Curling Up With A Good E-Book?
I'm having a conflict of interest about something. It's the only
situation I can think of in which the term "technology editor"
becomes an oxymoron. On the one hand, I write about technology. On the
other hand, I'm an editor and a book lover. I'm talking about e-books.
In the early days of the so-called "e-book" revolution,
digital books were on CDs or could only be downloaded to a PC, a concept
which we bibliophiles found ridiculous. I sit in front of a computer all
day long and take pleasure in the printed page in the evening. How many of
us would find appeal in retiring to our computer for an hour before bed,
once again parking ourselves in front of the screen, for a relaxing
reading session? I apparently wasn't alone in this thinking.
Entering stage left are a new breed of PDA-type devices known as
digital readers. One example of this new item is a product sold by SoftBook.
The SoftBook Reader is a lightweight, leather-bound reader with the
capability of downloading and storing thousands of pages of digital text.
According to the company, the SoftBook reader enhances a reader's
experience by throwing in the added bonus of search functions, annotations
and hyperlinks (entirely eliminating the need to develop those pesky
researching skills, I might cynically add). The SoftBook Reader has a
built-in modem, allowing users to download new materials via the
telephone, avoiding the necessity of having to use a PC. The product
retails for about $300 and requires a $20 per month subscription fee.
E-books are also available in PDA format. This method requires Palm
software specifically created to read text documents.
Can you see this scenario? You're laying on a beach in Tahiti and must
instantly leap up and try to find a telephone so you can hook up your
modem and download the sequel to the great e-book with which you've just
Few people missed the implications of e-publishing, both good and bad,
after the recent release of Stephen King's Web-only novella, Riding the
Bullet, back in March of this year (published by Scribner in
conjunction with Philtrum Press). The response was mind-boggling. Fans
rushed to the sites that offered the book in such enormous numbers that
late-comers (you knowthose that logged on 10 minutes late) had a hard
time getting onto the sites at all. CNN reported that one of its editors
who attempted to download the book from Barnes & Noble.com was told
the queue was backed up and that the book would be e-mailed to him
instead. Later, he received notification via e-mail that due to
high-traffic, even the e-mail would be delayed. This wasn't the only
trouble with King's book: One of the distributors offering the book was
quickly infiltrated by hackers, who broke through the encryption and began
offering the download for free, making would-be e-publishers wince.
Pirates ride the high seas once again, though this time minus eye patches
Still, few publishers with any business savvy would ignore that kind of
response. Shortly after the King novella hype, several large publishers
stepped forward to announce their e-publishing initiatives. Time Warner
Trade Publishing, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Bertelsmann,
Houghton Mifflin and Macmillan USA, to name a few, have all announced some
form of initiative, ranging from very large to very limited, to get
started in e-publishing. The ever-present Microsoft has been involved in
at least two of these ventures (Simon & Schuster and Random House), in
that it is providing them with the reader software.
I don't begrudge the publishers these venturesthere is daily
evidence that several small Internet-only publishers are on the rise. If
the large, traditional publishing houses are not quick and sleek, they may
find themselves put out to pasture in the e-book industry. At the same
time, the staid, traditional copyright and royalty laws and rules that
apply to print books have the potential of becoming an unpredictable,
snarling beast in the world of e-books, a situation no publisher is going
to look forward to tackling. I don't envy the tough choices that have been
set in front of these traditional publishers.
I do, however, envy the authors of these up-and-coming e-books. Through
personal experience in book publishing, I know a standard royalty rate,
particularly for first books, is often a dismal 10 percent. A 15 percent
royalty rate means you are a very special author, and anything larger than
that means you are Mary Higgins Clark. With the bulk of production costs
cut out (and printing costs entirely eliminated), it is the authors who
will reap the benefits. It's estimated that royalty rates of 50 percent or
more for e-books will not be unheard of.
I'm not completely decrying the technology. It will be revolutionary
for distance-learning, and it may be the answer to the prayers of
libraries, whose limited budgets may not allow them to carry all the
titles they would wish to. Rare books, formerly available only to those
few with the resources to travel to where they were housed, can be
available to anyone, any time, anywhere.
Additionally, the concept promises to be big business. The number of
downloads is still relatively small and largely caters to the non-fiction
world, but as more and more titles become available and as the service
becomes largely free (check out MemoWare.com,
which offers thousands of titles in the Palm format, most at no cost), it
will gain in popularity, though I predict only among those that never feel
the desire to escape from all things electronic.
I look forward to a day in the future, long after today's young people
have accepted e-books as the norm, when a teenager comes to me and
enthusiastically reports, "I found this GREAT shop the other day.
They sell these thingsbooks printed on paper. They're amazingthey
have a great feel and smell to them, and you can buy them, put them on a
shelf when you're finished reading them and even share them with your
friends. If you drop them, it's OKthey don't get damaged. You can read
even when you don't have access to a telephone! Isn't that
Also, if I may offer one valuable and insightful tip to the
manufacturers of e-book readers? Please put a large sticker on the back
that reads, "Do Not Use in the Bathtub."
Fusty, traditionalist bibliophiles can commiserate with the author