and columns to publications such as Entrepreneur, Writer’s Digest, and Inklings. She hosts the Web site Writing-World.com, teaches writing, and is the author of several books, including the new edition of Writing.com: Creative Internet Strategies to Advance Your Writing Career.

This article is adapted from the revised second edition of Writing.Com, available for $19.95 plus $5 shipping and handling (NY State residents must add sales tax). Order toll-free from 800/491-2808, by mail from Allworth Press, 10 East 23rd St., New York, NY 10010, or via www.allworth.com.

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