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.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald