E-publish or perish

Move over Mr. Gutenberg -- Dallas Internet entrepeneur Patrick Seaman is hunting for the "killer app" to create the next revolution in publishing

But in August 1999, after negotiations were completed for a merger between Yahoo! and Broadcast.com, Seaman decided to cash out. "Yahoo is a nice big corporation," he says. "But it's like a lot of corporations. It's got lots of committees that make lots of decisions, and none of them were going to be made in Dallas anymore. I could have found a nice corner somewhere and stayed quiet and collected lots of money." Instead, he chose to retire, "leaving a lot of money on the table," he says, though he refuses to talk about the millions he took with him.

But retirement at 37 seemed unthinkable, and ever since the success of his audio-book Webcast, he had wanted to pursue online publishing. What better way to merge his love of technology with his love of literature? Only a month after he retired, he founded Timberwolf Press, worried he might miss a narrowing window of opportunity.

"Just like Broadcast, I need to grab market share in areas where no one is yet," he says. "Publishers are all going in a different direction. If I were to do what every one else is, I'd be too late."

Patrick Seaman, founder of Timberwolf Press, believes that the future of online publishing has arrived.
Patrick Seaman, founder of Timberwolf Press, believes that the future of online publishing has arrived.
Patrick Seaman, founder of Timberwolf Press, believes that the future of online publishing has arrived.
Patrick Seaman, founder of Timberwolf Press, believes that the future of online publishing has arrived.

What Seaman hopes to avoid is what he calls the "iSlush pile.com" business model that many e-publishers have adopted, an online vanity press that makes "more money from authors than for authors," says Doris Booth, founder of Dallas-based Authorlink, an online clearinghouse for authors to showcase their work. "A few years back, the practice would have been considered a sham." But the Internet has breathed new life into self-publishing.

For prices ranging from $99 to $1,000, a writer can upload his manuscript to an electronic library where it is produced and stored. Others (often the author's relatives) can order the book in either electronic or printed versions. The author may also receive several hard copies of the book. But no advances are paid, and the manuscript remains unedited, unpromoted, and lost in the boundless tentacles of the Web. With start-up costs fairly low for e-publishers--including designing and marketing a Web site, renting space on a Web server, and getting access to computer software that processes orders--it's no wonder they are proliferating on the Web.

E-publishing pioneers (those in business more than two years) heralded the democracy of the Internet, where anyone could be an author (if they had the money) and author royalties would be split at a more advantageous rate than with traditional houses (40 to 60 percent for authors rather than 5 to 15 percent).

Some e-publishers quickly learned that smaller runs of self-published books by great hordes of authors could generate streams of revenue. "There is money to be made in self-publishing," says veteran New York literary agent Richard Curtis, who is launching his own online press, E-reads, this summer. "If you pay me $500 to publish your book, and we sell 200 copies for $10 each, and you have a 50 percent royalty, you've made a $500 profit. Don't look down your nose at my $500 profit when Random House advances $2 million for a book that loses a million. So who is the real publisher here?"

Yet traditional publishers, looking only for their next blockbuster, condemned e-publishing and its vanity presses, even as they closed down their slush piles and abandoned writers who wrote good books that lacked broad commercial punch. But in the summer of 1998 at the Book Expo America convention in Chicago, two technological innovations began to reverse their e-bias.

Manufacturers of electronic reading devices such as the Rocket eBook and the Softbook displayed their new technologies, which could store hundreds of pages of text in handheld units that let the reader take notes in the margins, underline text, and look up words in a built-in dictionary. The Rocket eBook is the size of a paperback yet can store the equivalent of 10 paperback novels. The Softbook is the size of a hardcover book and touts itself as offering the most "book-like" experience among e-reading devices.

These devices undercut the best argument of the pixel-phobic by offering a portable electronic book that could easily be enjoyed at the beach or in the bedroom or bathroom. Certainly computer-centric kids, who have been raised on Gameboys, would enjoy reading on one, assuming they do any reading at all. And in time, even the aging minds of those who do read could be weaned off paper and onto this reader-friendly option. If only they could reproduce the tactile experience of turning the page.

But what caused the greatest stir among publishers at the convention was a breakthrough technology known as print-on-demand. These printers, which resemble a huge photocopier, could be housed in bookstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble. A customer would order a book, and while he is drinking his latte in the coffee bar, the printer would pull a digital file from a database of books and then print the order--one book at a time. What had publishers elated was that there would be no inventory costs, no distribution costs, no miscalculated print runs, and no returns from bookstores. No book would ever go out of print. What had publishers worried was that there might be no publishers either.

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