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

"Authors can now print, distribute, and advertise their own books," says Curtis. "These are the things that previously have been the province of publishers."

No one proved this better than Stephen King, when he offered Riding the Bullet, his 66-page novella for online sale and consumption only--at $2.50 per download. Although Simon & Schuster co-published the project when it was digitally released in March, certainly King could have posted the book to the Internet himself, sold the 500,000 orders, and kept the change.

"Stephen King could auction his phlegm on eBay and make a fortune," says Dallas literary agent Evan Fogelman. "This was a celebrity venture, not a publishing one."

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.

Either way, it drew attention not only to the promise of e-publishing but also to its pitfalls. It took only two days for hackers to break into the security system meant to protect the book from being illegally copied. These hackers were also kind enough to post the book on Web sites with instructions enabling others to crack the encryption codes. With no way to protect valuable content rights, publishers had visions of the kind of piracy (or sharing) going on in the music industry with the MP3 format. Perhaps that's why King's next great Web adventure will include downloading the book in episodes for $1 each and employing some kind of honor system by which readers pay voluntarily.

Patrick Seaman believes King has the right idea. "The publishing world is saying we've got to stay ahead of the hackers," he says. "But what we really need to do is to make our product so easy to get, it will keep honest people honest. If you want a book electronically, we need to price it so well, you won't want to cheat."

The breakaway success of King's novella convinced many traditional publishers that the future of e-publishing was now. "The dam finally broke," says Dallas literary agent David Hale Smith. "You began to see all this investment being made by traditional publishers who didn't want to get caught not capitalizing on this new medium."

Suddenly partnerships were forged between the traditional literary community and the same digital vanity publishers once considered the pariahs of the industry. Random House bought a 49 percent interest in Xlibris, the Internet start-up that offers any prospective author the opportunity to self-publish for a fee as low as $450 (editing not included). Time Warner decided to develop its own portal under the domain iPublish.com., the first Internet-only effort from a major U.S. publisher. Although much of its content will feature electronic versions of current and back-listed books from Time Warner's stable of writers, iPublish.com will also open a slush pile and accept unsolicited manuscripts.

But no company within the literary community seems as actively involved in pursuing Internet start-ups as bookseller Barnes & Noble. It now owns a 49 percent interest in iUniverse.com, the vanity press that prints on demand and allows anyone to self-publish anything for $99. In June, Barnes & Noble.com laid out $20 million to purchase a 30 percent interest in MightyWords, a subsidiary of Fatbrain.com, one of Silicon valley's fastest growing Internet start-ups.

Fatbrain began as an online bookseller and publisher of technical and academic e-books. The company, realizing that those browsing the Web are more likely to read shorter works online, began its MightyWords division, which includes short works of fiction, articles, and essays of authors both known and unknown.

Before the B&N partnership, MightyWords contracted with Dallas romance writer Laura Parker, who has 30 books published from major houses to her credit. Because MightyWords was interested in gaining credibility by getting established authors for its site, Parker was offered a $2,000 advance as well as a 60 percent royalty for her novella Everybody Loves Ramon. "I had this short story rattling around in my head for years and no place to sell it," Parker says. "If you want to break out of your genre, e-publishing is a good place to spread your wings."

Parker was amazed by the process: Twenty-four hours after she uploaded her book to MightyWords, the company made it available on its Web site, ready to be downloaded for sale. "My romance novels can take a year or two to get to market," she says. "There was no editing; the typos are all mine."

Yet that's precisely the complaint leveled against e-publishers: Historically, there has been little or no screening process, no way for a reader to tell whether the book is worth his time until he downloads. What's needed are more online editors and literary critics, taste-makers who can plow through the morass of self-publishing and help the good rise to the top. E-publishers tend to be more democratic and interactive, waiting for readers to select among the amorphous heap before they get behind a manuscript with real financial muscle.

Although Parker's book is listed as a MightyWords best-seller, the company did no promotion for it at all. "If you are not Stephen King," Parker says, "you have to go to the readers and let them know the book is available." Parker got her own Web site and heavily marketed herself to about a dozen e-zines, many of which raved about her work in their reviews.

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