The Staid Book Publishing Industry Confronts the Internet Jungle
Steven King may at once be the publishing industry's best friend and its worst enemy. The popular author has helped keep book readership alive in an era when television, music, and video games compete for attention. But King, more than any other best selling author, has also given serious attention to how the Internet could potentially shake up the industry. King began his subversive campaign by publishing a 66 page novella on his website, www.
But The Plant is arguably the most radical experiment in alternative forms of publishing ever undertaken by a major author, one that uses the Internet to short circuit the entire publishing process. So far, the book is available only in downloadable form on King's website on a pay-as-you-go basis. The author is asking his readers to pay $1 for each of the first three installments, and $2 for the remaining installments, up to eight in all. Hence the entire book, if it is actually written, would cost about $13, considerably less than an equivalent hardcover novel. This payment scheme goes strictly by the honor system, and so The Plant may be the industry's first shareware novel. You pay when you download, or return to pay later. The site thanks you for your honesty and makes the case that you are helping set a precedent. Indeed you are. (A few lesser known authors have gone even further: using the Web to give their books away for free. Seth Godin is doing so with his 197 page Unleashing the IdeaVirus. So is Bruce Eckle with his formidable programming texts: Thinking in Java and Thinking in C++.)
For his part, King published the first two installments in July and August, with the expectation that at least three out of four readers would pony up. "If you pay, the story rolls. If you don't, the story folds." Writing on his website, King says: "If response is strong, I promise to carry The Plant through to its conclusion. I won't leave you hanging, in other words.....
As of this writing, the fate of The Plant is still unclear. King was happy with the response to Part One, both with the number of downloads and the number of people willing to pay. Part Two brought fewer downloads and a wider disparity in payment---more people seemed to be stealing his words, or it might have been people doing multiple downloads in order to, for example, read the installments on their Palm Pilot. King has since wrote another 50,000 words and proclaimed he is set to download episodes for September, October, and November---if the payments keep coming. As of this writing, installment three is in but the verdict on this bold experiment is still out.
Successful or not, King's foray into online publishing is emblematic of a much wider trend in which the Internet is threatening, for better or worse, to cut out the middleman. In the case of The Plant, King's business model circumvents an infrastructure that includes book agents and packagers, publishers and their editors, book distributors and bookstores. All of these middlemen have, to a certain extent, stood between authors and their public. Sometimes they contribute to the quality of the work such as the legendary editor Max Perkins and his relationship with Ernest Hemmingway and Scott Fitzgerald. Sometimes a dedicated book store owner brings a promising but unknown writer to the attention of the public. But sometimes, writers feel that the whole infrastructure is simply there to rob them of their hard earned reward. "Wouldn't it be better," many a writer has thought, "if I could just sell my work directly to the public."
Does King view himself as a revolutionary? "I love my editors, and I like my publisher," he wrote on his site. "But if I could break some trail for all the midlist writers, literary writers, and just plain marginalized writers who see a future outside the mainstream, that's great." Stephen King may well answer that question, because if King can't make this model work, then most lesser-known writers don't have a prayer.
But if The Plant is the most radical model to date of eliminating the middleman, it is not the only one. Amazon.
e-books---the end of paper?
On the face of it, electronic books look like the print medium of the future, eliminating the need to cut down trees for paper, and ship heavy cartons of books from the publisher to distributor to bookstores. e-books are compact and lightweight, and easy to read on a bus or train. They are readily searchable---you can locate a favorite passage buried in a massive tome. In a world of e-books, the publisher/
So far, the industry has shown more enthusiasm then readers have. Most readers, even those married to their palmtop, have a difficult time imagining the reading experience apart from the traditional collection of bound pages that have been around since the Gutenberg Bible. A palmtop, no matter how sleekly designed, doesn't have the same feel. A recent survey found that while 63 percent of book buyers were aware of e-books, 70 percent of those said they were unlikely to buy one in the next six months. That's true even for teenagers, who have embraced another portable medium: MP3 players. Another survey, by Seybold Research, said that 66 percent of respondents would read a reference book on a computer but they were not at all likely to pay for it---or any other electronic book.
Electronic publishers have not helped this trend through their pricing. The earliest electronic books offered little or no discount in comparison to their hardcopy counterparts. If a reader is already dubious about the medium, that's hardly an incentive to try it out. But now, publishers are starting to experiment with pricing. A look at the best seller list on the e-book section of Barnes and Noble.
The e-book medium has also been a battleground for competing software formats, with Microsoft offering free versions of its Microsoft Reader both for PCs and laptops, and Adobe counterattacking by acquiring Glassbook Reader, which was used to format King's Ride the Bullet. (The purchase made sense because Glassbook was already based on Adobe's Acrobat.) Both companies are now scrambling to sign up e-book distributors. Adobe has signed Barnes and Noble.
An unlikely third player, Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc., which is best known for its video television guides, is also taking aim at the e-book market. Gemstar's format is especially attractive to publishers because content is not downloaded from the Internet, but directly to a viewing device via a Gemstar server. But according to the New York Times, the company's commission is considerably higher than its rivals': 15 to 20 percent, versus 3 percent for the rest of the industry.
By contrast with e-books, print-on-demand services have almost the exact opposite business model. Their product retains the look and feel of a conventional hardcopy book and could be sold in bookstores and stacked on library shelves without an Internet connection in sight. But here, the publisher and editor have largely been eliminated. Anyone can publish. Like the Internet itself, publishing-on-demand represents a kind of intellectual democratization. The question is: are there legions of unpublished authors out there worthy of being read? According to the Wall Street Journal, print-on-demand companies have so far had a tough going. For example, MightyWord.
The biggest problem with turning the Internet into one big vanity publishing site is that readers, and indeed critics, have no way of spotting the few gems among the vastness of rubble. Getting a book published, especially as a first time author, is not easy.. But that hurdle at least serves to insure some sort of quality in the writing works. Still, a few authors and screen writers have been discovered from their online publishing work. Linda Swink, for example, was discovered when an agent found her speaking guide for women on the website Authorlink. The site claims that more than half of its listed writers have received requests by editors and agents, and of those, "about 20- 30% are signed with agents and 15-20% have directly sold their works to publishers during this time, not including pending sales."
Despite their slow starts, print-on-demand services and e-books have one indisputably major benefit: widening the selection of in-print books. Today, bookstores of all stripes are reluctant to stock older books because they take up shelf space yet seldom sell. But if the same book could be stored within the reaches of an optical disk on a server somewhere, it could remain available in perpetuity---even if it attracted just one buyer a year.
"Tremendous hope and tremendous chaos"
An Interview With Industry Book Critic Pat Holt
During her 16 year stint as book editor for San Francisco's largest newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, Pat Holt noticed something disturbing. The serious books that constitute the staple of American literature---biographies, histories, works of science, essays, good works in translation, literary fiction---were disappearing. The trend began slowly, but Holt, who received some 15,000 books a year, was in a good place to spot it. The problem, she concluded, was a changing publishing business, in which publishers bought publishers and were themselves bought out by larger communications companies like RCA, Universal and CBS. In the process, thought Holt, good writing was taking a back seat to corporate profits.
A comparable trend seemed to be happening on the bookselling side, with large chains like B. Dalton and Walden concentrating on best sellers, while squeezing out the independent retailers. Then came discounters like Crown, Target and Costco, superstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, and online booksellers like Amazon.
Meanwhile, Holt felt that her own newspaper was missing the story---reporting only on the business deals and not on a changing way of life. And so Holt took her column to the Internet, establishing a Web site of her own, a place where she could freely mouth off. Her site, appropriately enough, is called HoltUncensored.
- What can say you say on your Web site that you couldn't say as a newspaper columnist?
- As a book critic, I wanted to say that what these chains are doing is wrong. They are using illegal practices and predatory pricing. In terms of the literary base, a thinning-out has occurred over the years that leaves readers with fewer and fewer choices. This in turn means that our First Amendment protections are really in trouble. Secondly, I felt that the quality of newspapers themselves was dropping---publishers want their paper to be more like television. Moreover, in today's media, you are pushed to be "objective and fair minded," which means that if you are Oprah [Winfrey, a popular American talk show host] and you have an anti-rape show, you also have to bring on the rapist for balance. This is ridiculous. Oprah stopped doing it years ago and I wanted to leave that unprofessional approach as well. In addition, I wanted to see if the Internet really was a way to level the playing field, so that an independent person like me could have a voice with as much power as some newspaper backed by a conglomerate like Bertelsmann.
- Is the Internet part of the problem or the reader's biggest hope?
- The Internet is a source both of tremendous hope and tremendous chaos, bringing tremendous upheaval to the book industry. All the economies of scale that we learned about in publishing are being thrown out the window. This allows a person like me to plunge into the fray without overhead, without middlemen, and without asking anything of the audience.
- Is the middleman the publisher or the retailer?
- That's the point. When Amazon started, the obvious threat was to independent booksellers and distributors, because Amazon built its own barn-like distribution centers. That meant that publishers didn't have to sell through middlemen who took a [financial] cut. But now, we're seeing a threat to publishers themselves, because of electronic books and publishing on demand, with some authors beginning to think they can publish directly to the reader. Steven King is the first big example of this trend. I think that after him, Scott Turow is about to do this, and others will follow. Every author is thinking about this, as well they should.
- What's wrong with the Amazon model? For customers, the service is convenient and easy.
- The problem is that it discourages the selection process. Good books don't happen in a vacuum. You need good editors and smart booksellers who have an eye on quality. It's not enough for an author to say "I had a dream, wrote it up, and here it is." We need booksellers who say "we have gone through 50,000 books and have selected this book, with pride, to put on our bookshelves. We think this work is good enough to be worthy of your time and money, and we can make this recommendation because we've earned your trust." All Amazon does is put 3 million books up on cybershelves. The recommendations they make, including books on their best seller list, are often paid for by publishers. Amazon has said it will sell private information about customers to third parties. It uses software patents to sue the competition and fence off the Internet for its own benefit. So the "Amazon model" turns out to have a lot of snags that are pernicious and damaging to customers.
- Was there a golden age in which this infrastructure once worked?
- It was always an imperfect goal, so no, I don't think book publishing ever fully worked. If you go back far enough, you'll see that some wealthy entity---perhaps a wealthy family---had control. It's the old Medici model, so it's no wonder that for years there were very few books written by black people or Latin Americans, for example. But at least there was a standard, and when corporatization occurred, the standards slipped so low that we no longer know what they are. It's no wonder, then, that so many authors look at the chaos of publishing, see that it takes two years to get a book published, that it's almost impossible to find an agent, and everyone's in bed with each other. Why bother, they think, when instead, they can go directly to something called i-Universe.
com and for $99 get a pretty good looking, perfect-bound paperback book of their own. i-Universe is one of the first print-on-demand printers set up for the author. They only charge $99 for the basic package. There are others---Ex Libris and Lightening Source. They charge a couple of hundred bucks at the most.
- So if I am an esoteric, but interesting author, I am a burden on the publishing company?
- Right. You are hard to justify because you earn such a small profit. With on-demand publishing, small printing runs are much more economical. Suddenly, it becomes affordable to print anywhere from one to 500 copies.
- What happens after I upload my manuscript?
- That's all they need. They print both your book and your cover. They can even do four-color covers inexpensively. But here's the fascinating part. Today, these machines would fill most of my bedroom---just like the old Univac mainframe. But one day, every bookstore will have this printing capability in their back room. You'll request a book, the clerk types in a few numbers, and there it is. It will be like sticking the author's head in one end of the machine, with a book coming out the other.
- How do you place an order?
- There are several ways to do it. As an author, you can have your own site. The publisher has its own site. You can put it up on Amazon's site. Or you can use an independent bookseller's site. But the problem with all of this that you no longer have a literary discourse. You do not have conversation with the bookseller or the librarian. Which means that it's extremely difficult in this brave new world to launch a book. If you are Steven King, everybody knows you and they want you so they can find you. But if you are Mr. Anonymous, your friends will buy your book, but that's a really small universe.
- When it comes to literary works, the kind that qualify as art, the Internet falls short. There's no way for anyone to put a meta tag on a title that says, hey, trust me, this is really a great book that will stand the test of the ages. Many good independent bookstores provided just that service.
- Won't there still be book critics?
- Yes. But will they be found by a reading audience? People used to find book critics in newspapers. But now many people who used to start each morning with a newspaper now log onto the Internet instead. Maybe one day you will choose your own newspaper on the screen by picking this sports writer from Boston, this book critic from San Francisco, this political writer from Washington. But what you miss with this approach is a surprise of coming across something you didn't know was there. The Internet is still best at finding what you're looking for.
- Some people argue that the Internet model has done just that for music. You can be an obscure garage band and still attract a worldwide audience.
- That's the same with the garage publisher. This revolution has been evolving ever since Gutenberg, and running through the Linotype, the Xerox machine, the fax and the PC. Each was going to open the corporatized universe to the independent person. In the 60s, we saw a small press revolution. Everybody had the potential of being a garage publisher and God knows, a lot of people ended up with all those books still in their garage.
- Are you saying that the current model is doomed? Readers will either get celebrity authors like Steven King or a million anonymous authors---and nothing in between?
- I'm saying that publishing has always had the problem of putting out too many books, most of them getting lousier and lousier. So this new revolution may, through a lot of starts and failures, find a new way of succeeding. It's just that right now, it's impossible to tell where that success would come from. But don't get me wrong, the Internet comes as a wonderful shot in the arm. It comes at a time when the number of independent publishers has dropped from 50, when I started in 1969, down to seven huge conglomerates that are controlling everything. Random House now publishers one out of four books---and that is very scary. So here comes the Internet---it's like the cue ball that breaks up the balls on the pool table. Everything goes shooting off and nobody knows what's going to happen. All the corporations are scrambling. It sounds like you have a love/
hate relationship with publishing on demand. I have a healthy skepticism and I think everyone should of all publishers. I feel that readers are going to have a tough time finding any voice they can trust except the independent bookstore. That still remains. Sure, not every independent is ideal, but collectively, independent booksellers still stock a wider range and diversity of books than you'll find in any chain. So they are supporting what we hold dear: a democracy with many different voices, ideas, and audiences. When corporatization narrows that choice, we're all in trouble. That's why I'd rather have the chaos of the Internet, especially if the independents can struggle to adapt to it. Ultimately, I think this medium is going to help the independent bookstores because they finally have found a way to get themselves onto the Net very cheaply by sharing a database, called BookSense, that is equal in every way to that of Amazon. By doing this, they can bring the character of the stores up on the website and it's a much warmer, more trusting atmosphere.
- So if I order a book online from an independent, do they sell it from their own stock?
- Yes, and if it's not in stock, they'll go to their online distributor who will send it directly to you.
- Who does the actual shipping?
- The bookseller does. That's the other problem. It's so labor intensive, they lose money by being on the Web and taking orders this way. The only people making money off the Internet in the book sector are the used book people, many of whom have closed their physical stores but are still functioning on the Internet. The joy of talking to independent booksellers is that they love books. They always say that in the book business, there is plenty of room for everybody, and the more you spread the literary wealth around, the better things will be for all of us. But when I talk to the Riggio Brothers, who own Barnes and Noble, or hear what Jeff Bezos says, or Thomas Middlehof at Bertelsmann, it's always the same: we are going to dominate the world. When you get into that frame of mind, literature goes out the window.