Electronic books and Print-on-demand: Making peace with the digital future

September 2, 1999
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A Special Guest Column for Authorlink.com

Electronic books and Print-on-demand: Making peace with the digital future

by Greg Durham

Director of Online Publishing Initiatives

Random House, Inc.

September, 1999

 

Since the dawn of the great techno-revolution that is the past 125 years, inventions that challenge the way we receive information and ideas have been greeted with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

"The human voice carries entirely too far as it is-and now you fellows seek to come along and complicate matters…," Mark Twain said upon the arrival of the telephone. Of his culture-altering invention, the television, Philo T. Farnsworth, told his family, "There's nothing on it worthwhile, and we're not going to watch it in this household."

Of course, we're happy when our diseases are cured, ecstatic when the microwave heats our leftovers, and proud when men drive American flags through the surface of the moon. It is the transference of images, words, our thoughts, hopes, and dreams, however, that touch us on a deeper level. When something alters the way those messages are warehoused and carried, we sit up and pay attention.

The Ebook

That’s what is happening right now, among a certain segment of the population, namely publishers, writers, hardware and software manufacturers. A new term has entered our ever-growing tech-heavy vernacular—the electronic book. For the first time in our careers as writers and publishers, the final product has more than one face. To hear some of the alarm, mostly among the older, more technology-challenged types, you’d think the Boogey Man himself has shown up and demanded a job as an editorial assistant.

So, what the heck is an electronic book anyway? Electronic books or "ebook" are catch-all terms that cover a broad range of devices and applications. On the device end, there are two readers that have gained notable attention by being first out of the gate— the Softbook Press reader and NuvoMedia’s Rocket Ebook. Both are single-screen, handheld devices that can hold the equivalent of 8-10 average-length books. As for software, we have applications that are installed on desktops, allowing users to have entire, searchable texts on their computers. Glassbook and OverDrive are just two companies developing and promoting this software. And if you have a Palm Pilot, you probably know that you can download a Peanut Press title from their website.

The main advantages of ebooks right now, particularly the devices, is the ego-boost you get when your friends are impressed with your shiny, new gadget. Sometimes I take mine out on a plane, just to see if anyone looks. A secondary advantage that rivals the first is the ability to stealth-read books like Monica’s Story. You can indulge yourself and no one will ever know. Indeed, the current devotees of electronic formats seem to be a mix of gadgeteers, book publishers and adventurous business types. The ereader of the future, however, is you and your children.

In 1994 I was informed that my neck didn’t have the natural "c-curve" that it ought to. It’s a condition common in students who carry heavy, book-laden backpacks. Now, in my case, I can’t be certain this was the cause, but I like to blame it on the books anyway.

In 1997 I visited Central America, lugging four travel books and two works of fiction along. Similarly, when traveling for business I often take multiple texts, both business and personal. One device suits me better in either case.

Now imagine if all of your fiction, nonfiction, and textbooks were contained on one lightweight device, with note-taking and highlighting capability, as well as a built-in dictionary. It would lift the burden of the printed word right off your shoulders. Add to this, electronic newspaper delivery service right to your ebook, and the capacity to download your own computer files to the thing. It’s one-stop information shopping. All of this is currently possible, and consider that today’s devices are dinosaurs compared to what is coming.

Maybe you’re not a student and maybe you don’t travel, but if you’re on Authorlink, you’re probably a writer. Ebooks will hold many advantages for authors in the future, which I will outline later.

Print-on-demand

You might not have heard of print-on-demand yet, but you will. I don’t think I’m exaggerating by calling it the velvet revolution in book publishing. In its most common form, the term speaks to the ability to produce books on a small-order basis using specially-designed printing presses. Currently, the product is a trade paperback format, but in the near future will probably move to hardcovers as well.

Every day, books go out of print or indefinitely out-of-stock. There is one simple reason for this. The cost of warehousing unsold or slow-selling copies outweighs any profit the publisher might make. A title might sell 500 copies a year, but the high cost of low print runs and the warehouse space that 5,000 copies would take up over 10 years is prohibitive for my business.

Print-on-demand will change this entire dynamic and allow us to keep our backlist around for a long, long time—in theory, forever. Small-run printing press technologies allow publishers to do just-in-time books that might otherwise disappear in a year or less. Books will be run off when the orders come in and delivered to the booksellers and finally, their customers—with little or no warehousing costs, no disappointed customers, and happy writers who will continue to receive royalty checks.

What does all this new technology mean for the writer and book publishers?

Publishers traffic in ideas and stories, but if a book doesn’t sell it is a hard hit. Printing and distribution costs eat up a large chunk of our corporate profits. Often, the P&L for a prospective book will take the wind out of our adventurous publishing spirits. We want and need to push our intellectual envelopes but will be denied the opportunity to do so if the money doesn’t come in.

In a decade where authors and publishers fret over mega-mergers and the decreasing importance of the independent bookseller, these digital-driven changes should bring a smile to the faces of everyone involved. To a certain extent, they may succeed in lowering the risk that all publishers take, particularly with new authors or non-commercial books. Low printing costs, cheap methods of content delivery and minimal warehousing are a business manager’s dream. As business men and women, the less we stand to lose, the more liberal we can be with our publishing programs. That’s corporate law.

All of this is business equalizer of sorts, too. New presses will not have to take on the traditional burdens of product development and distribution, particularly if they exist primarily on the internet. Authorlink Press is a close and perfect example. Authorlink exploits our new high-tech world to publish books that might otherwise be overlooked in the glut of proposals that fill New York mailboxes. And it is accomplished without a

bricks-and-mortar store, a production manager trip to the printing press in Taiwan, or a warehouse in Kansas.

These same small presses, niche presses and large publishers can distribute through electronic devices as well, reducing costs even further. That is more good news for the unknown writer. We will see the day when new or risky books are tried out on ebooks first and then put in hard copy or not depending on the success of this original electronic version. Yes, marketing dollars will still have to be spent and, yes, the writer will still have to get paid, but I’ll be a lot less worried about my bonus if my neighbor, Betty Jo’s, new novel doesn’t sell as an ebook edition than I might have been if we’d printed 15,000 hard copies that are gathering dust somewhere.

Finally, these new technologies are a boon for the self-published writers. Ubiquitous and cheaper print-on-demand technologies will drive down costs of producing your own book. In addition, the growing number of grassroots publishers, particularly those who thrive on the internet, will be looking for the undiscovered voices that roam the landscape with station wagons full of self-published work.

Back to the Ebook

Every once in a while I hear the panic of a writer or editor who thinks that electronic books are going to do away with their beloved paper-based editions. For them, the idea of an electronic edition is treated with derision at best, more often as a tool of the devil to undo all Gutenberg’s hard work. This will not happen, at least in our lifetimes. The book as we know it will stick around and I would venture to say remain the dominant form for a very long time to come. But books will diversify and hopefully in the process deliver the stories, thoughts and research that make up our cultural heritage in faster and more varied ways than ever before.

My great-grandparents have a large, standing, dark wood radio in their living room. In family photographs from the pre-television decades, I spot the radio sometimes. It was in the living room then, too, but all the chairs faced it. In my lifetime, this has never been the case. Their furniture, and their attention, is directed toward the television. It’s on the "set" that they’ve watched the great events of the latter 20 th century play out. The old radio is still loved in my family, but as a souvenir, not a better medium to get the information we seek. We’re not nostalgic about those kinds of things in my family. The radio is still a good way to get information. I don’t know what I’d do without NPR in the morning. But it is the knowledge I want. Ultimately, the platform for delivery matters little.

Likewise, it is the emotional delivery of Where the Red Fern Grows, the psychological acrobatics of Catch-22, the gut-wrenching history in Parting the Waters, and the rich tapestry of Lonesome Dove that will always stay with me. The books look nice on my shelf, but I suspect their impact wouldn’t have diminished on an LCD screen.

I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s nice to keep the radio around, but I think I’m looking forward to the future, as a publisher and a writer.

 

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