Understanding Electronic Publishing: Part II

by Chris Van Buren and Jeff Cogswell

Poor Richard's
Creating Ebooks by Chris Van Buren and Jeff Cogswell
Ordering information:
What Can You Do With E-Books?

So now the burning question: What makes e-books better than printed books? What exactly can you do with e-books? Okay, funny, funny, but seriously, having a book in an online format makes for a much more powerful approach to reading. For instance, at least one popular e-book software manufacturer (Glassbook), which makes software for desktop and laptop computers, lets you click on a word in the text and look up its definition. Also, for most e-books, searching is much more powerful than using the limited index in a printed book. How many times have you been reading a book and said, "I remember a dozen or so pages back the author said something about-" but you can't find the item in the index and you're forced to skim through the pages? With an e-book you can quickly and easily search for text, any text, not just what's in the index.

Some e-books let you highlight text and add notes in the margins. The Microsoft Reader software lets you do this. So do the Gemstar RCA reader devices.

E-books also have the benefit that they can hold a lot of information. Typical e-book devices can easily hold dozens of books. Imagine carrying a whole set of paperbacks in a device the size of a single paperback.

They also have other benefits for different areas of work or study. For example, a student might be able to fit several textbooks on a single device, along with some reference guides (a dictionary, a thesaurus, a book of math formulas . . . ). This would prove a great asset in an open-book exam.

Is There Anything to Read?

So what e-books are available? At the time of this writing, you can choose from thousands of e-book titles. However, because the industry hasn't settled yet, it's still in a state of disarray, where different titles are available for different software and devices. The e-book industry hasn't standardized the way the videotape industry has, but rest assured that it will in due time. (In fact, early on there were several competing standards for videotapes, two in particular being Beta and VHS, and VHS won out.)

Meanwhile, depending on your hardware and software preferences, you can be pretty sure there are e-books available for you. Some are for free and some are for pay.

Project Gutenberg-It probably bears mentioning at this point that over the past thirty years, a group of people scattered over the planet has gotten together with the goal of taking classics (that is, non-copyrighted texts or works for which the copyright has run out) and getting them into an online format for people to read and distribute using the computer. This effort is called Project Gutenberg, named for the guy who invented the printing press. The e-books are stored in a basic "ASCII text" format that virtually all computers can display, without requiring fancy-schmancy e-book software. The project has already converted literally thousands of texts, and all are available for free. The Project Gutenberg home page can be found at http://www.gutenberg.net.
A Look Ahead

If you attend an e-book conference, where everybody who has any business related to e-books shows up, and if you listen to the speeches, you will hear dozens of different predictions for where the paper book and e-book industries are headed in the next five to ten years. You'll hear predictions about where technology is headed, what consumers' lives will be like, and how the publishing industry will or won't change. Some of these predictions are, frankly, totally outlandish and unsupported; others are a bit more realistic. Certainly, there's no way to know for sure what will happen, but here we present some of the more likely outcomes.

Not too many years ago, most people did not expect that nearly everyone would one day own a computer. But now people all across the country and all over the world, from all areas of life, do own computers. But it has taken a while to get to that point. With any new technology, there's an enormous leap between just the so-called early adopters using it and every person on the planet jumping in. So contrary to what some of the more radical visionaries proclaim, we can expect it to take a few years before we see all the newspapers on the Boston subway replaced by handheld book reader devices. (And hopefully they won't be discarded on the floor of the train!)

However, it really is happening, although gradually. You are seeing more and more people carrying palm-sized computers. Although most people use these devices primarily for storing phone numbers and appointments, the palmtops are out there and the people who own them really like them and are eager to do more with them. While most people do tend to be a bit wary about reading books on their small computers, they are eager to read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal that way. So it's just a matter of time before those same people want to read books and novels as well.

Once it happens, what can we expect? There will certainly be the few "Superpower" e-books designed for technonerd power users; these people will be heard saying things like, "Check this out! My e-book reader is hooked up to my mobile PCS network, and I can create a custom book, where each chapter is generated from a separate book, all of which are the results of an extensive search I just performed on the entire Library of Congress! The book is generated in real time and downloaded to my device as I'm reading it, and it even includes a full index!"

But in the nearer future, we can expect more modest advances in e-books. For example, it should be possible to reorganize your e-books so that you can have a chapter from this book and a chapter from that book. You should be able to do very sophisticated searches (such as "find me the parts of the book that talk about writing and how it relates to the medical industry"). Further, you can expect to be able to do expanded searches among the different e-books available online, just as you can presently do for Web sites (say, "Find me all books that talk about writing for the medical industry").

Certainly as download times shrink and distribution mechanisms become more powerful, we can expect to see more multimedia in these books as well. Such multimedia will be particularly useful in textbooks. Instead of a math book just showing the graph of a particular equation, a figure in the book might be a full-featured graphing calculator, where the student can put in different functions or adjust the numbers. Or a chemistry book might show a revolving molecule in 3D, or a history book might include a short video of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. A literature book might include a video of portions of a Shakespeare play. A foreign language book might allow you to click a paragraph of text and switch between, say, English and French.

As for distribution, some companies are hoping to have alternate means for getting books onto your computer or e-book device. Already, you can go to some Barnes and Noble stores and get a print-on-demand book, where the book is physically printed while you wait. The next logical step is that you'll be able to bring in your laptop or small computer or e-book device and hook it up to a server computer, from which you can get a rapid, high-speed download of several books, and pay for them all at once.

Comparison With Print Publishing

E-book technology opens a whole new set of options that are not possible with print books. But beyond these differences, the actual business of publishing is likely to change as well-although, and we can't stress this enough, very slowly and gradually.

The bigger publishing companies have no intention whatsoever of ditching paper books. At present, they are watching the e-book market to determine how quickly they want to move ahead with e-books -- if at all. (Fortunately, virtually all of the large publishers recognize that e-books are going to happen and are either planning on entering the e-book market or have already moved forward in it.) And as these publishers embrace e-books, they will release titles gradually. In other words, they are treating it as a potential line of business and are being cautious about it, like any potential line of business. Like all big companies, they do not simply embrace a new business because it's exciting; rather, they only move if they see a line of business in it with potential profits, all within their own business model.

The publishing business model works in part because it provides a lot of services authors find very useful. The first stage of the creation process for a nonfiction book takes place in the Acquisitions department, where someone comes up with book ideas and then goes out to find authors. Fiction authors usually write their manuscripts and then sell them, but nonfiction authors either get recruited by acquisitions editors or submit proposals to them. Authors often use agents for both sales and proposals, as many publishers prefer not to deal directly with the author.

Nobody Stands Alone-A good book evolves and grows, thanks to the work of all its editors. It never goes to press looking exactly like it did before the editors worked on it, and that is a good thing. Editors know what a book should look and feel like, what the prose should sound like, what organization, layout, and so on are likeliest to make the author's point to the author's audience. New authors simply don't know these things, and if they refuse to recognize the realities, they are only hurting themselves by self-publishing. E-book conferences draw crowds of people who have the notion that with e-books you can just cut to the chase, removing unnecessary editorial interference. Unfortunately for the self-publisher, editorial work is rarely unnecessary. It's the editors who transform a book into a good book. So please don't think you can skip the editorial process and put out a good book, unless you have years of experience. (At this point you might be thinking the book you're reading evolved and the editors added this Note. But it really was written by the authors.)
After the acquisitions editors have come up with a book and an author to do the book, they negotiate a contract, often with the help of an agent representing the author. The author now has a book deal. The publisher then assigns the book to a managing editor, who will oversee the writing of the book and the assignment of other editors to help develop the book's content and assure its accuracy. The editing crew can include developmental editors who help set the structure and content of the book, technical editors who follow the instructions in the text and make sure everything works and is technically accurate, and copyeditors who help polish the language so the that message comes across effectively.

The author usually sends each chapter to the managing editor as soon as it's complete, so the production process can move ahead while the book is still in progress. Many publishers now use word processors for everything, so almost every book starts out as something like an e-book. In fact, the actual text you are reading in this book was typed in by us, the authors of the book -- it wasn't retyped by someone else at Top Floor Publishing, as it would have been in the old days. The book was developed, checked for technical accuracy, copyedited, and made up into pages all from our original files.

After the editors finish with a file, it goes to the Production department, a group of very talented people who are good at things like understanding how a reader's eyes move about a page. They know where to put a diagram, for instance, so that the reader can easily look at it while reading the text. Most people probably don't realize how much art and psychology is involved in the production process. And again, this is something self-published, first-time authors know little about, unless they have experience in production.

After the layout is complete, the book goes to the printers -- and that's where the costs really mount up. Printing is getting more and more costly as paper and other supplies increase in price, and as the specialized equipment grows ever larger and more complex. There's a real economy of scale here -- printers tend to charge more per page for little books (because it's just as hard to set up the presses for a small book as a big one) and for short press runs (again because the prep work is the same and there's less product to sell at the end).

And this brings us to an interesting point about e-books: Some publishers are fearful that if they sell a book both as a printed book and an e-book, they will have to cut down on the number of books they print on paper, meaning the cost to print the book actually goes up. Recent studies suggest this might not be true. Still, only time can tell for sure. It's certainly one reason why publishers haven't instantly embraced the e-book world.

What's in Electronic Publishing for Me?

So why would you want to publish electronically? Although even in the late 1990s people had lots of answers to this question, none of them were tested or proven. We now have some solid answers. And over the next couple of years we'll see even more solid answers as people learn the ins and outs of electronic publishing-not by speculating, but by doing.

Consider this for starters: Most of the really big publishers pay authors of nonfiction roughly 8 percent to 10 percent of net sales.

What Does Net Mean?-The phrase "10 percent of net sales" sounds small enough-and it usually works out to be even smaller than it sounds. Publishers seem to have their own mysterious ways of calculating what exactly net means to bring it down as far as possible. The average $40 computer book brings the author less than a buck a copy.

Now compare this to an online publisher such as Fatbrain. Fatbrain's MightyWords site, which is now a separate company from Fatbrain, lets anybody upload works to be published electronically from its Web site, and consumers can purchase the documents online and immediately download them. It includes some basic copy protection, and the files are in PDF format. The pay? Fifty percent of gross. A $20 computer book, for instance, would get the author $10 per copy. (Note that it might seem like we're comparing apples and oranges, with a $40 printed book versus a $20 e-book. But that's because right now, it's not clear yet that consumers will be willing to pay full printed-book price for an e-book.) So you, the author, would get $10 per copy, rather than a measly 90 cents or whatever.

But there are drawbacks as well. You're on your own for the editing, layout, and marketing-remember, all that good stuff a publisher gives you. (But have no fear, that's where this book can help. The parts that follow the first four chapters give you loads of goodies about how you can make all that happen for yourself.)

And another drawback is-at least right now-you're unlikely to see sales as high as you would with a printed book. But again, with the marketing methods laid out in Part III, Getting Your E-Book Published and Sold, it will certainly be possible.

So those are the drawbacks, but as you can see, $10 per book is a much better deal than under a buck. And the great thing is, even though you're self-publishing, you don't incur enormous printing costs. And since it's electronic, it's easy for you to try out e-book publishing.

These are all arguments that have been made for some time, before the e-publishing business began to prove itself. And they still stand. But there's more. For instance, it's proving to be much easier to get self-published in e-book format. Even some high-profile, well-known authors have had certain works rejected by publishers, but the authors were able to get these works published as e-books. The works were rejected not because they were bad works; rather, the publishers felt they couldn't command a large enough sales volume. And then for some e-books, once the book proved itself as an e-book, traditional publishers were willing to pick it up and carry it as a printed title.

Also, publishers don't have much room for a small novella unless they happen to have a collection that they can put it in. Electronic publishing, however, is an ideal place for smaller works, as the electronic publishers have no economies of scale pushing them to produce the bigger stuff instead.

The Current State of E-Publishing

E-publishing is still brand new, and it hasn't yet settled down. But we can say that it's definitely happening, whether people like it or not -- and many people certainly do have opinions about it. And now is your chance to get in on it.

The biggest software manufacturers have embraced it. All of the big publishing houses are talking about adding e-publishing divisions, and some have already started. New and small online-only publishing companies have opened up for business.

Click here for Part I of "Understanding Electronic Publishing."

Excerpted from Poor Richard's Creating E-books, by Chris Van Buren and Jeff Cogswell. Copyright ©2001 by Chris Van Buren and Jeff Cogswell. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission. Reproduction or dissemination in any manner whatsoever is strictly prohibited.

Chris Van Buren began his career as a computer documentation writer and went on to become an editor at CompuSoft Publishing, one of the first computer book publishing companies in the United States. He later wrote and published several computer industry newsletters, including The AppleWorks Journal and the Microsoft Works in Education Newsletter, co-published with Microsoft Corporation. Chris also spent many years as a computer book author and has written more than 15 books, including Using Excel for the Macintosh, The MacWorld Excel 5 Companion, and The HTML Quick Reference. Currently, Chris is a literary agent with Waterside Productions, Inc., and has represented a wide variety of books, including many bestselling computer books, cookbooks, and spiritual books. He is also the publisher of the E-Publishing Opportunities email newsletter.

Jeff Cogswell programs computers, writes books, and plays the piano and guitar. Early on he had some ideas for how e-books could be made to happen when his first book went out of print and he continued to get letters from people who wanted it. Being more of a writer than a programmer, he prefers to write about e-books and let other people build the e-book software. He has written several books including Simple C++ and Delphi 32-bit Programming Secrets (with Tom Swan).

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