Twilight Times Special Feature


Comments on E-publishing


Jack Riepe


As a rule, I don't like e-anything nor automation in general. .

After attempting to call my bank for an hour yesterday--and getting a recording which asked for my account number, pin number, the number of angels which danced on the head of a pin, the boiling point of nitrogen, and my mother's maiden name in a previous life--I simply drove over there ranting, and demanded a number that a human would answer. Then I drove back home, called that person, and ranted some more. I believe in automation and computerization when it's an absolute necessity. Other than that, e-trade, e-bay, e-hip-hip e-hurray can go scratch!

Some of you are now saying, what does a telephone answering system have to do with e-publishing? Well, I was calling the bank to let them know that I was unable to access any of my accounts through their highly touted web site, which they installed to increase their profit margins by eliminating a human who wastes time answering phones and questions. If I end up becoming a serial killer, let those of you who study psychology take note: my symptoms started here. Like the person answering the phone, a hard copy book is a simple mechanism. Unless you get it wet, it pretty much works most of the time.

Several points were raised in a recent AAS Digest [email list] communication. Prominent among these was the question - "How many non-author relatives or friends do you have who read eBooks, or for that matter have ever heard of them?" I decided to conduct a poll. But my poll was skewed from the start. A number of my friends make a living as writers. (They pay all of their bills through the sale of their work and gross more than $50,000 per year, which is a starvation level in the New York Metropolitan area.)

John J. Reilly reads between twenty and twenty-five books a year. Of these, perhaps one is an e-published book. Reilly, author of Apocalypse & Future (XLIBRIS, 288 pages, $14.95), said he will often search and download books that are in the public domain for research purposes. In his estimation, this is the best way to acquire old books. Mr. Reilly is the author of two other well-respected (traditionally published) eschatological works. He has written extensively for the banking and legal professions, produces book reviews for numerous sources (academic and political), and interprets legislative activity for various trade publications. John Reilly is one of the best-read and best-informed writers that I have ever met. I willingly admit he is ten times the writer that I will ever be.

Yesterday morning, Reilly told me he has no plans to purchase an e-book reader and sees no reason in the immediate future to do so. And what makes this statement doubly odd is that Reilly published one of his works electronically. He added, "E-publishing is very effective if you are writing to a special niche of readers."

My straw poll then moved on to non-writers, but included two highly literate people. Scott Volk is a master woodworker with a personal library spanning five thousand titles. (His library is the size of a small bookstore.) He reads history, science, physics, and humor for fun. He has the largest Wodehouse collection that I know of, including the bogus titles, like Whiffen's Care of The Pig. Volk buys five or six books every couple of months. He has never purchased an ebook. This is not surprising. He is forty-six years old and does not own a computer. He hates them.

Leslie Marsh's reading interests are unbelievably varied. She is another person I know with a separate room to hold all of her books. Marsh easily spends seventy dollars or more per month on books. They range from women's studies (whatever the hell those are) to philosophy, to gardening, to classics, to the current trend in best-selling non-fiction. Marsh is very computer literate and relies on web sites for all kinds of information. She has no plans to buy an ebook as long as there is an alternative.

"I like the feel of traditionally published books," said Marsh. "They're like friends. Their covers are familiar faces. I enjoy taking them to the beach, to bed, to the back porch on a rainy day. I like the texture of the pages against my fingers."

None of my immediate family members has ever bought an ebook. When asked about it, the best answer I got was, "I can't really hold it in my hand." Now this thinking may not be representative of the cutting edge, but it acquires a special significance when pieced together with the comments of really literate individuals.

My conclusions:

1) I may not be hanging around with the right people. It would appear that my friends, associates, and relatives may comprise opposite ends of the spectrum. Some publishing company, mega-bookstore, or professional association must have constructed a profile of the average American reader, or various profiles representing ages, incomes, or geographic breakdowns. I'd be curious to see that data, and to see where epublishing fits into it.

2) I suspect that for many folks, ebooks appear impersonal and difficult to develop an attachment to (like a lab rat or an attorney). I think a growing number of folks are getting teched out. Some have begun to remember a life before cell phones, beepers, laptops, and palmtops. They may not be able to live without these things now, but they don't necessarily associate this techno-impedimenta with relaxation or fun. Many people sit before a computer screen all day at work. The best novel in the world may lose something when it takes on the dimensions of a standard office memo.

There are a lot of reasons why e-publishing should take off, considering the advantages the system offers everyone. The advantages of ebooks for publishing houses are well-known. They include:
A. Faster publication times
B Lower production costs
C Higher profit margins
D Nearly no warehousing and next to nothing in shipping.

The advantages for the author are equally well-known:
A. Faster publication times
B. Higher royalties from greater competition from publishing houses
C. A surge of new, specialized publisher eager to look at new work

The advantages for the reader are also impressive:
A. You can access an entire library from one little viewing device
B. No space wasted on books either at home, in the office, or in the briefcase
C. Eventually, cheaper books (The consumer isn't stupid either.)

What's the problem then?

The disadvantages to major publishers are staggering...
A) A billion dollars worth of current inventory is immediately dated.
B) Epublishing is automatically designed to eliminate the bookstore middleman. The relationship between bookstores and publishers plays a vital role in publicizing books (a crucial element in the sales chain). This is not likely to happen with a billion dollars of inventory on the shelves.
C) An already saturated market will become immediately flooded with publishers, just as desktop publishing inundated the world with instant communications companies and half-assed PR firms.
D) What's to stop big-name accomplished authors from just e-publishing their own stuff, and by-passing the publisher? Not a lot.

American corporate models are generally suspicious of new gold. Even now, stock market analysts are projecting when the new dot com companies (many of which were the darlings of investors) will run out cash. The best of these have less than six months to go. (Just because something looks red hot and generated a few hundred million in short-term profits, means damn little to the overall corporate picture.) The switch to epublishing will have to be done as a uniform industry standard to guarantee a good return on old gold.

This will mean banks of ebook readers will have to be set up in places like Barnes and Noble, in public libraries, and in schools. The switch from printed textbooks to epublished books will have to happen at the same time. If a change of this magnitude is in the works, it has escaped me. Then again, I don't get out much.

Reilly told me he believes the strongest role e-publishing will play will be to support traditional publishing venues. I value his opinion and offer it here as it is as valid as anything else.

For myself, I will take advantage of any means to present my material before the reading public. But every new author should be aware of this consideration: just having a book in print or eprint is no guarantee anyone will buy it. You can still look forward to having to contact hundreds of reviewers, reporters, libraries, and bookstores by yourself, because new writers aren't very attractive to old gold either.


[ Author's footnote: "I am not at all opposed to principles of e-publishing. Quite the contrary. I will utilize "without reservation" any media which presents my work to a major segment of readers in an effective manner. This includes e-publishing. (After all, these comments are appearing in an e-publication.)

E-publishing is a concept in both an embryonic and a highly evolutionary state. I regret that so many of my colleagues are either e-publishing advocates or e-scoffers. The new generation of e-publishers may very well be true visionaries, heralding the way of the future. Alas, like most visionaries, the initial light they offer us may come from the burning stakes they're tied to, as no good deed ever goes unpunished.

I freely acknowledge that my poll is statistically worthless and purely anecdotal. Still, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it."]


Author Bio

Jack Piepe has been a writer for twenty-five years, specializing in corporate and political public relations for the transportation lobby (aviation/business travel). He is the author of Politically Correct Cigar Smoking For Social Terrorists (Croften & Stone, $14.95).

Visit Jack's web site



Copyright © 2000 Jack Riepe. All rights reserved.
This page last updated 10-28-00.

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