TARA NEEDHAM (Director, New York State Technical Assistance Program, CLMP): Tonights topic: "E-books and New Digital Technology: Friend or Foe of Independent Literary Publishing?" We've posed this question in a very black-and-white framework, and this question is anything but black or white. This topic evolved out of a report recently written for the New York State Council on the Arts Literature Program, which explores and interprets all of the shifts in publishing that have been influenced by new technologies in the field. Kathleen Masterson is the Literature Director at NYSCA, and she's just going to say a few words about the report.
KATHLEEN MASTERSON: Matt Weiland, who wrote this report for us, can't be here tonight, but I just wanted to read a brief selection which I think represents Matt's main point of view: "In Newsweek, Steven Levy claimed that as a common item of communication, artistic expression, and celebrity anecdote, the physical object consisting of bound dead trees in shiny wrapper is headed for the antique heap. He may well be right about books of "communication" and of "celebrity anecdote," but for books of artistic expressionthe lifeblood of independent literary publishershe is surely mistaken. The biggest danger to independent literary publishers is that in their anxiety to avoid losing out on "the digital future" they will ape the efforts of the commercial publishers to such an extent that they lose the traits that distinguish them in the first place. In a recent piece on the failings of the contemporary independent Off-Broadway drama, the theater critic John Heilpern warned that the more these independent theaters follow the precepts of big Broadway productions, the more they sacrifice "their fierce artistic independence, their social contract with the community, their belief in he intelligence of all audiences, their faith in new talent." It is these same attributes that make independent, literary publishers distinctive, and it would be a great shame to lose them."
TARA NEEDHAM: I'd like to introduce our panel. Our moderator is Calvin Reid. He's a writer and reporter for Publishers Weekly, and he has reported widely on the issues concerning e-business and e-publishing, and also has really dedicated a lot to indie publishing in his work.
Next to him is John Oakes, publisher of FourWallsEightWindows Press (www.fourwallseightwindows.com), which has been publishing nonfiction and literature, about 28 titles a year, since 1987. They're based here in New York.
Next to him, we have Adrian Taylor. He is the founder and president of Fictionopolis Communications (fictionopolis.com), a company dedicated to providing readers with a reputable portal to new digital methods of enjoying high-quality contemporary fiction.
And finally, Ram Devineni of Rattapallax Magazine and Press, who is mixing new and emerging poets with new and emerging technology.
So Calvin, please take it away
CALVIN REID: I'm going to just read a quick take on the e-publishing landscape, and then we're going to move to each of the panelists, who will tell you a little bit more about what they do.
It seems like science fiction. A small, handy unit about the size of your basic book that can hold the content of scores, if not hundreds, of your favorite or most indispensable books. You may remember the Sony Bookman, an early, flawed e-book reader in the '80s. And also in the '80s, Franklin Electronic Publishers offered their own, very simple hand-held book reader targeted specifically for reference works.
Of the newer devices offered in the 1990s, there is the Rocket e-book and the Softbook, and then the proliferation of Palm operating system devices, which can be used to read e-books, as well. All these devices have been upgraded, including a newly released and, sadly, overpriced reader from Thompson that just was announced today that could possibly replace the current Rocket e-book models. Microsoft has replaced its own handheld units, its Windows CE units, with the Pocket PC, a full-color unit with audio playback and also, of course, loaded with Microsoft Reader, and that's been out on the market for a few months. Relatively inexpensive, easy to read, with a still small but steadily growing list of popular fiction and nonfiction titles.
This new generation of e-books is convenient and portable and, well, almost -- almost -- book-like. And even as we fuss about the development of these single-use reading devices, the technology for multiple-use devices -- say an e-book, cell phone, video monitor and game gizmo all in one -- is also developing quickly, along with wireless delivery, suggesting even new possibilities for transmitting literature and information.
Until recently, when Stephen King's entry into the e-book market with Riding the Bullet sparked a media obsession with digital texts, the e-book market was chugging along quite nicely, although unspectacularly, offering informational text files as e-mail attachments or downloadable files for your desktop or your laptop. Then in the 1980s websites like Bibliobytes.com (www.bb.com) actually were offering downloadable texts for sale. Then Bibliobytes was joined by new e-publishing startups like some of my panelists here. Other companies, like Hard Shell Word Factory (www.hardshell.com), Electron Press (www.electronpress.com), AlexLit.com, Online Originals (www.onlineoriginals.com), First Books (www.firstbooks.com) and other independent e-publishers looking to develop and exploit the incipient market for digital texts.
Like science fiction, the development of the digital texts from e-books to online texts seem to hold all kinds of promises for the future of the book and the propagation of literature. Print-on-demand technologythe ability to store a text digitally and print it out quickly only when the book has been purchasedis slowly making its way into bookstores and distribution centers, presenting the possibility in the future that books may never go out of print entirely. New firms, like iUniverse.com, ExLibris.com, MightyWords.comall of these companies, by the way, bankrolled by various industry giantsoffer any writer, novice or veteran, the ability to publish and crudely distribute books in print-on-demand or electronic format. Time Warner in the fall is going to be launching iPublish.com, its own e-publishing venture that plans to solicit manuscripts over the web and publish, and also offer e-books by brand-name Warner authors.
Microsoft and Adobe Acrobat are facing off over their own respective e-book software, and over the effort to create technical standards so that e-books can be read across different platforms. And there's a whole new wave of digital middle-men -- companies light Lightning Source, Versaware and NetLibrary that offer data conversion, e-distribution, digital rights management, all kinds of technical infrastructure, and even retailing in some instances.
So although the publishing industry has often been lampooned for its slow embrace of technology, the importance of digital delivery of delivery of content of all kinds has forced the industry back to the center of the digital arena.
So the e-books are coming, in one variety or another, and their arrival not only signals a new world of electronically assisted reading, but also signals the likelihood of radical changes at every level in the publishing food chain from authors to agents to publishers and retailers. It just means a lot of questions to ask about the industry now.
What does being "in print" mean, for instance, when books are not manufactured as such but reproduced and then downloaded only when someone actually buys one? How do you protect copyright? What response to take to piracy? Will the book industry be Napsterized by file-swapping programs? Can publishers afford the expense of converting texts to digital files? Do some books work better in digital format? And as digital publishers or digital entities proliferate, it's becoming harder to decide whether they're functioning as publishers, distributors, self-publishers or vanity publishers, and do these distinctions actually matter anymore? And as the NYSCA study noted, will the market bifurcate, into a market of print books by literary publishers and digital books for the rest of the market -- the non-trade market, reference, science and professional texts -- or will e-publishing develop a healthy market for literary titles, particularly as the technology becomes easier to use, cheaper to use and more pervasive?
So, do the recent developments in digital technology represent a threat or an opportunity to literary publishing? Is digital technology a friend or a foe? These are some of the questions that we'll chew on tonight, and I'm going to turn it over now to my co-panelist, John Oakes, who will talk a little bit about what he does, and then we'll move around the panel.
JOHN OAKES: I guess I'm the resident semi-Luddite here. There's not an editor in the room here with more than six months experience who hasn't had an encounter similar to the following: A writer submits a proposal about, say, shower heads. When asked in more polite terms why anyone would want to read, much less publish, such a book, he or she will respond that there are 350 million shower heads in daily use in the United States alone, and that if even one-half of one percent of the users of said shower heads buys the book, the first and only guide to same, the publisher will be in the clover, having sold approximately 1.75 million copies.
The analogy may be imperfect, but it pretty much sums up how I feel about electronic publishing, exclusive of print on demand [POD], which has real and immediate benefits. [holds up example of POD book] I speak as a publisher who has, in fact, had some small experience with the medium. We have 30 books with NetLibrary, we have a contract with Questia and one in the works for Booksource. Our title God's Equation: Einstein Relatively and the Expanding Universe, is the number one best-selling e-book from our distributor, Publishers Group West, which is the largest independent distributor in the country. God's Equation is currently available as both a traditional hardcover and a Rocket e-book. While the hardcover version of this book has sold more than 15,000 copies, this electronic best-seller has sold, since last fall, a grand total of 121 copies.
I think there are two things that a publisher needs to be concerned about once the basic hurdle of the quality of content of a title is dealt with or ignored. One is format, or production and production values. The other is readership. I think it's clear that, for now at least, the electronic media fail miserably on both counts. Yes, Stephen King has had a ride, but even that work wasn't book-length, and of course, it was Stephen King. Judging by our own experience, the quality of books online doesn't come close to matching the lousiest photocopied samizdat works in terms of either readability or accuracy.
"Accuracy?" you say. "But these are digitalized, right?" Well, unfortunately, scanning technology isn't quite up to par. Consider the fact that of the cover or jacket, only the front is onlinewith NetLibrary, at leastthereby eliminating presumably useful information off the flaps or cover. Also, NetLibrary has been unable to perfectly scan one of our books out of 30. FourWalls is a tiny operation four peopleso my method has been to skim the titles and hope that computer users rely on the screen version only as the loosest of reference tools. And how anyone can claim a screen is as easy to read from or as pleasant as a printed page is beyond me. I haven't begun to touch on some other points, such as the fact that a recent study as reported in the New York Times a month or so ago determined that comprehension -- the retention of information -- is far higher for the printed page than it is for the electronic page.
But let me remind us all that these electronic companies are under pressure that is difficult to imagine for us weary ink-stained wretches. NetLibrary just raised $180 million in capital. Questia raised $80 million. Big, huge multinationals are involved, companies that are to the independent publisher as a galaxy is to a grain of sand. They have got to sign up publishers and sign up books, otherwise known as "content." What they're talking about, the age of the electronic book, may yet come to pass, but it ain't here yet, and it ain't going to happen, despite what you're being told, for a long, long time outside of professionals such as doctors or lawyers, for whom it's useful to have dozens of books immediately available.
No publisher should have to pay for the privilege of going electronic. If you can do it for free, fine, but treat the companies that want to charge you for electronic conversion as you would the author of the shower head proposal. Gently, firmly get them out of your life. My proposed titles for the book about this whole fiasco? Here are a few: Tyranny of the Experts, The Emperor Has No Clothes, or, finally, More Boys with Toys.
ADRIAN TAYLOR: I've started a company called Fictionopolis Communications, and in my view, e-publishing cannot be clearly categorized a friend or foe of the independent publisher, but rather an interesting new publishing medium that should be carefully evaluated on a case by case basis. While there is a great deal of speculation and certainly some risks inherent to e-publishing as it exists today, the developments of its related technologies imply a future full of many exciting new ways to package and distribute literary content.
I should preface any explanation of my involvement with e-books with the fact that until approximately a year and a half ago I, myself, was very skeptical about their future. Being a ravenous consumer of books myself, I was skeptical about the notion that devotees of the printed page would ever adopt this technology. For me, there really is no replacement, no device that will ever replace the sensorial experience of a printed book, and I think that's probably the case for most readers.
So about a year and a half ago, I began to pay close attention to e-book technology in the wake of some announcements of research conducted that would result in improvements to the reading experience. For example, Microsoft Clear Type is an interesting technology; there's also some micro-thin display. I really thought that if the experience could be improved over the then-current LCD display interface, I would seriously consider adopting this technology for my own personal use. I began to research what material was available to read in e-book format, and quickly discovered, to my dismay, that in terms of fiction, the e-book industry is largely divided, already, into two extreme camps, the first being what I would call "vanity presses," and the second being what I would consider ultra-mainstream. On the one hand, you have a good number of small e-publishers who have existed solely to publish their own work or work that others pay them to publish, and on the other hand you have larger publishing houses in a mad rush to define how they will maintain profitability outside their traditional print-and-distribute models. There's a third, newer scheme that involves a hybrid where larger publishers act as vanity publishers.
In my appraisal of the scene, there are very few, if any, e-publishing entities that stand to foster credibility for this new delivery medium amongst readers and authors of serious fiction. Primarily, I feel that by circumventing a rigorous editorial process, these parties are doing nothing to encourage the potential greatness that could be the result of the craft's employment of this new technology.
I subsequently formed Fictionopolis as an e-bookstore and publishing entity dedicated to providing readers with a reputable portal to new digital methods of enjoying fiction, and with the peripheral goals of providing leadership by example in the following ways: One, by maintaining a rigorous editorial process; two, by facilitating the involvement of independent publishers; and three, by providing that the author's per-unit margin can increase while the publisher's share remains equitable.
RAM DEVINENI: I'm with Rattapallax Press and Rattapallax Magazine (www.rattapallax.com). The unique thing about Rattapallax is we're the first and, I believe, the only literary journal in the country that has a CD with every issue we publish. I believe we are also the only poetry publisher in the country that publishes books continuously with CDs featuring the poets reading their work. We also expanded into CD-ROMS with art books.
I think there's quite a bit of fear in the publishing industry about e-books, so after the panel, if anyone wants to, I will create an e-book for you in Microsoft Reader or Rocket e-book in five minutes, and it will look spectacular. [motions to laptop and a terminal for e-book display]
I'm going to make a bold statement. There is no e-book publishing revolution. In my opinion, that's just one door to a bigger door. What really is happening now is there is an information revolution that is occurring. For example, the recent merger between AOL and Time Warner. In my opinion, what eventually will occur is a lot of publishers will be merging e-books with terminals similar to this [motioning to terminal]. This is not an e-book; this is a terminal with Windows 98 on it. It is wireless, and you can access the Internet with this. Eventually what's going to happen is things like this will become more common, more affordable and more accessible. You will able to go the beach, have one of these with you, and read an e-book. If you read The Great Gatsby on here, you can stream the movie The Great Gatsby into one of your terminals and watch the movie, maybe hear the soundtrack with an mp3 file, and then go online and maybe get UrbanFetch to bring you a burger, or things along that line.
So what does that mean for publishers? Well, publishers will have to expand beyond just technology. In my opinion the e-books that are coming out right now are just digital photocopies. There's nothing spectacular about them. What the future e-book -- and that's sort of what I'm focusing on -- is eventually going to progress towards to, is e-books that integrate sound, video, interactivity and things along that line.
What kind of e-writer will sort of come out of this, what kind of e-poet will come out of this? If you take Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, it took him pretty much most of his life to complete that book, and throughout that whole process there must have been, what, five or six different versions, expanding, decreasing and so forth. Well, if Walt Whitman did it online -- and I'm sort of going beyond just the e-book -- but if he did it online, he could have continuously updated the book whenever he wanted. He could have interacted with his audience. He could have recorded the sounds of New York during that time and let his audience listen to it or record visually, maybe with streaming video or things along that line. With this technology, a writer can let his audience experience where he comes from, and this can correlate with poetry or fiction fairly easily.
Obviously, this is not something that's going to happen in the next year or so. This is somewhere along five to ten years, when the technology you need -- of course, you need a wireless backbone, which this country is sort of progressing towards. You can see more of it in Japan, Australia and Europe. You're going to need better servers, better networks, and better storage to hold all these terabytes of storage of files of e-books and things along that line. This is where I believe technology is progressing, and with that, publishers will have to expand -- or expand what is the definition of the book.
In my opinion, for not-for-profit independent publishers, who are still very small, e-publishing means freedom. It means any writer can create an e-book. They can go online, sell it, or if a publisher wants to, they can take their work, make it into an e-book, and sell it. They don't have to worry about the costs of printing and things along that line. It also means taking risks. You can publish poets or writers that you're not too sure about, test them out as an e-book, or in this case, which I'll pass around, as an e-broadside. This broadside is from a poem Regie Cabico wrote.
REGIE CABICO: This is like my baby [holding terminal], so don't drop it. It will break!
RAM DEVINENI: You can actually interact with it, too. Theres a little pen that you can click and sort of browse.
If I had that hooked up to the Internet, if I had the wireless component attached to it, there are links and also sound files on that e-broadside so you can listen to poems by Regie or Billy Collins, whom he wrote about. You will eventually be able to stream video onto it, unfortunately not with this technology. You can stream it into that terminal and watch Regie reading his poem or watch Billy Collins reading one of his poems. It's a fascinating medium, and it's, in my opinion, where things are progressing.
CALVIN REID: It seems as though one of the problems in electronic publishing is there seems sometimes to be a clash between the vision of where digital publishing is going, where the digital content is going, the vision of the future and where technology can take it, and the interim steps to get to this point. I think that maybe those were some of the things that John was talking about, that the problems that small publishers, and probably that any publishers have, is getting to a place where electronic publishing means something real to them. For example, Net Library is one of the bigger companies projecting itself as an electronic distributor -- and their original market was to present e-books to libraries. So in many ways they would seem to almost be the perfect conduit for independent publishers and small publishers. NetLibray reports that they are making record payments to university presses, in particular, for the sale of e-books, for access to e-books, something on the order of nearly $1 million in checks in one month. Even as a skeptic, John, you're involved in electronic publishing -- obviously in print on demand -- so maybe you can talk a little bit about what works for you, and then either Adrian or Ram can address where we are and what independent publishers are doing now.
JOHN OAKES: The quick glance I saw of what Ram's done in creating e-books looks gorgeous, but I think if you're interested in reaching a broader audience it does not seem that the sales are there. $1 million in checks, I heard that, too. I don't think our titles would match up so badly against university presses, yet I don't think we're getting our share of that $1 million.
I wanted to be involved in it as much as I could early on because I thought it might go somewhere. Right now there's just no practical benefit I think you can expect to see in terms of things like Net Library, Questia, whatever. The only thing that I think is working on a broad basis is this print on demand. This is a copy of a print on demand book. I presume most of us know what that is.
CALVIN REID: Describe the process.
JOHN OAKES: This really is good for very short run books. This is an example of a backlist title that sells maybe two or three hundred copies a year. As publishers know, it's not really economical to print less than 2,000, 2,500 copies of traditional print books, so if we were to do that, we'd been sitting on a 10-year supply, and we are not nonprofit, and we do not have a cash flow -- you know, that does hell to our cash flow. So print on demand is perfect for us.
The customer orders it through, say, Amazon.com, which then places the order directly with Lightning Source, which then prints out one copy, and this is a sample of an actual copy. It looks pretty good. It's not as good as the real book, or the original book, but most people won't notice the difference. And then Lightning Source just sends us a check. So that, I think, has real practical applications for publishers, and I can imagine people doing that from the word go.
CALVIN REID: Does anyone else want to address the issue of the interim between the great vision of what e-books may be in 20 years and 30 years, to how we get there now?
ADRIAN TAYLOR: In the interim I strongly feel that as this technology emerges and becomes a little bit more popular, what's going to happen is there's going to be a mass, a glut of publications in this format, and not all of those title are titles that people are going to want to read. I predict we're going to see a rise of specialty book shops on the web, which is an interesting thing, because right now, as we all know, the independent booksellers across the country have suffered in the wake of megastores -- your Barnes & Noble and your larger book megastores. But I really see that the web is the perfect place for small, specialty bookshops to revive themselves. People are going to be looking for those sort of -- those places where they can go and trust that they're going to find a body of literature that they're actually seeking, and I think that that's one of the most exciting things to emerge.
RAM DEVINENI: We don't do print on demand for ours, so I'm going to mostly focus on the e-book side and the Internet. One of the ideas that I'm looking into is creating an e-book with Edwin Torres and really delving into this idea of interactivity, interactivity with a particular audience, possibly having subscribers to Edwin Torres's work. For example, for $45 a year you could receive e-poems, like that e-broadside that I did with Regie, you could get sound clips from Edwin.
For example, James Joyce, Ulysses: it's pretty unique if you just read it even moreso if you've read it within the context of a group of peoplethat's interactivity right there. Why not create that kind of interactivity with Edwin Torres's book online? I'm sure a lot of you haven't read any of Edwin Torres's work, but he mixes sound, he mixes images with his poetry, and he is the ideal poet for me to create an e-book and to create this interactivity ideal to it. I'm trying to expand beyond just what's out there.
I have no interest in doing digital photocopying online. I want to really create an e-book poet. I want to create an e-poet that really knows how to use this medium. In my opinion the future e-poets and e-writers are people who have the eloquence of Walt Whitman and maybe have the programming skills of an XML programmer, someone who can sort of merge these things together and really understand the technology and utilize it to expand their work, to expand their reach, in a sense.
CALVIN REID: I think that one of the things that you're talking about is that perhaps a whole new kind of literature is going to evolve on the web and online. If we're wondering whether e-publishing has some use, relation utility to literary publishers, if you go online, one of the things you find immediately is that there's an enormous amount of resources online for poetry. I have to believe that there's only a short step from that to being able to present digital works to this market of people online who are already out there and looking for work through the web. It isn't as fanciful to think that people will read books on a screen, because in large measure we see huge parts of the population doing an enormous amount of reading on screen right now, and I think that one of the things we have to understand is that as we move forward and as the medium develops -- and most importantly, as the technology develops and becomes more easy to use and less expensive -- some of the barriers that we see to electronic publishing are going to vanish.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Do you have literary web rings that you recommend, that you check every once a while -- for example, the pages of different writers?
CALVIN REID: I can't necessarily point to a specific web ring. There certainly are a number of literary sites on the web that you can find very easily.
JOHN OAKES: We have links on our website to other publishers.
RAM DEVINENI: If you're interested in a poetry web ring, I forgot the name of it, but if you go on Ploughshares' website, at the very bottom they're part of a web ring of literary journals, which is one of the really good ones. They have Atlantic Monthly and things like that.
JOHN OAKES: I would like to comment on something Calvin said -- in my ignorance, respectfully disagree. I think that people who are on the web -- I don't know, this is just my feeling -- people look at what's on the web, but in little bytes that's why it may be appropriate for things like poetry or short stories. I just don't see people getting a real book-length of 500 -- imagine that -- 800 pages -- on the web, sitting down and reading that on a screen, because at this stage, it seems to me the technology is not conducive to that kind of reading.
CALVIN REID: How about serials? like Charles Dickens' serials, things like that?
JOHN OAKES: If you broke something up into serials, that might be effective.
ADRIAN TAYLOR: I actually have an interesting point on that. I also work for Fence magazine, and we've been serializing some fiction online. Its actually via iUniverse. We have a small fiction forum there, and it's been quite interesting and successful, because really the reading experience is limited to a short few pages rather than, like you're saying, a tome of work, but so far the experiencein terms of the reader feedback and the author participationhas been encouraging, and the serialization has been good.
CALVIN REID: Could some of the panelists address the following: If you're a small independent publisher and you're curious about maybe getting some of your books [digitized], essentially having a digital copy out there, what do you do? How would they get started? I think, Ram, you mentioned to me one time that you had some ideas about helping small publishers learn how to do it themselves.
RAM DEVINENI: I'm working with Gathering of the Tribes' press, in developing their first e-book. But the best thing to do is get on Microsoft's website or Nuvomedia or Glass Book and download their conversion [programs]. For instance, Nuvomedia has something called Librarian [look under "e-book support], which converts texts into e-books. Just browse through their site, download a pdf file, which has a manual describing how to do it, and then just do it, play around with it, mess up a few times, and then eventually you'll get it right.
The first few e-books I didconverting them from Microsoft Word into Microsoft Reader formatthere were problems with line breaks. I have to pay particular attention to line breaks in poetry, because I don't want to, accidentally break a line in a poem which the poet did not agree to. I have to work with that in mind, as well. Again, if anyone is really curious, afterwards I will make an e-book in five minutes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What was the last website that you just referred to?
RAM DEVINENI: Microsoft, I think it's Microsoft.com/reader for Microsoft. Also Nuvomedia.and Glassbook.com
Another project I'm working on is creating a manual, a pdf manual on how to create an e-book for Glass Book, for Palm Pilots, for Rocket books, for Microsoft Readers, for everything. It will also include instructions on how to create mp3 files, how to create streaming media and things along that line. I will offer it for free on my website and I'll probably give it to the New York State Council of the Arts and CLMP and everyone else.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: One thing that's sort of surprising to me listening to you guys talk is that it seems like e-books and traditional books, or "t-books," are being presented as this kind of either/or equation. Now, I think this is completely artificial, and part of the reason is because publishing didn't start e-books, the technology industry did, and now you have this sort of double-headed monster that is gradually developing relationships together. But I know that when I was in college -- which is, unfortunately, several years ago now -- when I used the Gutenberg e-text when I was studying, I would use them very closely with a traditional text. I would use the e-text, for example, to find a passage that I remembered a phrase from but couldn't locate in the book, and then I would go back to the original text. At times I would get an e-text and read it and decide that this was an important enough book that I wanted the hard copy [to have] on the train or take with me, and it was really two different facets of the same work. It wasn't like, "Am I reading an e-book or am I reading a t-book," but, "How am I multiplying my relationships to the work, and which formats offer me different kinds of ways of relating to that work?" There are aspects of traditional books that electronics will never duplicate, but there are things that you can do with e-books that you can't do with traditional books, and one of the things that is strange is that the discussion on e-books has become so polarized. It's always presented as, "Well, the e-books are going to supersede the t-books," or, "The e-books will never supersede the t-books." But nobody talks about the synthesis of the t-books
CALVIN REID: I think you're absolutely right. Since the consumer media has become fascinated by e-books, the question is almost invariably presented that way -- "When are e-books going to make paper books obsolete?" But I think you're absolutely right. Like every other digital convenience it will become a convenience for us to use that has particular aspects that we exploit better than the other medium. I think that people will find it very convenient to carry around 10, 11, 12, 15, any number of e-books and have access to them, either through their own devices or through the web, whenever they want, and also, as you said, being able to print out some things, being able to use a hardcover book or a paperback book in one venue when you may use the digital edition in another area, when you're on vacation, or whatever.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Paperbacks are a good case in point. I'd like to ask John Oakes, how do you see the e-book different from the paperback when that came out? When the paperback came, a lot of people said, "People are never going to read this. Quality literature is never going to be in paperback." But presses like New Directions proved that you could create whole new audiences of quality literature by producing low-priced paperbacks. Why can't you do the same thing with low-priced e-books? The production costs are even less than paperbacks.
JOHN OAKES: The answer to your question is "I don't know", but if you look at e-book sales, they're not there. That's really what I'm saying, that this may happen a long time from now, but right now those sales are not there. At the BEA booksellers' convention, I asked a representative of Rocket Books how many of the devices have they sold. Basic question Right? You want to know how many potential Rocket books are out there. At the time, they wouldn't tell me, because they said it was proprietary information, and the true reason is -- right? -- they've sold probably -- now I just say a figure, 25,000. I'll bet it's -- you know, I'm the cynic, -- 5,000, maybe? But I guess that's my only comment, that it's just not there.
I received an e-mail which I didn't mention because it's been circulated so much. I'm very bad at telling jokes, but it heralded this new device. It's incredible. You can make a bookmark anywhere in it. You can find your place, and it has an index, and of course, you know, it's called a book. I mean, this is technologically pretty efficient, and I guess that is all.
ADRIAN TAYLOR: Just on that note, I'd like to say that, yes, the book is a near-perfect technology. After all, it's been developed now for -- when was papyrus, when did papyrus emerge?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: It's been a few years.
ADRIAN TAYLOR: It's true, e-books are not yet perfect. There's a long way to go, and I think that anyone that turns around and says that tomorrow e-book sales are going to exceed paperbacks or trade books in general is probably a little misguided. I think that this is just the beginning of a long road to the adoption of the e-book as a means of publishing.
On the previous, previous note, I just wanted to add that for people who are involved in publishing, there are quite a number of different utilities available for converting texts into e-books at this time. I would be very cautious of anyone who tries to sell you on the fact that you can convert something and have it be a perfect looking e-book immediately, because there's always a little bit of tweaking involved in the layout, and the general editing process definitely needs to be taken seriously, and it can take a considerable amount of time, also.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What's the cost of it for a small publisher that didn't want to do it themselves, but wanted to go out and get someone to do that conversion?
ADRIAN TAYLOR: Well, that ranges. There are companies in existence that have undertaken large-scale conversion projects, and there's a lot of very involved technologies there. For smaller, independent publishers -- and this is actually one of the major tenets of my mission with Fictionopolis is -- what we are doing is we're offering to smaller publishers, as an encouragement to participate and use our store as a vehicle to sell the material, free conversion services. So on a case-by-case basis we're evaluating the merit of the material and whether or not we'll be able to sell it on our site, and then we will convert it for them for free, and then they can sell it on our site and/or use it for whatever purposes they want.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: When you convert it, you mean convert it into the various e-book formats?
ADRIAN TAYLOR: Yes, the various e-book formats. Also, something important on that note is that the more portable the document is, the better off you'll be in the long run. There are various proprietary formats out there that don't have a very certain future. It's not clear. There's a markup language which is called XML XML is what the open e-book standard is based on and is virtually becoming the de facto standard for future [DRM] dispersion of e-books and all that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What is the ballpark figure for conversion?
ADRIAN TAYLOR: I've heard as little as a few hundred dollar, per title. There are different categories of book titles, and depending on the complexity of the layout, the inclusion of different graphics and all of the different things that would make a normal book complex, it also adds to the process of converting that book into an e-book format. The cost is on a title-by-title basis, and I think that you could probably expect to pay the same sort of fees if you were to have a professional graphic designer lay out a book, and probably a lot of graphic designers will begin performing conversions to e-books. For instance, Quark is going to be coming out with an export filter to export the book directly into Microsoft Reader format and probably some sort of open e-book format, as well. So this is not all so mysterious, and it's going to become more and more commonplace.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Excuse me for a minute, because I sort of don't really have a question, but I have something to say about this. The guy in the front row had a really rational point of view that I thought was very important, but didn't go quite far enough, because so far all we've been talking about is the book over here. We're not talking about the reader over here, and not only is there a book and a reader, but there's also a publisher, and the combination of all these parts means that there are as many options for different configurations of e-book, print book, reader and distribution technology as there are people in this room. So for example, a fiction publisher who sells mostly to a certain class of people who want to read, as you say, a 500-page book will be very different than an avant-garde poetry audience where people are expecting to see a couple of pages or five pages of something, and these different classes of readers will also have different classes of technology and different interests in engaging the technology. So this situation seems to me to be very complicated, and as a result, all of the concern about what we should do really depends more on who we are than on the value of the technology itself.
To that end -- let me say just for a second who I am. My name's James Sherry, and I am publisher of Roof Books, and we do poetry and criticism, about 100 titles so far. But coincidentally, I'm also the project leader for IBM's e-commerce strategy and capital markets, so I know something about the bits and bytes of the technology, as well as having some experience in publishing, and I think that depending on what kind of publisher you are and what kind of reader you are, you're going to use the technology differently as it develops. Right now, there are a lot of people who tell me, "I don't ever want to sell an e-copy of a book. I just want to use it as a loss leader to promote print books, and a cost-benefit analysis, for my readership, that's by far the best." And the other people who want to, as Ram says, create e-writers who are attuned to the new technology and who write in a format and a method that's compatible with the technology. There are many writers now, poets now who maybe are writing specifically for the page, but they're looking at the page in a horizontal way. Converting a piece of writing that has a horizontal meaning into a variable format e-book will never work, because things will get used and pulled apart in ways that are kind of meaningless to the intention of the writer.
So I think one of the things that we really need to do is look at our own situation, study what our audience is, and figure out, based on what we can do now and what we can afford, how we're going to approach our audiences. So I'm trying to get people engaged in this process of looking at what they're doing, and I'd love to talk to all the publishers who are interested in this about how we can start to look at these details and come up with solutions that are best for what we are doing ourselves rather than talk about the generic technology revolution, which is very exciting and very interesting, but applies differently to everybody in their own situation.
ADRIAN TAYLOR: I just wanted to add to that, that what he's saying underscores the reason and the validity of my point on portability of the texts, and if it's in a very open format, it can be used in the future in various different ways.
RAM DEVINENI: I entirely agree with what [James from Roof Books] is saying. What is an e-book? Is it an MS Reader? Is it an Adobe file? Is it a Glass Book? Is it an HTML file? Is being online, reading an e-book online, an e-book? Is a Flash site an e-book? You sort of have to use the technology to fit the means. One of the things I'm doing with Regie is -- you can actually buy his e-book on a 3.5" diskette for five bucks. Now the poet themselves can go to readings, read their poems, and sell the diskettes with MS Reader or with all the different, varying files on here, and that's a possibility.
Another possibility, if you want to merge books with e-books, there's something called a [CueCat], which Forbes has just dispersed. They have actual miniature barcodes on the pages on advertising. If you scan it, it will bring you to a particular page. Well, you can take a book of poetry, put these little barcodes at the bottom. Individuals can scan with the CueCat, and it will bring them to a particular web page pertaining to that poem. So if this was a poem, let's say, on the Brooklyn Bridge, if you scan it, this poet can elaborate on his poem on the web site and maybe provide sound files about the Brooklyn Bridge or have them read the poem online or things like that. But there are so many variable ways you can expand on what an e-book is.
REGIE CABICO: Poets don't have a lot of room to carry all the books, so it's a lot easier to carry the disks to and from readings or have people log on.
As much as I really look [to] having my own book-book, this a good option for me to get the work out there, and people can listen to the work and I can communicate with them. If I'm doing another reading, I can just have that kind of communication with the audience. But I just don't know if the e-book would be taken seriously as a book-book. Would this be my first book, or is it my first e-book? I guess that is something that I'm not sure of. I don't know whether the Asian American Writers Workshop, the academy, the other communities, whatever clique of poetry, will they scoff at this, and what are they going to think?
RAM DEVINENI: I think e-books will finally have credibility when the first e-poet or e-writer wins the Pulitzer Prize, or something along that major award, and they've never released a printed book. How is that going to happen? When? It's such an early phase right now.
Your point is very legitimate. I will never give up printing books. When I get my packages, when books arrive at my apartment, I rip them open I love the smell of books and things like that. I would never give that up. But going online, using that technology is a different medium. That's what I'm arguing. It is a different medium. It's not going to replace books. It's not a duality with books. It's a different medium, just as film is a different medium than theater. Film never displaced theater. Eventually there was a language created for cinema, and filmmakers and actors use that language to make films. That's what I believe e-poets and e-writers will do. There will be a language created for e-books, interactivity the lack of finality in a book, of printed book, maybe will become apparent with the technology.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I just wanted to find out if there were any numbers being compiled as to how many more poems or how many more short stories are being made available to audiences, simply being that now more publishers are using this new technology. It gives a lot of new, and often younger, unknown writers a voice and a place to be published, and I was just curious whether there were any records in, perhaps, the Short Story Index.
ADRIAN TAYLOR: I think it's probably very difficult to answer that question because the phenomenon of e-publishing as we know it at this moment is only the culmination of 10 or 15 years of previous Internet publishing, self-publishing that's been going on, various different bulletin boards, web rings, and a lot of that work has gone unnoticed for the most part, largely because of its sheer volume. There's been a large volume of work, so if you can interpret that as an indicator of an interest in e-publishing, then hopefully there will be a lot of work to come. Then, as more serious publishers become involved in it, yes, we will have some records kept of what's being published. Hopefully there will also be some modifications of the whole process of obtaining ISBN's so that we can get some sort of statistics, but as far as I know, there are no records at this point.
CALVIN REID: I look on the e-publishing phenomenon as another tool for independent publishers, small publishers, in the same way that desktop publishing was a new tool, a new way for people to get their work out. How do you put a number on how many people have been able to publish and distribute work because of that? I'm not sure if you can really come at a hard figure, but it's obviously been explosive.
If you just look at one aspect of electronic publishing -- for instance, print on demand -- there are some print-on-demand publishers saying, for instance, that they're going to publish 70,000 titles this year. I don't know quite what they mean by that, and I'm not sure it's necessary to come up with a hard number. It's obviously a tool in the hands of people that want to produce literature, that want to write, that want to get information out in any way they see fit, and I think it's just another way that digital technology empowers the individual. And I think because of it you've got to figure out how you can make this work for what you do, as a business, as an individual, as an artist. So it's just a tool.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Adrian actually started to talk about what, maybe, we shouldn't be doing, and that's one of the things thats really valuable [for small publishers to know]. We don't have a lot of time. We really want to just get in, do what we think might be most worthwhile. Is there something we should watch out for, or something we should definitely be doing?
ADRIAN TAYLOR: My biggest warning would probably be, as an editor or a writer or anyone seriously involved in producing literature, don't try to keep up with the tomes of rumor and speculation and news generated by the e-book industry on a daily basis. This is a full-time job in itself.
In terms of the different technologies, there's a lot of speculation right now about what standards are emerging and that sort of thing. I would just caution -- and I don't really want to -- I need to sort of walk a fine line and not discredit any of them at this point. There are certain ones that I appreciate more than others, but I would just stress that a lot of very talented people have put a lot of work into producing a specification for the open e-book structure, and that is what I deem to be the most valuable contribution to the industry thus far. I would highly suggest that any publishers should just make certain that the work that's being converted is compliant with that specification.
RAM DEVINENI: You actually don't need to know how to do XML programming to do an e-book. In any case, there will be applications that will convert things like that into an e-book format so that anyone can create an e-bookthat's the whole goal. You should definitely create pdf files, because pdf will be incorporated into XML. XML and pdf using -- it's going to be interactive. But Microsoft Reader or Rocket e-book -- Rocket e-book I'm not very impressed with I just publish a few books on the Rocket e-book and Microsoft Reader's pretty good clarity, but the pdf file is definitely the way to go for right now.
Also, pretty much every browser up until, I think, browser 3 for Internet Explorer and Netscape have Adobe Acrobat incorporated into the browser itself so they can read these texts in their browser. They don't need to open up Adobe Acrobat to read it.
JOHN OAKES: I think people already know what I would tell you to look out for. If somebody wants to charge you to do it, don't do it. The market just isn't there. You're doing it for a very limited audience.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: It strikes me that one of the missing pieces -- you're actually arriving at this future where people are reading e-books or actually going onto the Internet for poetry -- is bridging the gap between the volume of poetry out there -- I mean, just a Yahoo search, you'd probably have upward of 2 million hits or something if you asked for poetry -- and knowing where to go. My question is, is there some sort of authority, or how can we arrive at some sort of authority where if I don't have any familiarity with what's out there on the Internet I can say, "Okay, I'm just going to go to the New York Review of Books and look at what is being reviewed as some of the most interesting stuff on the Internet, and, okay, I don't have to browse 2,000 sites to get 13 sites that I might be interested in." What concerted steps do people see in that direction, as far as nurturing the ease of finding things?
ANOTEHR AUDIENCE MEMBER: How do you find good stuff?
AND ANOTHER AUDIENCE MEMBER: I'm going to plug the Electronic Literature Directory, which is directory.literature.org. It's a directory of about 650 works that are interactive that use some of the electronic techniques and attachments that Ram was talking about. It's part of the Electronic Literature Organization site, which is eliterature.org.
CALVIN REID: Which is also a new organization and site that is dedicated to studying the phenomenon and asking questions about new forms and will be, as I understand it, sponsoring some seminars in symposium [in March 2001] about electronic publishing.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Perhaps one way to answer the questions of finding quality e-publishing is something Adrian talked about earlier, namely the emergence of specialty bookshops online. Today, we look to the publishers to sort of anoint content in certain ways. If something's published by Knopf that carries a certain kind of weight. Perhaps on-line portals will emerge or aggregators, or these specialty bookstores will emerge as those kind of anointers.
CALVIN REID: There are also websites by small publishers. Rattapallax has a website. Many of the publishing names that you can think of, small presses, have websites, that you can go to and browse their books and probably link to other literary sites.
ADRIAN TAYLOR: Certainly one of my main goals is to become identified with the sort of fiction that I would like to purvey, and hopefully become a resource and someplace where people would search for it. I believe what I'm doing is not unique in any way, and I think that more and more sites similar to what Fictionopolis is will emerge.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: It seems to me that the print on demand format is less of a leap for small publishers. What kind of technology is involved there? What would a publisher have to do to do that?
JOHN OAKES: It's very simple. You either provide the book, which is then scanned, or else you provide electronic files, to the print-on-demand company. I use Lightning Source, which has a dot-com for more information It's a machine, basically, which costs millions of dollars.
FourWalls, by the way, also has a nice website, but all the hits we get are from people who really just want to know about submissions!
Here we have a representative of one of the great bookstores in the country, Mr. Paul Yamazaki of City Lights Books in San Francisco. They have an excellent website, but I just wonder how Paul would see City Lights adapting, or not. Feel free to condemn the whole electronic thing, Paul. That's what I've been doing.
PAUL YAMAZAKI: At City Lights we're very much interested in this whole thing. Our publishing branch is looking at print on demand. I agree with some of the comments here. This is such a new field that we don't know where it's going to be five years from now. We don't even know what it's going to be like 12 months from now.
One thing that I think as a bookseller, and this is probably a very conservative point of view -- books as we know them aren't going away. I would also add that one of the most important things is the development of portals and sites where people can go and be confident they're going to see good stuff.
CALVIN REID: On that note, I think
what we can all agree on is that print books aren't going anywhere, but
e-books may be accompanying them into the future. We're going to end on
that note. Thank you for coming out.
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