One of the past decade’s most exciting developments for writers (and independent publishers) is the emergence of cyber-publishing-the electronic or e-book. New material is leaping from the computer into cyberspace, making it possible for a writer or publisher to find a larger audience than was ever dreamed of. E-publishing has become a tantalizing possibility for independent and neophyte publishers.
Cyber-publishing has been around since 1971 when Michael Hart at the University of Illinois instituted Project Gutenberg, some 30 years after the idea of electronic publishing appeared in science fiction stories. In the years since, Project Gutenberg has listed over 10,000 books in digital format, free for downloading.
In its truest form, cyber-publication, or electronic publication, is meant for reading on a screen. It takes a variety of forms-short forms like online articles found on Web sites or in electronic newsletters; and longer or book-length forms, published on diskette or CD-ROM, published in Portable Document Format (PDF), HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language), or a proprietary variant for hand-held devices, or published on the World Wide Web for downloading onto your desktop or your handheld device.
Is electronic book publishing an empty or near empty field? Not hardly. John Rutledge, of Dead End Street Publications, writes, “There are currently more than 100 royalty-paying e-publishers, a number that has doubled every quarter during 1999.” In addition, you can find a number of non-royalty publishers or companies where publishing is a cooperative venture.
Some are strictly e-book publishers. Their editions may be offered as downloads to computer or reading device or on diskettes. Others, such as The Fiction Works, publish audio editions as well as e-books. Still others publish on CD-ROM; some have print editions available too.
1st Books sells both POD (Print on Demand) and electronic books. Dark Star Publications publishes downloadable versions of their books in PDF or HTML formats. Most titles are also available on CD-ROM in PDF format, and PalmPilot users may special order a TXT file. Microsoft is entering the arena with the Microsoft Reader and its own proprietary software (for Windows-based PCs and laptops), in a partnership with Barnes & Noble and its online counterparts.
The price of the hand-held readers will undoubtedly have considerable effect on the preferred format. While the Everybook Dedicated Reader boasts huge storage and has a screen that can display color, text, graphics, mathematics, and illustrations, it also carries a $1,500 price tag, which includes a dictionary, thesaurus, map, and Bible. Everybook is now in partnership with Adobe, publishing in PDF.
So long as prices for the various hand-held reading devices remain high, cost is a barrier for widest acceptance of electronic books. However prices of the devices are coming down and the capabilities are coming up.
As documents for screen reading, e-books must be encoded in an appropriate format. Currently the two primary formats for e-books are PDF (portable document format) and HTML. So far, PDF has been the format of choice for e-books. However discussions grow very heated over the PDF vs. HTML option. To illustrate the ferment of the format issue, Gemini Books offers books in both print (trade paperback) and e-versions. Buyers may choose to receive by e-mail in either PDF or RTF or on diskette as PDF or RTF (Rich Text Format). Dead End Street doesn’t offer print versions, but in PDF on CD-ROM, or in Rocket eBook or AportisDoc versions. As I mentioned, the Fiction Works produces audio books in addition to e-books. This is an interesting development as some predict e-books of the future will incorporate sound, graphics, and movie elements.
The concepts in back of each type of formatting are quite different and would affect the choice. The well-known capability of PDF and its relation to the appearance of the printed page renders it suitable in some cases where HTML is deficient, notably when graphics are incorporated. HTML, well known for Web page design, is considered by many to be more easily read. A further virtue is that HTML is not a proprietary format.
Books in AportisDoc are available for the Palms readers. Peanut Press, recently acquired by NetLibrary.com, likewise uses a proprietary markup language involving HTML and Java (their books are encrypted). Booklocker.com says 95% of the books they sell are in PDF format, making them readable across all platforms, both Macs and PCs. While the argument rages over which is the better standard, it’s worth noting that Project Gutenberg’s offerings and ElecBook’s free offerings are in PDF. However work (by volunteers) is underway to code Project Gutenberg titles in XML/SGML.
While the Rocket eBook can be used to read HTML or PDF files (downloaded from one’s own computer, e.g.), a RocketEdition (i.e., a book produced for reading on an eBook) is encoded in a proprietary format which, like the formats used by Peanut Press and others, encrypts the document to prevent unlicensed copying and hence the bootlegging of illegal copies.
An Open eBook (OEB) standard is under development. The goal of this standard is to enable the publisher to format a title once and then the content will be compatible with a wide variety of reading devices. This could insure that the content will be available in years to come, regardless of the changes in the reader devices. The standard has not yet been fully developed nor generally accepted.
Several working in the field are urging the adoption of XML/SGML (Extensible Markup Language), a more highly structured relative of HTML, as a preferred format. The World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, has reformulated HTML 4.0 as XML, calling the result XHTML.
Among the individual potential buyers of e-books, the fiction readers, primarily consumers of romance and science fiction, tend to be voracious. Print publishers of romance know that this group comprises avid readers, going for quantity. Their e-book counterparts recognize this and price accordingly, an equivalent of disposable books.
The nonfiction readers tend to be serious readers, relying heavily on text to maintain position in their work. For doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, the currency of the material can be very attractive. For students, e-books greatly lighten the physical load of carrying necessary texts and the like.
For this reason, some publishers see a very strong school market as e-books availability widens. Further, the potential library market also should not be overlooked. A recent article by Frank Curry in the New York Times noted that the library of the University of Texas has a $1 million budget for digital materials and a 6,000-title collection of digital books. With a prospect like that and the assurance that the university is not an isolated phenomenon, we will surely see more companies like netLibrary which is a seller of collections of digital books to libraries.
Currently two schools of thought exist on pricing e-books. Independent publishers, especially those who market directly to their end customers or through e-book stores, tend to offer product at lower costs, contending that the savings resulting from the freedom of extensive inventory and the lower printing and distribution costs associated with paper publishing should reflect in lower prices for e-books. Large mainstream publishers do not tend to sell their e-versions at substantially lower cost. More typical prices on e-books run about $4 to $7 for a downloaded copy (slightly more if offered on diskette or CD-ROM). NuvoMedia’s RocketEditions from large publishers, on the other hand, don’t differ much from print editions. (Case in point: Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate lists at $11.95 in trade paperback. The RocketEdition is likewise marked at $11.95.) A few e-book publishers allow for download of their titles at no charge.
An appealing advantage is the ease of wider distribution. Books may be ordered from the publisher (on CD-ROM or diskette) or downloaded. Bookstores are beginning to offer electronic books, either on site or through Web purchase (or both). Barnes & Noble has a relationship with NuvoMedia (currently a major force in the hand-held devices) for selling (and downloading) Rocket eBooks in stores and a similar arrangement with GlassBooks was announced in February. Powell’s Books of Portland, Oregon, offers RocketEditions. The Tattered Cover (Denver, Colorado) provides a channel for distribution of e-books.
The question then becomes “Is NuvoMedia (Rocket) a distributor or a device-manufacturer?” RocketEditions are downloadable only to the Rocket eBook device. (Other formats are, however, readable on the Rocket.) NuvoMedia requires a discount comparable to print wholesalers for books to be issued in their format. Will the traditional discounting/pricing practices of print publishing become the norm for e-publishing? If the traditional norms remain, they will reduce much of the appeal of e-books for buyers.
Advantages of E-pubbing
The advantages of e-pubbing are attractive. The cost of production is greatly reduced over paper and ink production, though either format would still call for editing and design. (The fact that a book is easily produced does not reduce the necessity for careful and thorough editing.) E-publishing extends the life of a book. Another advantage is a smaller investment in inventory. Electronic storage is much less expensive than physical, paper storage, and hence the impetus to scrap it or declare it out of print declines. Since the costs of production are so much smaller, a publisher may decide to publish a book that might not have otherwise seemed to be likely to earn back its original investment. E-books are easily updated, a strong point for books where currency is crucial. (A major argument for the OeB format and HTML is that updating is much simpler and faster than with PDF.)
E-publishing should not be viewed as a panacea for small publishers; it is simply another mode for publishing. The problems of promoting print books are still there. The number of publications (including ForeWord magazine and Publishers Weekly as well as numerous online publications) reviewing e-books is growing. Yet the number of e-book sales is still a relatively small portion of books sold.
The lower cost of production is offset by the increased effort to promote a book. Further, a book may need to be done in several formats: HTML or XML/SGML, PDF, or in one of the proprietary formats for use in particular devices. None of the writers I’ve read say anything about the cost of coding a book for e-publications, and that’s another step beyond layout design.
While these are obstacles, they are not insurmountable. They do suggest that launching into e-book publication is not as simple as going into print publication. As the reading devices improve their capabilities and come down in price and the number of titles increases, we should see an expanding audience. The portability of e-books in quantity is appealing. The ease with which reference books can be updated is also attractive. E-books are here, and it’s worth investigating whether producing them is a good decision for your company. The field is growing and rapidly changing. Keep your eyes and ears open.
Patricia J. Bell is the author of “The Prepublishing Handbook: What you should know BEFORE you publish your first book.” (Cat’s-paw Press, Eden Prairie, MN 55347). http://www.cats-pawpress.com http://hometown.aol.com/catspawpre/ToolShed.html.
To find out more, visit:
The eBook Network: http://www.ebooknet.com/
eBook Connections: http://www.ebookconnections.com/
Open eBook standards: http://www.openebook.org/
Impressions Book and Journal Services, Inc.: http://www.impressions.com (An excellent FAQ on OEB and XML is located there.)
On XML: http://www.textuality.com/xml/faq.html
Discussion lists of pertinence:
TEN Guide: http://www.ebooknet.com/ten/guide.htm
Several discussion lists may be found at the onelist.com site (http://www.onelist.com/). Register or log in and select a list to join.
EBook Talk (EBook_Talk@onelist.com)
Ind-e-pub List (Ind-e-pubs@ONElist.com)
Regular e-publications on the e-book industry
(both are free subscriptions):
eBooknet Weekly News
(To subscribe: Go to http://www.ebooknet.com/)
eBC’s ePub Market Update
(Send a blank e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the site, http://www.onelist.com/subscribe/ebcmktupdate.)
URLs of companies mentioned in the accompanying article:
1st Books: http://www.1stbooks.com
Dark Star Publications: http://www.darkstarpublications.com/
Dead End Street Publications: http://www.deadendstreet.com/
The Fiction Works: http://www.fictionworks.com/
Gemini Books: http://www.lisawrites.com/gemini.html
Microsoft Reader: http://www.microsoft.com/reader/
NuvoMedia, Inc. (Rocket Ebooks): http://www.nuvomedia.com/
Peanut Press: http://www.peanutpress.com/
The Tattered Cover’s publishing program: http://www.readerworks.com/
For free downloadable books:
Project Gutenberg: http://promo.net/pg/
Elecbooks.com: http://www.elecbook.com/ (This company also sells books on CD-ROM.)
Lending Library: http://www.macduff.net (AportisDoc)
For the Palm community: http://www.MemoWare.com/
ElecBook Classics: http://www.elecbook.com/ebfree.htm (Hundreds of classic titles to download at no cost)