Features

Books by the megabyte

National | E-publishing casts down the gatekeepers and opens doors for independents with new (or old) ideas

Issue: "Nifty 50 Books," July 1, 2000

You're surfing the Net looking for some reading material. You find a book you want, but instead of ordering a printed volume, you download a file to your computer. Then you read it on-screen or copy it to a small handheld digital reader about the size of a paperback. This is the promise of the electronic book: all the text without all the paper. For those who want the paper and find it impractical to run half a ream through a printer, the e-book revolution may take the form of print-on-demand. So far, 15 independent bookstores have agreed to install in their stores by the end of this year $30,000 machines that crank out print copies of on-demand books from a digital database. Last year, super-retailer Borders bought a 20 percent share of the company that makes the machines and maintains the database, Atlanta-based Sprout Inc. ("15-minute paperbacks," WORLD, June 19, 1999). Borders has a Sprout on-demand publishing machine at its Ann Arbor, Mich., headquarters. Still, the publishing industry as a whole seems unsure of what to do with the e-book concept. Yet the e-book has all the makings of a cultural revolution. E-books are where the Internet was in 1994: Everybody knows something really cool is coming, but they don't know exactly what. They do know this: Readers can have any material they want at a moment's notice, and hardly anything goes out of print. Part of the fun is imagining a personal library stored on a disk or hard drive. Paper books are heavy, costly to ship, take up lots of space, and often break down with age. After all, a typical college student's textbook load can top 100 pounds. To move the bulk of them to a more portable storage medium only makes sense. At a press conference promoting the electronic distribution of one of his books, bestselling author Michael Crichton said he loved the idea of cramming several volumes into a simple handheld device. "I take a suitcase [of books] with me on vacation because I'm not sure of what I want to read." More than lighter loads, though, digital publishing may also mean lower barriers. Writers won't have to have a name like Michael Crichton to move their books. From an e-mail passed to friends to a website to an e-book offered for sale, the new technology gives everyone a virtual printing press. The cost and hassle for writers who have to pitch thoughts on paper to some gatekeeper are bypassed. Since the entryway is easier across the board, the new challenge becomes that of getting noticed in a sea of competitors. For those interested in putting Christian words into circulation, this is a great opportunity. There will be no need to please the publishing establishment that often ignores, avoids, or doesn't understand solid content. If general audiences accept e-books (and they will, in some fashion), then this opens a door to put material into their hands. The rise of e-books will bring some of the energy and exuberance of the Net into the publishing world. If Christians take advantage of it, it can be a great force for cultural transformation. Right now, New York and Nashville's publishing houses look at e-books with excitement and fear. They'll have a new way to sell books, but they'll be working in a medium they don't understand. After all, ink and paper have done pretty well for a few centuries and many publishers have long lineages. Thomas Nelson, for example, dates back to 1798. At the recent BookExpo America convention in Chicago, the buzz was not whether e-books would take off, but when. It swirled through their heads alongside thoughts about electronic rights, online piracy, and the rise of electronic bookstores. When will dead trees have a run for their money? Anywhere from six months to a decade, according to the guesses on the floor. "I think people will see this as one of the most significant moments in publishing history," said Michael Powell, owner of Portland, Ore., landmark Powell's Books. "It's coming down the road at lightning speed." If e-books become to traditional paper-and-ink books what online bookstores are to brick-and-mortar shops, Mr. Powell would be right. Instead of going to Barnes & Noble or Family Bookstores, more and more readers are turning to the Web. A consumer study guide reported that books sold online tripled their market share between 1998 and 1999, from 1.9 percent to 5.4 percent. Adults purchased more than 50 million titles, which shows that the tide moves everything from bestsellers to obscurities. The major publishers are moving into e-books slowly, as slowly as the entertainment industry moved onto the Web. "I still think paper will be carrying the vast bulk for a long time," said Wendy J. Strothman, an executive vice president at Houghton Mifflin. But even if it does, electronic publishing will be impossible to ignore. So far the biggest splash in e-books was a publicity stunt by a longtime best-selling horror writer. Stephen King dipped his toe into the digital waters by publishing a novella called Riding the Bullet in March. People could grab the story and read it on their computers or personal organizers or electronic readers for $2.50--and sales exploded like the opening of a major motion picture. Simon & Schuster reports Bullet racked up 400,000 orders during its first 24 hours for sale. All this attention has Mr. King wondering whether he should try it again. He's considering an experiment with the honor system: The first 50,000 people who download each 5,000-word installment of his next novel can get it for free, then they can voluntarily send him a check for one dollar. This concept isn't as strange as it sounds. In the software industry, it is called shareware and people can download programs to try out and then only pay if they like them and intend to keep them. This model keeps an ocean of software available and downloadable on the Web. "My purpose here isn't to skin anybody but to have some fun and try out a concept so old it may seem new; call it 'honesty is the best policy,'" Mr. King says on his site. Whether the plan works, it shows that e-books are still lurking below, waiting to strike the mass market. To take a look at what can come from electronic publishing, just look on the Web. While bestsellers and backlists may take a while, plenty of material is already available for free. A treasure trove called the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (www.ccel.org) runs out of Calvin College. Harry Plantinga, an associate professor in the school's computer science department, maintains a collection of dozens of works from Thomas Aquinas to George Whitfield. His library includes gems like the traditional collection of the church fathers (all 38 volumes), along with books from both the good guys and bad guys of Christian thought. Mr. Plantinga says on the site that he's spent about an hour a day since 1993 building up his collection. His goal is to build a portable library that can be cheaply distributed on disk "to every minister, missionary, and seminary student in the third world who speaks English and has a CD-ROM drive." He reports that in early 1999 the amount of traffic on his site was the equivalent of giving away a million books a year. Other places have all sorts of works. If something is in the public domain, then it can be digitized and republished for free. Shakespeare's canon was converted long ago and is available from many sources or cheaply on CD-ROM. The University of Pennsylvania has a listing of online books (http://digital. library.upenn.edu/books) that lists everything from Zane Grey's westerns to McGuffey's Readers-and it's all available for easy download. The first mover in this world of online publishing was Michael Hart, who obtained access to the mainframes at the University of Illinois back in 1971. He realized that data could be endlessly replicated and passed around. Years before the Internet boom of the 1990s, he figured that the biggest value of all this technology was the ability to search and find library information. He started Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg. net) to convert and distribute public-domain books. Today it puts out about a book a day, ranging from Dante to Arthur Conan Doyle. So books are out there. All we need is the technology to make them readable. Electronic texts are typically used by people who want to search through them or find something they can't get elsewhere. But few print out Hamlet because cheap copies can be found at local bookstores-and reading on a screen is difficult for many. Will readers do leisure reading on an electronic screen? Some may download a chapter or two on a lark, but will they read the whole book? "It's one thing to bring along this short story and read it on your laptop on the plane. But are you really going to read a 600-page Stephen King tome on your laptop?" asks analyst Dan O'Brien at Forrester Research. "I don't think so." To entice people to read e-books, the text has to come off the monitor into a convenient format. Printing your own is impractical. But for those who need the look and feel of ink on paper, there's Sprout's on-demand publishing, where bookstores can custom-make a volume for a customer within minutes of the order. This allows books to be published without the cost of a press run or the never-never-land of being out of print. Handheld electronic readers make reading off the screen a little more convenient. The Rocket eBook device is one of the most ambitious attempts to make this work. Made by Gemstar (a company mostly known for electronic TV program guides), it weighs 22 ounces and can typically store about 3,200 pages. Users can upload text files of the Project Gutenberg or CCEL variety or read special RocketEditions of commercial books. The $200 paperback book-sized device shows a few paragraphs at a time, and the reader moves forward and backward by pressing buttons. Rocket eBook's battery lasts about 20 hours. Similar products include the Glassbook Reader and the Microsoft Reader, each of which comes with its own quirks and specifications. Microsoft's reader comes out later this year, and the company is betting its success on a technology called ClearType. This is supposed to improve font resolution, making reading a little less of a chore. Perhaps electronic readers will become the publishing equivalent of the microwave oven, which was billed as a revolution in cooking but is now used in real life only for certain specific tasks like warming leftovers and making popcorn. Every book is crammed into the same size format and similar fonts. The style and feel of a hardback or paperback is missing. But electronic publishing could change the culture of the publishing industry. E-publishing gives anyone a press, opening the door to independents. Books can now be written without fear of piling up the garage with unsold self-published books. Reams and reams of hard-to-find material can be brought back into print indefinitely. The competition for attention will be fierce, but culture warriors now have a new arsenal. If the Web has become a great Mars Hill of people promoting every idea imaginable, so will electronic publishing. Technology isn't making reading go away. It simply changes how we read and where we get it all. Electronic books pose a whole new way to create and find reading material. Once the traditional gatekeepers relax control of their industry, it creates an incredible challenge and opportunity. The lines between old and new media are becoming blurry. But Christians can be in the thick of it.

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