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The Real E-Books

Forget those single-purpose e-book readers. The future of electronic publishing lies in files you can download to, view on and print out from the computer you already own.

It took a contemporary master of macabre thrillers to awaken the media and public to the existence of e-books. This spring, with great fanfare, Simon & Schuster brought out a novella by Stephen King called Riding the Bullet-the first work by a best-selling author released exclusively for electronic publication, to be read only on computerized screens, not paper. King’s stunt made headlines and magazine covers, and the tsunami of demand for downloads of this e-book crashed Web sites and traditional publishing assumptions.

But the future of e-books may have less to do with Stephen King than with Eric Rowe and other less well-known authors. Rowe is a British potter who lives in the South of France, drawn there by the region’s clays and minerals, which have been mined for stoneware since Roman times. To help ceramists in other areas unearth their own raw materials, he wrote A Potter’s Geology. But he couldn’t find a book publisher in England for his manuscript. This was just too specialized a topic for a publisher in any one country. Still, Rowe was certain that there would be interest in his book from potters everywhere.

Half a world away, in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Tony Hansen read about A Potter’s Geology from a posting by Rowe in a ceramists’ online discussion group. Hansen owns Digitalfire, a company specializing in software for calculations in ceramic chemistry. Hansen offered to publish Rowe’s book electronically, selling the text on the Web as digital files in the Portable Document Format (PDF). PDF files are displayable on any Windows, DOS, Mac or Unix computer screen (and easily printed out) using the Acrobat reader software, downloadable free from Adobe Systems.

“I said I’d rather have my manuscript printed first,” Rowe recalls. But Hansen won him over by pointing out that e-publication would produce immediate worldwide distribution. Now the book can be downloaded from the Web and viewed on any personal computer. Readers of the e-book can search the entire book and zoom in on high-resolution photos-even contact the author via an online hyperlink. The economics look good too: E-books require no printing, binding, inventory or shipping costs, allowing these savings to be passed on to the author in the form of higher royalties. A Potter’s Geology has sold only a few dozen copies, but Rowe is optimistic: “It won’t be something that sells fast, but over a long time. It’s not a subject that will go out of date. Even so, in digital format it’s easy to update or improve.”

Rubber and Glue

The most general-purpose hardware boxes of all are personal computers. Yet despite hundreds of millions of PCs in use around the world, only a few hundred thousand of their users have downloaded e-books. The slow start is partly due to the perception that an e-book doesn’t fully replicate the book-reading experience. More importantly, the download culture-first evident with browser plug-ins, then with software upgrades and MP3 music files-has only taken hold recently with the non-geek public.

Ads by Microsoft would have us believe that what the e-book world has been waiting for is the company’s Reader program, which will be given away with every new copy of Windows. Microsoft Reader features ClearType software that evens out type edges on the screen. The reality is, however, that ClearType is warmed-over technology that failed to save handheld Windows CE devices from oblivion. To people accustomed to reading text on a computer for hours at a time, e-book screen clarity is a nonissue. Microsoft Reader also provides copy protection for authors and booksellers. But while e-books rights management may be important to intellectual property holders, it could be a futile quest. Any PC-based copy protection scheme can be cracked, as happened within two days of Stephen King’s first e-publication.

With more than 100 million Acrobat readers already downloaded onto computers, PDF is the de facto standard for e-book publication. PDF was specifically designed for preserving professional-quality documents across computer platforms and printers. And PDF technology offers a ready solution for those reluctant to read off a screen; simply print out the files. To counter Microsoft Reader, Adobe has recently beefed up its offerings with e-commerce encryption software called PDF Merchant, allowing rights to an electronic copy of a book to be assigned to a single computer. In addition, Adobe has challenged Microsoft’s ClearType with screen-enhancement routines of its own, which it calls CoolType; the competing technologies are similar enough in performance to make screen clarity even less of a concern. This year PDF will face a worthy challenger in the e-book format battle, as a consortium of e-book hardware makers, traditional publishers, and Microsoft push the new Open eBook (OEB) standard.

The difference between OEB and PDF is like the child’s rhyme that begins: “I’m rubber, you’re glue.” PDF is glue, locking in a book’s formatting so it can be preserved intact across output devices; once created, it is not meant to be modified in any way. This can be a drawback if an author or publisher wants to access parts of the text for excerpting or reconfiguring for a customized e-book, or for sampling or sale in smaller increments than book length. OEB is rubber: It allows an e-book’s content to be reformatted on the fly, using a markup language that is essentially an extension of HTML. OEB also makes it easy for dedicated reading devices to reformat text to fit their proprietary display configurations.

The first published spec for OEB addresses neither security nor e-commerce protocols, leaving it to individual vendors to come up with their own approaches. This omission raises the possibility that the proposed standard could splinter into a variety of incompatible implementations. Ultimately, both OEB and PDF could survive, with the rival formats used for different output stages of the same e-book-OEB in the intermediate stages of massaging editorial content, and PDF for final versions. (For all the flexibility of digital books, scholarship will probably demand that different editions of a work remain available in permanent form.)

Rewriting Business Models

E-books are shaking up publishing business models that have remained unchanged since the days of Dickens, much as MP3 compression technology has rocked the music industry. For the moment, even the most forward-looking print publishers are pricing their initial e-book offerings almost identically with paper editions, as if there were no difference in their underlying atoms versus bits economics. At St. Martin’s Press, the first major publisher to simultaneously issue a hardcover and e-book edition of the same title (Monica’s Story in March 1999), senior vice president for finance administration Steve Cohen explains: “Our prices on new titles are at the hardcover level because there’s a high start-up cost for e-book editions.” Kate Tentler, publisher of Simon & Schuster Online, was responsible for Web distribution of Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet (priced at $2.50, the 66 pages of the e-novella averaged out to the retail per-page cost of a King hardcover novel). Says Tentler, “We think of an e-book as just another book.”

As a few traditional publishers defensively convert to digital files for downloads, the independent e-publishing industry has seen countless business models bloom. On the same March day that the Stephen King brand name sold 400,000 paperless copies of Riding the Bullet, Frank Weyer received a grand total of two requests for his serialized e-mystery, MIT Can Be Murder, on his own site ( Despite such paltry numbers, efforts by Weyer and other e-book authors are already undermining the influence of blockbuster-minded agents and trend-driven book editors. Weyer, for example, had sent the manuscript for his first murder mystery to 10 literary agents, all of whom declined to submit it to book publishers. “They said the mystery field is difficult for a newcomer,” Weyer recalls. “But how do you become a published mystery author if you can’t get published?”

Self-publishing on paper, a solution for some, seemed prohibitive for this patent and trademark attorney and small-scale Internet entrepreneur (he holds exclusive right to sell Web domain names registered in the nation of Moldova-ending in .md-to doctors in California and New York). Rather than letting his manuscript molder in a drawer, Weyer decided to publish it via e-mail. The first four chapters of the whodunnit, inspired by the year he spent at MIT studying for a PhD in ocean engineering, were offered first to 3,000 MIT alumni, and then to 15,000 names on other university alumni lists. He released the rest of the 210-page book in 12 monthly installments. Some 1,400 readers have downloaded the entire e-novel.

Weyer’s novel-by-subscription might seem like an innovation made possible by the digital era. In fact, it is a throwback to the early days of 19th-century book publishing, when books were sold by subscription before publication, to raise revenue to pay the printing costs up front. With no printing to worry about, the frictionless economy lets Weyer distribute his work for free. Now that he has successfully bypassed print publishers to get his words read, he has begun subscription-publishing the work of other writers. The first addition is The Butcher’s Cleaver, a spy thriller by W. Patrick Lang. Soon Weyer plans to generate income by selling print-on-demand versions of both his and Lang’s books. Nonetheless, he would like MIT Can Be Murder to be picked up by a mainstream publisher. “I just wanted to build word of mouth,” he says of his e-book. “I would like to see it in as many forms as possible.”

Giving away complete works to help an author build a following is still anathema to most traditional publishers, who must absorb the cost to produce, store and ship the physical books. But giving away paperless e-books is a no-brainer, following the time-tested freeware and shareware models in computer software. Independently published e-books may not be as polished or as slick as store-bought commercial offerings, but they can hold their own in user appreciation. And Frank Weyer’s writing is certainly on par with that in much of today’s mass-produced paperback fiction.

Traditional publishers’ understandable fear that e-books may cannibalize sales of print editions seems to be overblown, at least judging from the experience of one of their more adventurous colleagues. Last September, veteran science-fiction publisher Jim Baen initiated what he calls eWebScriptions; for $10 a month, visitors to may download quarter-of-a-book-sized installments of four titles about to appear in print. Even after receiving the full text in HTML, “more of our subscribers buy the finished book than don’t buy it,” says Baen. By March, the added promotion had already helped propel one of the earliest eWebScriptions titles, Ashes of Victory by David Weber, onto hardcover best-seller lists.

In addition to alternative marketing strategies, e-publishers can tap into income streams legally denied to traditional publishers. For instance, the U.S. Postal Service disallows low book-mailing rates for printed material that contains advertising. No such restriction inhibits the sales of ads for e-books., for example, offers free, ad-supported classics and reference works online. At, books can be read on ad banner-sponsored Web pages, with some popular titles downloadable for a fee; authors get a cut of the ad revenue. Abroad, the alternatives are just as dramatic; in France, pioneer e-publisher Zero Hour is able to offer less-expensive editions of current books because digital files cannot be taxed as print books are.

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.

Also being revived are questions about traditional publishers’ exclusivity over their authors’ works. When Simon & Schuster made Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet available through online booksellers and e-book hardware and software firms, one site was pointedly excluded: Since last fall, Fatbrain has been posting works it brands as “eMatter”: original fiction and nonfiction ranging from 10 to 100 pages (lengths that many people will be willing to print out). Subsequently designating the site for such pieces, Fatbrain has targeted a segment of publishing that falls between magazines and books, where the modern economics of print have all but shut out a once-thriving sector of short stories and novellas. Simon & Schuster saw Fatbrain as a rival.

Fatbrain’s brief history shows how quickly e-book business plans and branding can change. A mere six months after launching the eMatter trademark and drawing attention to the similarly named Web site, Fatbrain decided to let its trademark lapse. “MightyWords was a name that could ring through to our professional audience, while eMatter is a generic term for the range of electronic documents we are publishing,” explains Judy Kirkpatrick, executive vice president and general manager of MightyWords. Already the eMatter 10-to-100-page category encompasses many of e-book publishing’s early milestones, including King’s Riding the Bullet. Simon & Schuster may not like it, but Fatbrain’s publication of an eMatter essay by science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke was the inspiration for King to test the digital publishing waters. Also fitting the eMatter designation: Eric Rowe’s 91-page A Potter’s Geology.

King and Rowe have something else in common: an abiding belief in the importance of traditional books. King has been widely quoted as stating: “I don’t think anything will replace the printed word and the bound book. Not in my lifetime, at least.” For Rowe, too, it’s not a question of digital books supplanting analog ones. “For some kinds of book,” he says, “the aesthetic pleasure of having the object in the hand will be difficult to replace.”

It should come as no surprise that proponents of e-books are not out to eliminate paper publishing. After all, most e-books attempt to replicate traditional books’ content and appearance. For the most part, e-books can be printed out with only minimal loss of information (primarily broken hypertext links). And for all their seeming differences, print and electronic publishers are putting out similar content. Eventually, digital downloads seem destined to become just one more format for readers, one more step on the convenience/cost continuum from hardcover to paperback to e-book.

At some point in the future, however, e-books and print are bound to diverge. Lurking amidst e-publishing today is the notion of multimedia books that seamlessly incorporate hypertext, sound and animation. A hypertext branching narrative in a novel or a history book, for instance, would be impossible to reproduce in a book.

A glimmer of tomorrow’s multimedia books, or m-books, may be discerned in a dark-horse contender among e-publishing file formats called TK3. Introduced by Night Kitchen-a New York startup headed by Voyager Co. co-founder Bob Stein-TK3 is the basis for a sophisticated literary software environment. The Night Kitchen TK3 Reader offers the most booklike reading experience on a desktop or laptop computer screen-complete with highlighting, corner-folding bookmarks, even Post-it-like “stickie notes.” And TK3’s easy-to-use multimedia authoring tools are meant, according to Stein, “to empower a new generation of authors who want to express themselves in the new media.” Using this hyperlink-sound-and-motion superset of traditional books to express themselves, such a new generation of authors would hasten Stein’s prediction that “the locus of intellectual discourse will shift from the print medium to the electronic medium.”

For now, the advent of e-books means not replacing print, but supplementing it-redefining publishing economics and opening the way for authors whose work has been kept from appearing between book covers. If e-books do nothing more, regardless of the success or lack thereof of new gadgetry to display them, this technology will have a profound effect on what we read and what we think.

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