E-tailing goes by the book


Nerves are crackling and paranoia is rife in New York this winter as the world's leading publishers brace themselves for an expected explosion in the market for electronic books.

After years of treacle-slow growth, revenues in the book trade have slipped into stagnancy and the major houses are increasingly convinced that their future prosperity lies in the promised land of e-publishing. But nobody knows for sure exactly how the market will open out, or just how substantial it might be, and the publishers are desperately jockeying for position as they ready themselves for an unknowable revolution.

Though a proliferation in e-publishing has occurred this year, with more than 100,000 titles issued globally, the sales remain sluggish and the marketing tentative. While the technology has evolved sufficiently to streamline the e-book experience into a very comfortable read, confusion reigns over the strategies required to capture the laptop audience.

The situation is presently developing into a four-way stand-off between publishers, writers, technology companies and the major bookstore chains.

For publishers, the Sugar Candy Mountain scenario is that e-books will crack vast new markets and activate fresh sales. In addition, their more experimental writers, or the ones who stubbornly write between genres, will be better placed to serve their niche readerships. Endless back catalogues and the most obscure titles can also be made globally accessible - readers will literally have the world's greatest library at their fingertips. And e-books, of course, will obliterate printing costs and wipe out the bookstore's cut.

Go back a further loop on the chain, however, and writers are wondering if e-books could allow them to dispense with publishers altogether. In a notable experiment, Stephen King decided to go it alone and sold 400,000 copies of his Web-only novel Riding The Bullet in less than 48 hours, a cocky display that certainly put the wind up the major houses. Now, writers as diverse as the thriller scribbler Frederick Forsyth and the feted young American innovator David Foster Wallace are getting set to follow suit.

The situation is stoking the traditional enmities that exist between authors and publishers. The relationship has always been something of a loveless marriage, and each camp is becoming daily more suspicious about the other's motives with regards to e-books. In reality, though, there seems little chance that a significant number of authors will light out on their own. E-book publishing will naturally involve much in the way of customer service and billing, and writers usually aren't the greatest when it comes to sums and organisation.

But publishers are still wary, and over the past few years all the major houses have begun to wheedle out deals with their authors for digital rights. Random House made a particularly significant move last month when it announced it would do a 50-50 split with its authors on revenues from the electronic versions of their books.

Meanwhile, throwing another spanner in the works, the book chains are getting a little bullish. Barnesandnoble.com, as the giant chain's electronic arm is inevitably known, is actively investigating the possibility of working directly with agents and getting straight to the writers, cutting publishers out of the equation. And the ground-breaking amazon.com has lately opened an e-book store and is offering to help writers who want to self-publish their digital editions.

On top of all this, and thickening the murk, a fantastical conspiracy theory has been stewing in the ebook world, suggesting that Bill Gates is plotting to control 21st century literature from his pampered lair in the Pacific northwest. Many believe that Microsoft has now perfected the e-book form with its ClearType technology, a technology that very skilfully mimics the way words appear on the printed page. It is now available to download free as the Microsoft Reader programme, and Gates's company is selling e-books directly over the Internet, taking a three per cent cut of the price. The Seattle corporation is busily making deals with leading publishers, and in 2001 it plans to pour some of its endless resources into aggressively chasing potential e-book readers.

The fear for the independent e-book trade is that Microsoft Reader will become the industry standard and Gates will achieve a near-monopoly, just as he did with the Windows system for PCs. The controversy flared when Microsoft sponsored the first digital book awards at the Frankfurt fair in October: the short-listed nominees were typically big-name print authors from major publishing houses and there were cries of corporate conspiracy from the e-book mavericks and indies.

All this manoeuvring and backbiting, of course, is being enacted in the shadow of the very large assumption that suggests readers actually want e-books in the first place. Will the trade really take off? Some observers are not so sure. One American analyst, Daniel O'Brien of Forrester Research, calls electronic books "a solution in search of a problem" and can see no significant sales surge in the short term. But there are two principal factors that are causing the book trade to push forward with e-publishing. One is fear. There is a sense of terror among the major players that they could be caught out the way the unprepared music industry was with MP3 technology, which allows fans to download material for free. And then there's the profit motive. By wiping out distribution and printing costs, e-book sales become hugely lucrative. To rope the readers in, some houses are considering publishing their titles as e-books months ahead of the printed editions.

The independent operators, meanwhile, are looking beyond the bottom line and insisting that the e-book form might prove artistically stimulating for writers. They point to possibilities with hypertext links and graphics and so on. As of yet, though, there is a strong whiff of vanity publishing surrounding many of the "experimental" e-books that have been independently issued.

Whatever happens, it remains inconceivable that e-publishing might ring the death knell for the traditional book. Even the most advanced technology will never truly replicate the fireside joys of serif type on a crisp white page, all that texture and grain.