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Is ePublishing for You? A Q&A on This New Frontier

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When Stephen King’s novella Riding the Bullet was downloaded by 400,000 people in a matter of days, it was news. Publishers, however, had special reason to take notice. What this phenomenon told them was that there are 400,000 people out there who know how to read eBooks, or are at least willing to learn. That revelation quickly added electronic production and delivery to the list of viable publishing options.

But what exactly is ePublishing? What are its advantages and challenges? First, let’s define the term: ePublishing is the digitizing of text, graphics, and photographs. In its digital form, an eBook can be downloaded to a desktop, a laptop, a palmtop, a handheld device, or some other sort of computer. The digitized version could be a complete book, a part of a book, supplementary or updated material, or a special edition created especially for this interactive medium.

There are clearly advantages of ePublishing. They include:

• Cost-effective production

• Ability to get the material to market more quickly

• Ability to update material more quickly, easily, and often

• Interactivity, including searchability, bookmarking, linking, etc.

ePublishing also is of special interest to publishers who want to test materials, even though interest in an electronic document does not necessarily indicate interest in a printed form. It also is an interesting option to publishers who do not want to compete with their traditional channels, such as their distributors, wholesalers, or bookstores. They can create new documents or products to be sold only from their sites. This is not unlike computer manufacturers who sell certain models through retail computer stores and other models, with different features, directly.

If you’re considering ePublishing, here are some of the questions to ask as you evaluate viability:

How time-sensitive is this material?If your books or materials offer information that people want right now, ePublishing can be the perfect vehicle for delivering it. For instance, Cliffs Notes now sells its popular guides online at www.cliffnotes.com. Imagine that it’s midnight and your paper on Moby Dick is due the next day. Just how much would you pay for a Cliffs Notes at that point?

How often does this material change? ePublishing is especially good for books, reports, etc., that change frequently. It is best handled on a site where you are able to upload and download the information easily.

Is the audience for the material likely to use computers or to feel comfortable reading from a computer? Are these users more likely to have a desktop, laptop, or handheld device? If you’re publishing material for young children or seniors, ePublishing may not be your first choice. On the other hand, if your potential readers are extremely mobile or use computers in their work, it could be an excellent approach. For instance, Johnny Hamilton of Construction Trades Press is especially interested in creating electronic documents running on a computer that can be used on location during construction jobs.

If your audience indeed is computer-comfortable, think about what formats will make the most sense. Among the options are:

Adobe PDF (Portable Document Format):More than 165 million copies of Adobe’s free Acrobat Reader have been downloaded, so many people know how to use this technology. It produces a document that looks just like the printed version, maintaining quality and consistency. Publishers are also quite comfortable with this format, because many of them are already using it to produce camera-ready versions of their books for print production. Images are easy to include.

HTML/XML: HTML is easy to read—anyone who has a browser (which are free) can do so—and the tools to create it are free. It also is relatively easy to create. HTML cannot be easily protected from theft. Images must be included as .GIF or .JPG (.JPEG) files only. The basis of the developing open eBook format, XML eventually will offer the flexibility for conversion into a number of formats. Currently encryption is still an issue.

Microsoft Reader: Microsoft’s ClearType technology offers easy-to-read black text on a white background. The type size can even be adjusted on the fly. Images can be included sparingly. The format is now available on PocketPC handhelds and will be available for desktop and laptop computers in late Summer 2000. Although you can offer MS Reader editions from your site, encrypted versions will initially only be available through Barnes & Noble and Ingram.

Rocket eBook/Softbook: There are far fewer dedicated electronic reading devices than PalmPilots or copies of Adobe’s Reader. The Rocket eBook seems to be the electronic reader of choice. It uses HTML for its formatting, and can include sound. You can sell unencrypted Rocket eBook editions from your site.

PalmPilot: There are more than 7 million PalmPilots users, many of whom do read from their Pilots. There are a variety of Palm document formats, including PRC and DOC. They can be encrypted but most are not. No images are possible.

Text/Word Processing: Text versions can come in various formats, from RTF (Rich Text Format), to Microsoft Word, to WordPerfect, to MS-DOS Text (also known as ASCII). Of all these options, RTF and MS-DOS Text are probably the best because they are the most generic. Almost any word processor can read RTF, and it includes formatting such as bold and italic. MS-DOS Text drops formatting, but can be read by nearly every program. Images can only be included in the higher end formats. Word and WordPerfect provide more formatting options, but either you need to pick a version that everyone has, or choose a lowest common denominator that may not give you the formatting options you wanted in the first place. Too, it is at best difficult to encrypt, or protect, these formats. That means you’re delivering text that is already keyed in and easy to republish as someone else’s material, a real issue in these days of global availability.

How important is it to protect the copyright on this material?

If this is important—and believe it or not, it isn’t to all publishers—you’ll want to make sure that the material is encrypted to protect your digital rights. Although it’s true that anyone can make photocopies of a printed page and distribute them, the ability to attach an electronic document to an e-mail and send it to a hundred of your best friends is far easier. It’s also one of the things that has held back publishers’ interest in ePublishing. HTML and text documents are easily copied. PDF documents, Rocket eBook, and Microsoft Reader files can be encrypted as well as offered unencrypted.

How important is it that the material’s visual presentation is the same or similar to the printed version’s appearance? Consider the benefits and tradeoffs of having your electronic material look just like its printed equivalent. If this is important to preserve graphic placements, etc., PDF is likely the best choice for you. HTML, XML, text options, Rocket eBook, and Microsoft Reader all are formatted differently.

Can this material be broken into sections and sold “granularly”?If you publish directories or other materials of which just parts would be of value to readers, you might want to consider what is sometimes called “granular ePublishing.” It is not only often better for customers, it is possible to make even more money by selling your materials this way. It also can be a good way to avoid competing with your traditional sales channels.

One good example of this is the Audiobook Title Locator, a joint project of the Audio Publishers Association and R. R. Bowker at www.audiopub.org/titlelocator.html. In its printed form, this annual is known as Books on Cassette and costs more than $200. Finding just those audiobooks of a certain author, publisher, or reader isn’t easy. Yet in its online edition, purchasers can buy one search, 10 searches, or a one-year subscription. Although this sort of material is usually delivered in HTML format, copyright infringement is difficult as each listing must be accessed individually.

Are there aspects of this document that would be more valuable if it were interactive?Hamilton of Construction Trades Press is preparing his books for electronic release in Adobe PDF format, but he doesn’t want them to just be the same as the printed document. “It has to be interactive, or how can I charge them as much as for the printed version when production costs are so much lower?” he asks. “The electronic version is much more valuable if people can click from the questions in the front of the book right to the answers in the back of the book. I might also offer glossaries, in which users can click right to the definition from within the text.” Hamilton points out that a publisher also can link to Web sites for current information, reducing the need for printed revisions. Adds Hamilton: “It’s a very similar dynamic to a Web site, in which you’re creating a community and want to have people keep coming back.”

What is the economic impact of offering books in electronic format?Not only are there many ways to produce and offer eBooks, but the market is so new that costs and prices vary wildly. Producing electronic versions of your book can vary from nothing to several hundred dollars, depending upon the complexity of the project and the way it is going to be offered. There are several sites offering eBooks that will convert at “no charge”… in exchange for 40% to 60% of the sales revenue. Unlike printed editions, once the material has been converted, there are no additional printing costs. That—and competition—have driven many publishers and sites to offer books at a 33% discount. Others charge the same price as the printed edition.

Do I want to sell from my own site or someone else’s site? Many of the ePublishing services require sales from their sites. You can easily link to those sites, or you can sell from your own, if you prefer to maintain control of your intellectual property. While he also has his eBooks listed with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and the BookLocker, Wayne Perkins of Hypnotism Education Publishing also sells his electronic reports and books from his own site at www.wayneperkins.net“They come looking for information about hypnotism, which is what my site is all about,” he explains. Visitors pay for the materials, then Perkins ships them by attaching them to an e-mail message. BookZone offers the option to sell from your own site with the setup of your own payment, delivery, and sales reporting system, with or without digital rights protection, and a 16% or 7% fee per download, respectively. Like any business decision, it behooves each publisher to “work the numbers” and determine the feasibility of offering each format.

How does ePublishing relate to Print-on-Demand technology? Print-on-Demand is a technology that may indeed have greater impact on the publishing industry than electronic publishing. Interestingly enough, the “front end” for POD is the Adobe PDF format, which is currently the leading ePublishing format. Although the settings must be adjusted somewhat for optimum presentation in print or in pixels, the synergy reduces the learning curve—and costs—for publishers.

Can I use ePublishing to test product viability? As the ePublishing segment of the industry develops, this question arises frequently. Compared to publishing printed material, producing an eBook is so cost-effective and quick that many authors and publishers are drawn to publish electronically first, then go to print as volume increases. Wayne Perkins was able to take this approach with his hypnotism books. When he discovered that people were visiting his site to read about how to hypnotize other people (by a three-to-one margin), he created an eBook called How to Hypnotize People and Other Living Things. “Between December 5, when I put the eBook on my site, and January 6, I had 100 orders for that title from my site,” says Perkins. “There is no other publicity for that title.” Although his new book on publishing eBooks, A Cheap and Easy Guide to Self-Publishing eBooks, is doing very well at Barnes & Noble, sales at the Barnes & Noble site for the hypnotism title are modest. Perkins has promoted his site heavily as a source for information about hypnotism, however. Indeed, promotion is no less critical for eBooks than for printed ones.

Popularity in electronic format will indicate overall interest in your information, but a lack of eSales may not necessarily suggest that a book wouldn’t sell in printed or even audio editions.

Are there any other benefits of ePublishing? When computers first became popular, there was much talk about how they would save paper. Now, of course, we know they did quite the opposite, creating more paper than ever! ePublishing, however, does offer real hope of saving resources. Take Stephen King’s recent eBook release. Four hundred-thousand copies of about 60 pages each (not including a much heavier paper stock to produce a full-color cover) means that, in its debut on the Internet, the eBook Riding the Bullet saved more than 24 million pages in its first 24 hours, which roughly equates to 6,700 trees. With the rapid disintegration of rain forests worldwide in the last half of the 20th century, eBooks offer an attractive, environmentally conscious alternative in helping to create and maintain a better-balanced, natural world.


While today ePublishing is still new territory for many publishers, it won’t be long before purchasers will be able to browse a book “automat” from which they will buy the format that works best for them. Just as movie studios now decide whether to initially release a film into theatres first then into video, straight to video, or right to television, publishers will have many options for serving their customers. That’s good for publishers, authors, and readers.

Mary Westheimer is CEO of BookZone, the largest provider of Internet hosting, design, development, and promotion services for the publishing industry. BookZone offers granular and full-document ePublishing systems, including digital rights protection. For more information, contact BookZone at epub@bookzone.com and 800/536-6162 (480/481-9737 in Arizona).


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