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Embracing the E

The power of e-books as a promotional medium has probably best been demonstrated by Melisse Shapiro, who writes under the nom de plume M.J. Rose. Her first novel, Lip Service, an erotically charged thriller, was rejected by a dozen book publishers for being too steamy for the chain bookstores. She opted to publish from her own Web site, offering digital downloads for $10 or photocopies of the manuscript for $20.

Even when the password for her e-book was stolen and posted online, resulting in 1,000 pirated downloads, she managed to receive 150 paid orders for e-books and 500 orders for photocopies. She invested in printing 3,000 copies to help create buzz; at one point, it was the 123rd best-selling title on Following her online blitz, Doubleday Direct picked up Lip Service for its mail-order book clubs and soon after, Pocket Books signed up print rights in hardcover and paperback. Building on her success, Shapiro has become a leading advocate of e-books, with her frequent reports to Wired News online providing the most comprehensive ongoing coverage of e-publishing. “Everything in my life would be different if not for e-books,” she says.

On the same day in March that Stephen King generated 400,000 orders, Leta Childers’ comic romance e-novel, The Best Laid Plans, was downloaded 200 times from her publisher’s Web site, Childers is King’s peer in one respect: Hers is the best-selling work released to date among digital-format-only publishers, according to the best-seller list compiled by eBook Connections. With some 20,000 copies of her e-book issued (at $3.50 for a downloaded copy, $6.50 on diskette), the rural South Dakota-based Childers has helped establish DiskUs Publishing of Albany, Ind., as one of the most successful digital-only publishers. In the still largely New York-based traditional publishing world, Childers says, “submission envelopes with Midwest return addresses are easy to ignore.” Then in a familiar refrain for e-book authors, she adds: “I would love to be traditionally published.”

DiskUs is a publisher in the traditional sense of having editors who help prepare manuscripts for publication. Other e-publishers disseminate authors’ works for a fee, without exercising editorial control. Such “vanity presses” have long been the Rodney Dangerfields of publishing, but vanity e-publishers are proving attractive to mainstream book firms exploring new publishing paradigms. Following a recent investment by Random House, now provides a no-fee, no-frills e-publishing package. Barnes & Noble is backing, which offers new authors a basic $99 e-publishing service; it reserves free publication for authors submitting out-of-print works, a program originally developed with The Authors Guild.

For authors who’ve already been in print, one of the greatest benefits that e-books can offer is the resurrection of their old hard-to-find titles. As publishing companies have consolidated, worthy works have been relegated to the limbo of out-of-print. E-publishing provides an inexpensive way to restore the availability of these lapsed works. Among the most innovative of e-publishers, Alexandria Digital Literature has revived hundreds of out-of-print stories and poems, typically priced from 30 cents to $1.25. Buyers are asked to send in their ratings; when enough ratings accumulate, they can be compared to others’ ratings and other reading recommendations are offered.

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