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Digital Publishing: Fatal E-ttraction or Economics in Action?

(Originally published in 2001)

(This article is now obviously largely moot. Digital publishing via e-zines, blogs, Kindle version books, Apple iBooks and more are now a mainstay of publishing.)

Apparently, as with politics and religion, there is little room for compromise on the topic of digital publishing. On one side, a senior editor at Knopf declares "Anyone who thinks e-books are the future of publishing is a fool." On the opposing front, a Microsoft VP proclaims that "paper is dead!"

Even many publishing industry "experts", who seek to protect and serve us with an objective look at both sides, do so with the most human of ulterior motives - self preservation.

Take, for example, Authorlink editor Doris Booth's recent article "Considering Self Publishing? Examine Pros and Cons." Authorlink is an online portal (www.authorlink.com) "where editors and agents buy and sell rights to unpublished and published manuscripts. and screenplays." In the article, Ms. Booth prefaces tidbits of advice meant to educate unpublished authors with a warning about the "fatal flaws" of e-books and print-on-demand publishing, which the editor consistently refers to as "vanity publishing," even though the terms are most certainly not synonyms for one another.

Like many, Authorlink's article provides a valuable word of caution to writers who may not understand that getting published does not necessarily mean instant literary success. Such industry articles usually make several excellent points, but often tend to be heavy on the "con" side, and even a bit naive in their understanding and presentation of what is occurring in the electronic publishing marketplace. While the industry is in overwhelming agreement on the subject of "vanity" publishing, generalizations of e-book and print-on-demand companies into the vanity category is a self-serving fallacy increasingly utilized by small traditional publishers and various "middle man" agencies and services. Such entities stand to get squeezed, perhaps right out of business, by emerging web-based publishers.

Although the digital forerunners are scarcely a year or two old, significant mud-slinging has already taken place. Personally, I can't wait until digital publishing has been around long enough to provide some real numbers. As any good economist (or politician) can tell you, there is no better way to lie than by employing cold, hard statistics to prove diametrically-opposing points of view taken from the same base of figures.

Indeed, there are many online publishers that - just like their traditional counterparts - are little more than scams and which do fall into the vanity category. However, to generalize most digital publishing as self-publishing/vanity publishing is no more accurate than it would be for traditional firms. The example used by Authorlink, citing a major bookseller, which recently invested in a print-on-demand "vanity" publisher reveals Booth's true colors. Vanity publishing was around long before digital publishing appeared on the scene, and only the very biased would place the publisher in question into the vanity category.

The Authorlink article also quotes Random House's Jason Epstein three times, making it appear that the Random House editor and founder of the New York Review of Books shares Booth's dim view of print-on-demand and e-book publishing. In reality, Epstein has an extremely supportive outlook for digital publishing. During a series of lectures, last year in New York, Epstein said. �The book has been held captive by its binding, but now it doesn't have to. The future of publishing - indeed its salvation - is on the Internet. Publishing has been a one-way business for the last hundred years. The Internet is going to change that."

My own debut novel was recently published by a print-on-demand portal that I must, from the specific evidence, assume to he the same as Booth's example. I paid a single $99 submission fee. Contrasted against what I would have been expected to pay most literary agents for their out-of-pocket expenses (regardless of whether I got published, or not) and in addition to their 15% commission on top of that, I have my own opinion of what constitutes at racket. Already, over a period of four years I had previously thrown away several hundred dollars in postage, stationery, photocopying, opportunity costs and time querying agents and publishers who either never responded (despite an enclosed SASE), or sent standard unsigned rejection letters. Only one agent and one publisher ever allowed me to send them the manuscript. The publisher, one of the very largest, never sent a rejection letter or responded to my follow-up, even though the book was submitted at their invitation. In my case, as with most debut authors, it was never a matter of the traditional publishers judging quality - it was a matter of never getting a trial.

I should point out that prior to re-directing my efforts to print-on-demand, I was very aware that the task of promotion would fall squarely on my shoulders, and was never expecting to be hailed as the next Tom Clancy. Now available through print-on-demand, my novel has, however, collected several excellent reviews and has made it onto several stores' bookshelves. I am almost always able to locate it in the major distribution centers, and it is almost always readily available through all of the largest online bookstores. A magazine review of my novel was also featured in publisher's newsletter which is e-mailed to thousands more addresses than I could have hoped to reach by myself, and is soon to be featured on the publisher's much-trafficked main web page. What part of this scenario constitutes vanity publishing? The $99 fee?

The warnings that are offered in such anti-electronic articles would be just as well applied to the selection of a traditional publisher. but rarely are the traditional avenues open to contradiction. When I offered I offered a shorter version of this article as a counterpoint opinion to Authorlink, Booth declined. "We can see both sides, but choose to maintain a philosophy of traditional publishing.'

"New technologies will radically change the way books are distributed, but they will not displace the essential work of editing and publicity." said Jason Epstein during one of his lectures. Although the Authorlink column uses this Epstein statement as a generalized criticism of digital publishing quality, the actual remark is absolutely on-target. The technology used is not in the least a criterion for evaluating the qualitative merits of a book.

I think Epstein is my new hero.

As part of the downside arguments against digital publishing, critics perpetuate a traditionalist battle cry. "Who profits?" asks Booth. The digital publisher or the author? Of course, the digital publishers earn the lion's share of the profit. Are we to believe that such is not the case in the traditional publishing industry? That traditional publishing houses are non-profit organizations nobly donating their services to enhance the lifestyles of talented writers and poets? Nonetheless, I calculate that I only needed to sell 27 to 43 books to start showing a profit (depending on whether the books sold online at full list price or to bookstores at their discounted price). That happened even before my first booksigning.

The Authorlink article claims that all of the effort that goes into building the career of the next Tom Clancy are missing from vanity publishing. This is true, for any vanity publishers, whether digital or traditional. Booth, however, reveals either a lack of awareness on the topic or a willingness to overlook Clancy's early publishing history. Clancy's success began after he published his first book through the Naval Institute Press, the University Press of the U.S. Naval Academy, after failing to find a traditional publisher for The Hunt for Red October. John Grisham began his illustrious career in an even more inauspicious fashion. He self-published his first novel, A Time to Kill. Of course, those two novels have since been acquired by and re-published by traditional publishing houses.

Will publishing via a print-on-demand portal impact a writer's credibility by mere association? "The esteemed Romance Writers of America - for one - refuses to recognize electronically published authors as 'published' at all." Booth said.

Statements from RWA Communications Manager Claris McEachern refute this claim. "By no means is RWA singling out e-publishers and denying them 'recognition' said McEachern. NO publisher who does not meet RWA's criteria for publisher recognition will be considered an 'RWA A-recognized publisher. It makes no difference in what format a publisher produces books. They have to have been in Business for a year. They cannot he a vanity press, and they must have national distribution of 1,500 hardback romances or 5,000 romances in paperback or any other format."

In fact, RWA says that it has recognized al least one electronic publisher. ''iPublish is a division of Warner Books,' said McEachern. "And, because Warner Books is already an RWA-recognized publisher, it (iPublish) is automatically recognized by RWA"

As for credibility, judge for yourself. The list of credible authors published electronically grows daily and already includes authors such as Stephen King, Frederick Forsyth, Mary Higgins Clark, Arthur C. Clarke, Phillip K. Dick, David Saperstein, Leta Nolan Childers and Piers Anthony. A line may have been drawn by traditional-publishing-or-die cheerleaders, hut it hasn't take it long for authors to blur that line. The Authors Guild, which represents more than 8,000 traditionally-published authors has also recently entered the print-on-demand business, allying itself with the same Internet publishing portal that Booth calls a vanity operation. In May 2000, the highly respected American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASIA) likewise announced a business alliance with the same publisher. ASJA president Samuel Greengard said that the new alliance will enable ASJA to create an imprint for the publication, distribution and marketing of ASJA members' books as well as for a line of books on writing to he created by ASJA itself. "This is an exciting opportunity for ASIA members to expand their publishing horizons." Greengard said. "New technology is changing the book publishing business."

Booth and other critics claim that online authors are likely to be sorely disappointed by royalties received from electronic or print-on-demand publishers. If such is the case with my novel, that will be only because my book has not sold as many copies as it might have, had a publisher such as Random House picked it up and promoted it. In actuality, the royalty percentage of each book sold (20% for printed copies, 50% for electronic) is al least 5-10% higher from my publisher (and all of those POD companies that I researched) than what is standard among the traditional publishing houses.

As Jason Epstein points out, marketing is a key ingredient in the success of any book. Perhaps even more important than talent. Like most POD publishers, mine has done little to promote most of their book titles. However, anyone who has an acquaintance with large numbers of authors has but to ask to discover that even the large traditional publishers do no more than the e-publishers to throw "marketing clout behind its authors." Like any other publisher, mine selects a small handful to promote. I can walk into any of the "major bookseller's" locations across the United States and find the same authors' books on the end-counters and special displays. That holds true for my print-on�-demand publisher's books, as much as for any traditional house.

The difference is that due to my decision to go with a POD electronic publisher, I will be receiving royalties. I wasn't getting the time of day from the traditional route. Chances are, I never would have been published without the very POD company that Booth categorizes as vanity publishing. Instead, I have made it into the Top Ten Bestsellers #1 spot, ahead of even the new Harry Potter book. Yes. I know...local stores...big deal. It is a big deal to me. My alternative was watching a manuscript into which I had poured my soul collect dust, when I know it and I deserved better. This is the aspect that e-publishing detractors often completely ignore or belittle.

I have, as have the vast majority of authors, traditionally-published, POD and e-book alike, experienced both pros and cons along the way. In my specific instance, my novel was in print and available for sale only four months after the date I submitted it. I had an amazing amount of control over the cover art, and absolute control over the plot. The paper, printing and binding were excellent quality, even in the more expert opinion of the bookstores. On the flip side, as critics warn, the post-submission editing process was pretty much non-existent. Although I had done my best to self-edit the book and had also obtained professional editing assistance, approximately a dozen typos survive in the published book. I received no handsome advance royalties check. Because many prominent editors have generalized e-publishing as vanity, it has been tough to get reviews from certain journals and newspapers. I have been told bluntly, "We don't review books from that publisher."

The most prestigious of reviewers still require a copy complete with final page count , price and ISBN three to six months in advance of publication. How can an e-published author possibly provide such information when the entire electronic process from submission to publication is only three to four months? So instead of the L.A. Times, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, e-authors turn to e-reviewers like Under the Covers. WordWeaving, and Write Times.

Would I go the same route again? Frankly, I'll probably have to. The traditional publishing industry hasn't shown itself to he very receptive to constructive criticism, and if Booth is right, I have also "tainted" myself by signing with a print-on-demand publisher. It really doesn't matter. Going the traditional route, I might easily have waited ten years without results, In ten years. I expect the industry to have changed dramatically, By that time. I predict that a lot of the current powers-that-be will be out of jobs, due to a lack of vision, adaptability and computer proficiency. At a writers� conference I attended in May 2000, a panel of mostly New York-based agents and editors was asked if they would be willing to share their email addresses with the audience, Five of the seven panelists replied they did not have email, Small surprise that such a group were not big advocates of digital publishing.

Many critics suggest that, with it being easier to get published via print-on-demand and e-books, poor quality products will "clutter" up the bookshelves. This so-called "virtual clutter" is one of the most nonsensical ideas in the whole argument against digital publishing. The manuscripts in question have always been there: it just that no one at the publishing houses were accepting them, If editors and agents weren't reading these unpublished authors before, why would anyone believe that the same individuals will now he forced to wade through such manuscripts in electronic format, And since both print-on-demand and e-books can be supplied as they are ordered - without unnecessarily occupying precious bookstore shelf space, where is the clutter? Any book must stand or fall on its own merit, regardless of the technology used to publish it, As Fatbain.com VP Judy Kirkpatrick says, "What's good will sell and rise to the forefront, and what's not will gather dust on Fatbrain's virtual shelves."

Virtual clutter is an interesting concept, isn't it? Doesn't "virtual," by definition, mean that it isn't really there? I wonder if a virtual tree makes a virtual sound falling in a virtual forest.

Will print-on-demand and electronic publishers replace Simon & Schuster. St, Martin's Press and Random House, as Booth challenges! Probably not, although who would have predicted that AOL, - a 15-year-old Internet company that didn't even run on IBM-compatible PCs until 1991, and only six years ago had fewer than a million subscribers - would he in a position, today, to be able to acquire a majority ownership of news, entertainment and media giant Time Warner? It is also extremely relevant to the discussion to point out something that Booth either missed or purposely ignored. ALL of the aforementioned publishers, along with Penguin Putnam, Oxford Press, Houghton Mifflin, Rodale and many others have already bought, formed, or strategically allied themselves to distribute books via print-on-demand and/or e-books, alongside their traditional methods.

There is a good reason that electronic publishing is gaining popularity and that multitudes of authors are turning to them. In a free market economy, the marketplace always has responded to demand and to inefficiencies such as those we are witnessing in publishing, Attend any writers' workshop and listen to the responses of editors, publishers and literary agents about why fewer books are making it into print, even in the face of continued growth of the market for books. The answer is always the same: promotional costs, printing costs and distribution costs are prohibitive. If this is truly the case - and I have no reason to believe otherwise - then how short-sighted is it to ignore the Internet as a solution? After initial startup costs of a website, the distribution of e-books is essentially without cost, Promotion is both cheaper and broader via the Internet. Print-on�-demand books incur no printing costs, unless they have already been pre-sold and earned a profit. Digital publishing technology incurs less overhead, zero inventory, zero warehouse space, more feasible access to international markets and a scalable technology infrastructure. The marketplace has found a supply and demand imbalance in an industry that is technology-impoverished, and those entrepreneurs quick enough to get there first have responded. As a result, traditional publishers left themselves vulnerable in a huge way, and as InfoWorld news features editor Renee Gotcher said, "Publishing heavyweights...are now trying to ride the electronic-publishing wave, rather than drown in its wake."

Writers who have been collecting rejections for 4-10 years suddenly have another option, and they are seizing it. Such rejection by traditional publishers is not, and has never been, an indication of writing ability. Ask any group of award-winning, best-selling authors about rejection letters. They, too, like Clancy and Grisham, have been there\done that. Ask around. The list is endless. In fact, an immense number of those authors who rushed to embrace digital publishing opportunities did so following four, five or even ten years of cutting, polishing and re-editing their manuscripts. The large attendances at local writers' conferences and work shops, and in professional writing programs hear witness to the conscientious and persistent efforts of such authors to produce quality manuscripts, rather than the "clutter" described by digital publishing opponents. Quality is not a question of talent. Most writers write because they are compelled to do so. Real writers do not give up because of stack of rejection letters. Of course all of us believe that we have talent, and why not? Screenwriting "Dean" Lew Hunter tells his students that "talent is the soul's expression of itself�we all have talent...we all have a story to tell." Aside from the academics of developing of one's writing skills, that which differentiates the talent of a published author and an unpublished author is all too frequently the filtering process enforced by traditional publishers. That process is based much more on profit � i.e., What will sell? ...versus perception of talent. After all, such decisions aremade almost exclusively without the decision-makers or anyone else working for them having read the manuscripts.

Profit is the understandable reason that many editors, publishers and agents are so vocal in their criticism of print-on-demand and e-publishing. It is very much to their benefit to keep the pool of published authors down to a collection of writers who are "proven" successes. Historically, only about two percent of the books submitted each year are published. Less than one-tenth of one percent of debut fiction manuscripts make it into print. Increasing the number of authors waters down the profitability of all involved in the traditional publishing industry - authors, agents and publishers alike. This inclination, too, is a part of the economic marketplace. If print-on-demand and electronic publishing are viable options, they will survive and prosper. If not, they won't. It is just about that simple.

"Since the demise of the independent bookstore, there are fewer booksellers to create word-of-mouth campaigns fledgling authors rely on," Jason Epstein said. "As a result, publishers are not as likely to take a chance on a new author. They want authors who can guarantee sales. But the Internet can and has already begun to change that."

I really like this guy Epstein.

A few years ago, MicroSoft used a slogan: "The Internet changes everything."

I am not a publishing expert. I may not be a great writer. But I am a technology professional with sufficient credentials to make this evaluation:

Anyone who thinks that the Web is a fad, that e-books are foolish, or that print-on-demand is just another phrase for vanity publishing is in denial. Such mediums are indeed at the very least an important part of the future. Maybe not mine, or Doris Booth's or yours, but electronic publishing meathods are indeed part of the future for my four-year-old son who is learning to read via an Elmo educational CD. They are the future for my nineteen-month-old daughter who watches and learns, spellbound, by the educational online antics of Bear in the Big Blue House. Ms. Booth may never hold a Rocket e-Book reader and skim through an electronically-published novel, but I'm betting that the children in daycare and elementary schools around the world won't think twice about the nostalgia of a good ol' fashioned paperback. E-books will be but one more option. The "demand" part of print-on-demand will be its own policing factor in eliminating the "clutter" of all those books that aren't worthy of making it to the bookshelves. How much space does a book take that hasn't been printed? How much brainpower does it take to understand the concept of "on demand?"

Print-on-demand is being utilized as a viable alternative alongside traditional means at some of the largest and most prestigious publishing houses in the business. Electronic publishing is very much in its infancy, and we will not realistically be able to judge its impact on the industry for a least another four to five years. Microsoft's vice president of technology development. Dick Brass, predicts that by 2008, e-books will start to outsell print titles. Lightning Print's Larry Brewster says that e-books won't replace printed books; they'll be a complement.

Whether electronic-publishing will replace the traditional model or supplement it is a question that only time will answer. Traditional and digital publishing methods need not be mutually exclusive paths for the book industry, but if the publishing industry takes its cue from politics, the future of publishing will be more about viewpoint and control than efficiency and economics. That's when everyone loses.

As Jason Epstein said, "The filter that distinguishes value is a function of human nature, not of particular technologies."

Quality is something that an author supplies, not a publisher.

- Michael Marcotte, Author of Gold in the Shadow

Michael Marcotte spent thirty five years as an Information Technology professional, first as an information management consultant at Andersen Consulting (now remamed Accenture), and then as the Vice President for Information Technology at the University of Oklahoma Foundation. His undergraduate educational background was in economics, followed by a masters' degree in business administration. In June 2000, his debut novel was published by iUniverse, a print-on-demand publisher of which Barnes & Noble, in November 1999, purchased 49%.

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