E-publish or perish
You boot up your computer. Go online. Punch in the address www.TimberwolfPress.com and hit "enter." Against a black background appears a photo of a lone wolf, its eyes narrowing as the image melts and morphs into a graphic: It's the same wolf, only outlined in devilish red, its eyes just as haunting, its face jet black. Several miniature book covers suddenly dot the screen and encircle the wolf. One of the titles, Bradamant, catches your eye. Maybe you've seen an ad for the fantasy novel on Amazon.com. Maybe you read a review about it in an e-zine. Or maybe a friend raved about it in an e-mail--word of mouse.
Anyway, something jogs your memory, and you click. A page resembling a dust jacket comes into view. Sales blurbs praising the book persuade you to click on. You can choose among Timberwolf's real-world formats--trade paperback, audiotape, CD, or CD-ROM. Or you can pick from the virtual world--an electronic book to download to your desktop or handheld e-reading device, or an audio book streamed over the Internet and Webcast in 30 dramatized episodes similar to a 1930s radio play using actors and sound effects instead of a single narrator. For those who just can't wait for the next episode, the entire audio book can be downloaded in an MP3 format.
You're drawn to the Webcast, its novel merger of past and future, and you click on Episode 1. You hear the howl of a wolf and the deep, mellifluous voice of Dallas actor Lynn Mathis:
"Timberwolf Press presents Bradamant, The Iron Tempest by Ron Miller. This is a work of fiction..." A drum beats loudly. "A prelude in which we meet an ungrateful princess, a duplicitous king, and a true knight."
Welcome to the brave new world of e-publishing, where books are content, authors are content providers, and publishers are portals. This is the wired and woolly world of 38-year-old Patrick Seaman, founder of Timberwolf Press Inc. and ex-technological guru at Broadcast.com, the Dallas start-up co-founded by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban that developed the "killer app" (application) for broadcasting on the Internet. After Yahoo bought out Broadcast.com for $5.4 billion, a considerably wealthier Seaman retired for a few minutes only to re-emerge last year with his own start-up, Timberwolf Press. "The publishing industry is running scared, and that creates opportunity," Seaman says.
Global media giants had gobbled up gentlemanly New York publishing houses and forced them to focus on profits or die. In their obsessive hunt for the next blockbuster, publishers were casting aside talented mid-list authors with less commercial appeal. Houses closed down their "slush piles," which meant they refused to accept unsolicited manuscripts, no matter their literary merit. And now publishers had the Internet to reckon with--pixels instead of paper, downloading, encryption codes, copyright rip-offs, an unwieldy democracy of do-it-yourself writers existing without editors, agents, or advances.
Publishers once held the Internet in low regard, convinced that readers would never abandon their love affair with paper. The Internet might be fine for reading academic journals and technology manuals, but who wants to schlep their computer to the beach to read John Grisham's latest potboiler? Publishers scoffed at the growth of their e-counterparts, believing them to be little more than digital versions of vanity presses, making money off legions of no-talent authors by cluttering the Internet with unedited trash. And how could publishers protect their copyrights? Hackers abound on the Internet; encryption codes would never stave off someone hell-bent on thievery.
But technology knows no prejudice and refused to be dismissed so cavalierly. After all, the Internet and the publishing industry have the same fundamental mission: the dissemination of information. If evolving e-publishing technologies such as print-on-demand and portable e-reading devices could make that mission faster, easier, and cheaper, profit-obsessed publishers had better listen.
Publishing houses couldn't help but listen last August when Microsoft executives boldly predicted the death of print within 20 years. Or when the occasional e-author rose above the Internet slush pile to cut a deal with a major publisher. But only in March, after Stephen King published his novella Riding the Bullet as an e-book only, and readers downloaded more than 500,000 copies on the Internet, did they receive the message loud and clear.
Traditional publishers began positioning themselves for whatever the future held. Some partnered with the same e-publishers they had previously castigated, flooding the new companies' profitless coffers with venture capital. Media giants began to develop online presses, soliciting manuscripts from the unwashed masses of writers and writer wannabes. Nobody wanted to be caught napping (or Napstering, as was the case with the music industry and MP3s).
Everyone began searching for the best combination of traditional and electronic publishing, the right mix that would become so dominating that it blows everything else away and becomes the industry standard--the next killer app.
Everyone, including Patrick Seaman.
No glass-and-steel tower shelters this business in opulent pretense. No street sign even designates its whereabouts. If not for a small billboard perched atop its plain brick offices in the heart of what goes for downtown in Allen, Texas, Timberwolf Press might go unnoticed altogether. It's Patrick Seaman's job to see that this doesn't happen--not in this world or the virtual one.
He sits at a desk in the conference room, the proud papa of his new start-up, apologizing for the hammering overhead; Timberwolf Press is still a work in progress. He is bearded and round at the belly, a product of too much international travel for Broadcast.com, he says. Still, he's not so corpulent that he didn't become one of 11 finalists in February's first "The Sexiest Geek Alive Contest," which drew more than 18,000 entries and national media attention. Though looking at him now, you wonder about those who didn't make the finals.
"Patrick was a geek before they were fashionable," says longtime friend Sherman Swartz. "He and I both liked slide rules, and at one point in our lives, we both knew how to use them."
Seaman is Dallas-bred to the bone: born in Oak Cliff, raised in Mesquite, and educated at the University of Texas at Dallas. He exhibited nerdish tendencies at an early age, drawn to sci-fi novels, computer programming, and mathematics. Upon college graduation in 1983, he plunged himself into programming, hopscotching between a variety of jobs in corporate America, from Teledyne Geotech to LTV to J.C. Penney. But the fit was never quite right.
"I have always been a maverick," Seaman says. "People who are mavericks end up getting set aside from the mainstream." Nowhere did this become more evident for him than when he worked for J.C. Penney beginning in 1988 as the retail giant moved its corporate headquarters to Dallas. "You get a lot of turf wars going because people don't like change. It threatens their little sphere of influence," Seaman says. "In the corporate world, you are constantly having to fight the infrastructure to do anything new, to be creative, to take risks."
His approach was to attack a problem until it was dead, and this left some colleagues bitter and resentful. He turned to writing, he says, as an outlet for his frustration with J.C. Penney. Seaman decided to learn from all the great authors, voraciously reading their works, both classical and modern. He labored diligently over a techno-thriller for years, sent it to agents and publishers and was rejected by them all. The book "was really pretty bad," he admits.
Only after he joined the Lesser North Texas Writers, a local critique group of published and unpublished authors, did he learn how to write, he says. Unlike his wife or friends who might read his work, the group could be ruthless, tearing down his words so they later could be rebuilt--along with his ego. It was here that he met Jim Cline, who would later become his partner at Timberwolf, and Carol Woods, who would become his senior editor.
When his job grew unbearable ("If you don't change, you are inherently dead," he says), he decided to quit, going out on his own in 1995 and working as a technology consultant. His first customer was a company called AudioNet, the Internet start-up that began in Mark Cuban's spare bedroom and eventually become Broadcast.com. Cuban was the evangelist, the cheerleader for the company; his partner, Todd Wagner, was the businessman. Their idea was simple enough: to broadcast college football games and radio-station programming over the Internet. That way, a Southern Methodist University alum would be able to listen to Mustang games over his computer in Japan. "It was really bad audio, like a short-wave radio during a solar storm," says Seaman, who became their first hire and did everything from developing the company's technology to sweeping its floors.
He couldn't have been happier. There was no corporate culture averse to change, no bloated bureaucracy thick with meetings and status reports--just some fast-paced, fast-talking entrepreneurs who quickly realized they were onto a good thing and had better work even faster before the rest of the world caught up.
"We made the rules up as we went along," says Keith Swartz, Sherman's brother and an engineer who worked with Seaman. "We made decisions on the fly. The founders had a global plan of what they wanted to do, but didn't know how to get there."
Their changing vision was "to grab all the content on the planet," Seaman says--sports, news, music, religious programming, both audio and video--and become a broadcast network, reaching the Internet's global audience. More content meant more viewers and more market share. With Broadcast.com as the industry standard, the big media companies would never be able to run it out of business.
Seaman's job was to make certain the network worked, improve its quality, and guarantee its consistency. "He usually came up with something that was cutting-edge, packaging all the different technologies in different ways," Swartz says.
Though Seaman had little time for his own writing, in October 1995 he produced the first audio book on the Internet, broadcasting A Small Percentage, a sci-fi novel by Jim Cline. The Webcast, dramatized in 16 high-impact unabridged episodes, would become Seaman's prototype for Timberwolf Press. "It developed a very loyal following," he says. "If we were late in getting a broadcast up, we got flamed by our fans."
As Broadcast.com grew in size, Seaman became vice president of special projects and international development. The lofty title meant little difference in a corporate culture whose organizational flow chart was virtually nonexistent. Among his other responsibilities, Seaman helped close major international business deals with Intel and Microsoft, broadcasting business conventions and corporate seminars online for their offices around the world. For Intel, he produced the only two live Internet broadcasts originating in mainland China.
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."
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.
"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."
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.
With her 60 percent royalty split, she has to sell only around 800 copies before she can start collecting royalty checks. And that's far more likely to happen now that MightyWords has joined Barnes & Noble.
"People who are not cyber-savvy have never heard of MightyWords," Parker says. "But Barnes & Noble.com will dovetail me back to a more traditional audience."
Unless Stephen King can make e-publishing a trendy alternative, most writers, both veteran and novice, will still crave this traditional audience, and it's the traditional publisher who can still deliver it to them. That these publishers are now investing heavily in the Internet should seriously concern young start-ups like Timberwolf Press. A media monster like Time Warner brings both its brand and its content online. "If I were a start-up, I wouldn't want to go head-to-head with Time Warner right now," says agent Evan Fogelman. "It would be easier to start a new religion."
For a man whose publishing house has little content and even less brand awareness, Patrick Seaman is supremely confident. He articulates his business model for Timberwolf Press as if it will someday be the industry standard. He seems to know the answer to questions before they are even asked. When asked how he decided on the name Timberwolf, he goes into a diatribe about the turmoil in the publishing industry. "When you look at the entire entertainment industry--from film to music to books--it is full of strife," he says. "The timber wolf smells blood. We sensed opportunity."
But he refuses to admit that some of that blood may be his own, that he cannot play catch-up with the big boys of publishing, that he may be outflanked by e-publishers partnering with traditional publishing dollars. On the contrary, he believes traditional publishers should be worried about him. He has the flexibility to change and grow. They're the ones mired in the past, stuck with dinosaur corporate structures.
He says he learned from his years at Broadcast.com that "a plan is obsolete the minute it is implemented," that once put in motion, it must continually adapt and evolve. But he is sticking to his business model, at least for now. "I think this is a fresh approach on how to incubate and distribute multiple media across the spectrum from the print side to the electronic all the way to cable and film and any other media."
His model has no place for a vanity press--the "iSlushpile.com approach," he says, "that throws all this garbage up there for everyone to weed through. It won't take too many disappointments for people to give up on it." Timberwolf Press, however, will pay advances to its authors and will shortly have a full editorial staff in place--story and line editors, copy editors, proofreaders.
"Many e-publishers have no marketing plan for their authors," he says. "No connection between the consumer and this enormous pile of un-refereed material." Timberwolf authors will be promoted the traditional way: through advertising, promotional tours, book signings.
Seaman's way of building the Timberwolf brand is to offer episodes of its audio-book Webcasts for free. The costly sound stage he has built at Timberwolf will enable him to realize his plan of releasing a new episode of a different audio book every day. "Our Web site will be an entertainment destination, which will help us market our titles to other entities like TV and film," he says.
Whether Seaman has the taste and the talent to select the right content will be known only over time. In an industry where timing is everything and trends are over as soon as they are identified, a neophyte publisher needs more than a little luck. "It's one thing to know technology and quite another to know books," says agent Jim Donovan.
But questions about his literary intuition won't stop Seaman from setting his publishing goals high: 30 books this year, 60 the next, 90 the year after--hardcore science fiction, techno-thrillers, mystery--books that lend themselves to high entertainment, whose chapters are loaded with cliffhangers so they will hook the reader on the next e-episode. Real pageclickers.
In five years he plans on going public. But doesn't every Internet start-up?
And next year, after working on it since 1988, he plans on publishing his own book, Seed of Fear. And isn't that what e-publishing is all about anyway?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- Live From London: Your Holiday Weekend Weather Apocaforecast
- Oak Lawn Protesters Pick Fight With Philip Kingston
- Just in Time for Thanksgiving Travel, Love Field Breaks Out New Parking System