Will the evolving world of e-publishing help or hinder indie writers?
by Kate O'Sullivan and Ian Donnis
On weekday mornings, Mark Binder can usually be found at 729 Hope, a
cafe near his home on Providence's East Side, drinking coffee and tapping out
the latest chapter of his novel on a laptop. Describing the foibles of the
Schlemiel family, Binder writes about a mythical 19th-century Polish village
that has been a subject for Isaac Bashevis Singer and other Jewish authors for
more than a century. But in contrast to the old-world setting of his novel,
Binder's finished chapters are distributed to readers in the most contemporary
of ways: via e-mail on the Internet.
Not unappreciative of this ironic juxtaposition, Binder likes the immediacy
of getting his stuff out quickly, as well as the prospect of cashing in from
what he hopes will be a growing group of subscribers. Although he remains
devoted to printed books when it comes to his own fiction reading, the
37-year-old writer has been ahead of the curve in using the Net to seek a wider
audience for his work.
In March, Binder was a few weeks into e-mailing 1200-word chapters of his
serial novel, The Brothers Schlemiel, when the publishing industry and
on-line booksellers were taken by surprise by an unexpectedly large surge of
demand -- 400,000 orders in 48 hours -- for Riding the Bullet, an
electronic novella by Stephen King. The massive publicity afforded the
best-selling writer was a bit of a bummer for Binder, who believes he's among
the first to publish a serialized novel that's distributed by e-mail. "But a
friend of mine put a nice spin on it," he adds. "He said, `Now that Stephen
King's doing it, everyone's going to see that you're doing it, too.' "
It remains to be seen whether writers, like Binder, who lack a marquee name
will be able to capitalize on electronic publishing. But there's little
question that e-books are already changing the marketplace. Galvanized by the
success of King's on-line release, Microsoft and three leading book publishers
last week announced plans to dive into the nascent realm of electronic books.
And as reported May 29 by the New York Times, a growing number of trade
and academic publishers are restricting the bibliographies for
traditional books to Web sites, raising questions about the preservation of
published material and the evolving nature of books.
To say that Jacob Schlemiel went temporarily insane after the birth of
his twin boys might be to overstate it. The poor man certainly had a
breakdown. It was as if the mule pulling his wagon down the road of life had
suddenly kicked him in the head." So begins one episode of The Brothers
Schlemiel. Binder could have also been describing what's happening to
traditional publishing. With the arrival of electronic serials and e-books,
old-fashioned print is getting something of a kick in the head.
As tech-savvy authors like Binder are exploring the Internet's possibilities,
traditional publishers are racing to get into the game. Major publishing houses
are digitizing titles. Microsoft has teamed up with Random House and Simon
& Schuster to offer titles on its Pocket PC. Electronic books can be
downloaded on Web sites like netlibrary.com and barnesandnoble.com, both of
which have a limited selection of free books, as well as books for sale at
slightly lower prices than traditional paper versions.
According to Microsoft's research team, consumers will have access to more
than 1 million e-books in the next year. The software giant predicts that
e-books and e-periodicals will combine for more than $1 billion in sales by
2005. Microsoft also predicts that electronic books will outsell printed books
in many categories by 2009.
But not everyone is convinced that e-books will supplant the popularity of
traditional paper-and-ink books, or "p-books." After all, as others have noted,
amazon.com, one of the best known names in e-commerce, built its brand by
selling printed books.
Forrester Research in Cambridge estimates that Internet users will download
$34 million of electronic books this year and $426 million in 2004. Forrester
analyst Carrie Johnson says, however, that these numbers don't necessarily
indicate the demise of print. "I don't think e-books in the next 10 years will
outsell print books, and that's in part because nobody dislikes the print book
experience. There's nothing `broken' in the fiction experience. E-books will be
especially useful for textbook and research purposes, and people will want to
try them because they're new, but I don't think paper books will ever be
completely eclipsed by e-books."
M.J. Rose, a journalist who covers the electronic book market for Wired
and has published an on-line erotic thriller, also thinks that e-books and
old-fashioned paperbacks will co-exist. "It's just another form of book,"
Rose says. "There are hard cover books and paperback books and audio books,
and now there will be e-books, but they are not going to replace print."
And while the technology sounds impressive in some instances, how many people
want to spend more time in front of a computer screen? Poor screen resolution
has retarded growth in the e-book industry to date. Sales of specialized e-book
reading devices were reportedly below 10,000 last year. In a country of more
than 260 million people with a booming economy, the electronic book trend
hasn't exactly become red-hot among consumers.
Microsoft, as usual, has been hard at work, this time trying to develop tools
that will make e-reading appeal to the masses. In August, the company launched
Microsoft Reader, a software application that uses new ClearType technology to
improve font resolution. Microsoft claims that ClearType makes print on a
computer screen look just like words on a page.
While Microsoft is developing tools to allow us to read War and Peace
comfortably on-line, other companies are taking a different approach. Along
with the slew of sites offering electronic book downloads, a group of companies
are targeting authors, particularly unknown writers looking to get their work
published. At xLibris, writers can submit manuscripts either on disk or
on-line, along with a summary, bio, and ideas for cover design. The company
formats these books-in-progress, returns them for review, and then prepares the
books for print in paperback and electronic formats. Budding authors receive
basic services for free, along with 25 percent royalties and registration with
some on-line booksellers. xLibris provides extra services at additional cost.
Before xLibris appeared on the e-publishing scene, New York-based horror
writer Doug Clegg decided to self-publish a serial novel via e-mail last year.
"My original intention was just to write the book for free as an experiment,"
he recalls. "All my writer friends said this was going to ruin me -- that no
one was going to read it, that it was going to be like a party where no one
Clegg had minimal set-up costs as he e-mailed the novel through a free list
service. He also established a Web site, took out banner ads on horror sites,
and has since sold the rights for hard cover and paperback versions of his
e-serial. Clegg is now at work on a second e-serial, due to begin this summer.
Referring to his venture in e-publishing, he says, "It's become so lucrative, I
couldn't not do it again."
But although some e-publishing Web sites will help aspiring authors to put
their work on-line, they can't promise, of course, that every author will find
commercial success. With all the new material expected to be released on-line,
readers may have a hard time weeding through the choices, says industry
observer M.J. Rose.
"When you put 500,000 e-books on the Web and you expect readers to deal with
them, that is really asking a lot," Rose says. "First, the reader who happens
upon some of these books is going to see that they're not well-edited. They
will start to think that all electronic books are poor quality. Second, how
many readers are going to want to sift through all of these books for the gem?
How is the reader going to find the 300 fabulous ones out of 300,000?"
Because of this potential overload, new, independent authors will face yet an
additional obstacle in challenging the primacy of established writers. It may
be another case of the rich getting richer, says Forrester's Carrie Johnson.
"The bottom line is that yes, the Web will unearth new talent, but the
best-known authors will have the most success," she says. "There are a couple
of reasons why Stephen King's [on-line novella] did so well. First, he's one of
the best-known authors in the country. And second, he has sort of a cult-like
following. How much will the Web escalate new authors to the forefront? We
Clegg echoes these concerns. "I'm hoping some of the big New York Times
best-selling authors will remember to say when they get on-line that there were
a lot of people there before them," he says. "It's going to get crowded and the
people with the biggest budgets are going to make the biggest splash." Clegg
credits the success of his serial novel to word-of-mouth and the press coverage
he received because he was introducing something new -- an e-mail serial novel
-- way back in the spring of 1999.
Like a lot of writers, Mark Binder enjoys weaving a good yarn that transports
himself and his readers to a different place. Referring to the 19th century
setting of his serialized e-novel, he says, "one of the interesting things
about the people who've subscribed, they've reported it actually takes them out
of their office. They're working or eating, but they're not in the 20th
When it comes to fiction, "I like not having to write about computers and
commercialism and television, and sort of cutting all that stuff away," he
says. "That's a part of our life and it so dominates it, so it's nice to write
stories where none of that is happening and, at the same time, it's fun."
The Brothers Schlemiel is named for two of its main characters,
identical twins born in the first chapter of the novel. The Schlemiel (Yiddish
for "bumbler") family lives in Chelm, a fictional village of simple folk who
have a knack for doing foolish things. The town really exists, but the Chelm
myths of a funny, backward people are truly myths, and may not have any basis
in the actual place. For Binder, who unsuccessfully tried writing mysteries and
thrillers, it's a satisfying wellspring for his storytelling.
But despite the old-world quality of this fictional milieu, Binder closely
monitors the latest developments in electronic publishing. There are several
computers in his home office, which is decorated with articles and ads about
e-publishing, and his four-year-old son sits at one, chatting with a cousin on
a telephone headset while playing an electronic story game. Binder opens his
latest electronic toy, which looks like a mouse pad but is used with a stylus
(much like a Palm) to send written notes and drawings to the computer. He's
writing a review of the gadget, called a Wacom Graphire, for Home Office
Binder began writing fiction as a student at Columbia University and he's
maintained this interest while writing for newspapers, including the
Phoenix. In 1993, he began writing tales about Chelm, the mythical
Polish village, while working at the weekly Rhode Island Jewish Herald.
"There was a hole in the paper one day because someone hadn't turned in a story
on time, so I sat down and wrote a short story to fill the space." Binder
He continued to write the stories and sell them to other Jewish newspapers.
Later, while working at the Chelmsford Independent in Chelmsford,
Massachusetts (no relation to Chelm), Binder wrote a column that was sent to
subscribers via e-mail. The column, which was pegged to the arrival of the new
century, has since ended, but the idea of distributing a serial by e-mail
stayed with Binder. He decided to focus on the Chelm tales in earnest, writing
them in serial format and distributing chapters by e-mail. Using word-of-mouth,
he started selling the complete novel by subscription ($10 for two years of
installments) at his Web site, www.markbinder.com, after Houston's weekly
Jewish Herald-Voice agreed to carry the serial story.
Weekly installments of The Brothers Schlemiel are short enough to read
easily on the screen and they carry readers into an ongoing story. Modern
readers unfamiliar with such classic serial writers as Dickens and Dostoyevsky
may liken the experience to watching a TV sitcom or drama, since television
producers use similar techniques to entice viewers to tune in each week. "It's
like a performance," Binder says. "I'm performing this novel . . . I have to
hook people right away at the beginning, and I have to hook them again at the
end for the following week."
Binder has big plans for his novel. Although he has attracted a small group of
subscribers (a few hundred, he says), Binder hopes to ultimately make $100,000
from subscriptions and sales of the stories before the novel is finished in
early 2002. He's formatting it for both the Palm operating system and
Microsoft's ClearType. Binder's also making the first four chapters available
for download on mightywords.com, a self-publishing site. He'd like to enhance
his stories with sound and computer-generated visual effects, and is
considering using hypertext links to send readers to different parts of a
But even with his belief in the possibilities of e-publishing, Binder has the
same dream as countless authors before him: that one day, he'll get that call
from his agent, indicating that his creative toil is going to be memorialized
between the covers of an old-fashioned hard cover. "I love books," he
says, "and I'm convinced books are going to be around for a long time."
Ian Donnis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.