Overview of advantages of paperless books
by J. Neil Schulman
SoftServ Publishing Services, Inc.
IS BOOK PUBLISHING OUTMODED?
For five centuries, publishing has meant printing ink onto
sheets of paper, and binding those sheets into books. Now
computers and data communications are creating a new and exciting
possibility: publishing "books" without paper, ink, or glue.
In this fast-reading and witty article, novelist and
SoftServ president, J. Neil Schulman, analyzes the problems
traditional book publishing has had in serving the needs of
authors, readers, and even publishers themselves, and shows how
SoftServ Publishing is creating the new "paperless book" industry
to serve them better.
This article is a revolutionary document: a manifesto for
the publishing industry of the next millennium.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
J. NEIL SCHULMAN is the author of two novels. His first,
Alongside Night (Crown hardcover 1979, Avon paperback 1987) was
endorsed by Anthony Burgess and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman,
and received widely positive reviews. His second novel, The
Rainbow Cadenza (Simon & Schuster hardcover 1983, Avon paperback
1986) won the 1984 Prometheus Award, and is the basis for an all-
classical-music LASERIUM concert which has played in Los
Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston. Schulman also wrote the
"Profile in Silver" episode, exploring the JFK assassination, for
the Twilight Zone TV series. His novels are available in SoftServ
At present, he is teaching a course on "Book Publishing in the
21st Century," via computer conferencing, for Connected Education
and the New School for Social Research.
Cadenza Communications, Inc.
SoftServ Publishing Services, Inc.
P.O. Box 94
Long Beach, CA 90801-0094
Copyright © 1987, 1991 by J. Neil Schulman.
All Rights Reserved.
Logoright (L) 1987, 1991 by J. Neil Schulman.
The logos in this Work is its material identity, an "information
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or observed, which has been created as a unique structured
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from the labor of a person is, by natural right, by decency, and
by common law, beyond all limitations imposed by sovereign force,
the morally claimable property of that being, each use of that
property must be authorized by its owner, and all unauthorized
uses of it are trespasses of a person's natural rights and a
violation of that person's spirit.
The Logoright notice is an explicit marking of that object to
declare to all that it is owned.
This Work is licensed for reading purposes only. All other
rights and uses, including the right to make copies, are reserved
to its Owner.
by J. Neil Schulman
Publishing: History versus Ideal
Publishing exists both as an historical development and as a
We need not deal here with much of the history: it is too
richly documented elsewhere. Still, we can note that since it
began in earnest with the invention of movable type by Johann
Gutenberg over five centuries ago, everyone has assumed that
publishing occurs when a typesetter sets a composed Work into
type or onto plates, when a printer uses that type or plate to
imprint ink onto sheets of paper, when a bindery binds those
sheets of paper together into books or periodicals, and when a
publisher markets multiple copies of those imprinted books or
periodicals to stores, which in turn sell them to people
interested in reading that composed Work.
As a theoretical game, publishing is far simpler: it is any
efficient and desirable medium for a composed Work to be made
available to those wishing access to it. This implies two
finally-important players: the Author of the composed Work, and
the Reader of it. All other players are Mediators between Author
and Reader. Further, Author and Reader each has an idealizable
goal of transmitting the Work from one to the other with as
little mediation between them as possible.
The Author's Ideal is to create a Work that fulfills both
some internal goal (such as self-expression) and some external
goal (such as proselytizing or making money), to inform all
potential Readers of its information or entertainment value, and
to have it unceasingly available to all Readers who desire it.
The Reader's Ideal is to have as varied a choice of Works as
possible for information and entertainment, to have elegant tests
to determine which of those Works they desire (and filter out
those which are not), and to have such Works available, as
painlessly as possible, whenever and wherever desired.
This article will proceed on these assumptions as follows:
It will analyze the process, then show the failures--and
note success where due--of the current Trade and Mass-Market Book
Publishing Industry in serving these defined ideals of Authors
and Readers. Then it will analyze and show how the emerging
technological media of Computers and Data Communication can more-
closely approach the ideals of both Authors and Readers.
Note that the new industry is not necessarily electronic
book publishing. We are here proposing a new kind of publishing
in which the very concept implied by the word "book" needs to be
redefined, delimited, and sometimes discarded. One should never
look upon the creation of any new industry as anything less than
mightily formidable. In discussing publishing that has no final
need for paper, ink, glue, or binding, this task must, at the
start, seem daunting.
Authors write--publishers publish, critics critique, stores
sell, libraries shelve, and readers read--books. When one begins
by telling Authors and Readers that what they have been trading
for the last five centuries are not really books but what has
been recorded and transported inside books, then one encounters
the sort of incredulity and stubbornness that manufacturers of
Horseless Carriages received when what had been readily apparent
to any moron for thousands of years was the primary importance
not of the carriage but of the horse.
In the end, people decided that carriages pulled by
horsepower rather than by horses worked better for getting
around, but that horses would still have an honored place on the
racetrack and at the riding academy.
So it will be, I expect, with "Paperless Books."
Bound books will still have their place in the hearts--and
on the shelves--of those who appreciate their history, the beauty
of the crafts used in making them, the almost sensual smells of
paper and ink. For certain readers, books will remain delightful
to look at, wonderful to hold. For certain authors, there will
always be something approaching ecstasy in seeing their names on
the title page of a book, their words shining off the semi-
glossed sheets bound within.
Nevertheless the Paperless Book will come into its own as
surely as did the Horseless Carriage, and for the same reasons.
Automobiles were much better than horses at getting from one
place to another. Given the commonality, and approaching
universality, of computers and modems, software is simply much
better than bound books at getting Works from Author to Reader.
Let us say a profound thank you to Herr Gutenberg for giving
us economically practical books. Let us next give thanks to
Caxton, Cerf, and Ballantine for giving us quality books, for
their times, in the largest quantity and lowest price possible.
Then let us proceed to doing what Gutenberg, Caxton, Cerf,
and Ballantine were properly doing for their generations: making
the bridle path between Author and Reader as short, smooth, and
straightforward as possible.
Book Publishing Today
Who has not heard the phrase, "You can't judge a book by its
cover"? Yet, the obvious truth to anyone who gives even a
cursory glance at the process by which books today are ordered,
distributed, and vended, is that often the only way books are
judged is by their covers.
What drives the process of publishing books today is not
what readers wish to read or what authors wish to write, or even
what editors wish to buy for publication.
For trade hardcovers and trade paperbacks, the driving force
is, chiefly, what the large retail bookstore chains--
Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, Barnes & Noble--are willing to order and
display on their shelves. Almost as important a force is what
chain retailers such as K-Mart and Bradlees are willing to order
and display. Using the horse-racing analogy, the total orders
from independent bookstores show, but rarely place or win, when
it comes to creating display space for a book.
For mass-market paperbacks--besides those outlets--the
driving force is what newspaper and magazine distributors are
willing to order, warehouse, and send out with their trucks for
their drivers to stack on wire racks in supermarkets, convenience
stores, and airports.
The same basic assumption used for selling soft drinks,
soap, and toilet paper drives both trade book and mass-market-
paperback retailing: display space is valuable. Put a product
up: if it sells fast, reorder; if it doesn't move, pull it off
and ship it back.
Retailers consider book-purchasing largely an impulse "buy"
based on generic use (the category: Romance, Biography, Science
Fiction, or Self-Help), brand familiarity (the author's name),
packaging (the cover illustration, promo copy, and quotes), and
promotion (advertising and publicity).
Aside from price, the only difference between trade book and
mass-market paperback publishing is that bookstores ship unsold
trade books back to the publisher's or distributor's warehouse
while unsold mass-market paperbacks--like unsold magazines--have
their covers stripped off and sent back to the publisher for
credit. Minus their covers, unsold mass-market paperback books
The necessity of product turnover is such a major element in
book retailing that the shelf-life of 95% of published books
should be measured in the half-lives of highly radioactive
The shelf-life of a hardcover book averages six months
before a bookstore removes unsold copies from shelves and ships
them back to the warehouse, there to be marked down to or below
unit cost and sent back to bookstores as "remainders." One year
after publication, a reader will rarely be able to find anything
but bestselling hardcovers in the chain retail outlets other than
as a remainder unprofitable to either publisher or author.
The shelf-life of a paperback book averages six weeks before
retailers remove unsold copies from racks, strip their covers for
credit, and destroy the books. Eight months after publication --
for all but bestsellers--a paperback won't be found anywhere but
independent bookstores. Even a successful paperback isn't immune
to a retail book outlet stripping covers for credit against new
orders even of the same book. Thus are still-salable books
regularly destroyed by retailers and distributors eager to
improve their cash flow a few percentage points by putting off
payment to publishers for another month.
The retailing requirements of books today dictate--up stream
from retail outlets to distributors and publishers, from there up
stream to the publishers' sales and marketing staff, up stream
there to editorial staff, and up stream ultimately to authors
wishing to be published--what can and will be written and
And, overwhelmingly, what severely limits what can and will
be published are several basic rules of mass-marketing:
1) A product must be standardized at the lowest common
denominator to sell at mass-market quantities.
2) Mass-marketing is selling many units of a few products,
not few units of many products.
3) Since start-up costs for a new product are high, costs
must be reduced by limiting advertising and letting the product's
packaging sell it on the shelf.
4) Since introducing a new product is risky, risk must be
reduced by making the new product as much as possible like the
products already available, and selling them as "just as good."
5) Since moving a brand-name product around the store too
much loses sales, it must be kept on the same shelf so the
customer will know where to find it.
These basic rules of retailing are filters which determine
what books are publishable today.
By rule one, a book must fit into a standard category or
appeal to the lowest common denominator: thus the necessity that
a publishable book be either a generic--science fiction, mystery,
or romance--or a surefire runaway bestseller. This renders an
out-of-category book, other than one capable of significant
publicity based on the author's reputation or connections,
By rule two, effort must be spent promoting, advertising,
and selling only the product leaders: the books which a publisher
plans from the outset to be bestsellers. (Accidental bestsellers
are all but impossible.) Thus the publishing industry's reliance
on celebrity books, movie and television tie-ins, "formula"
bestsellers, self-help books, cookbooks, cute calendars, and
By rule three, category books must sell themselves by
generic packaging and, sometimes--such as the general-fiction
category--author's name, alone, minimizing the risk that
customers will perceive each new book as the unique product it
is. Corollary is that a different book package must be developed
and manufactured for each category into which one would wish to
shelve the same Work. This is rarely worth the effort and the
risk is almost never taken.
By rule four, literary invention is an undesirable risk.
This makes it necessary for the "uniqueness" of books to be
eliminated as much as possible, in order to make it possible to
sell them as "just as good" as the last one. (Sequels are the
book business's equivalent of a detergent manufacturer labeling a
product "new and improved.")
By rule five, an author with name-recognition value in a
particular category must be shelved in that one category whether
the new Work fits that category or not. Thus will one find Isaac
Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare shelved in the science- fiction
section of some bookstores.
These are the market realities that a publisher must deal
with--that place an acquiring editor in blinders and saddle an
author -- before that publisher decides whether a particular Work
has even the slightest chance of overcoming the considerable
costs of acquiring rights, editing, typesetting, packaging,
manufacturing, selling, advertising, publicizing, shipping,
warehousing, and (for paperbacks) destruction.
All these are endemic limitations on book publication, even
before one gets to the epidemic book-industry difficulties such
as coordinating availability of books with their advertising and
publicity, the mis-forecasting of trends, or the collapse of
marketing commitment for books already acquired--or even in
production--because the acquiring editor has left the company.
How Electronic Availability
Changes Publishing Assumptions
Even before we get to the Author's and Reader's perspective
on publishing, we can show how electronic availability can solve
publishers' problems concerning distribution.
Retailers can also obtain much of these benefits, since a
percentage of consumers will prefer to do business through
already established retail channels.
1) We can eliminate the retail assumption of "scarce shelf
space" at the outset: both storage space and display space in
electronic media are, for all practical purposes, unlimited.
"Shelf-life" no longer being scarce, there is no necessity of
"moving" a product or taking it off sale, or requiring that sales
be impulse "buys."
2) By eliminating start-up costs and therefore start-up
risks caused by the book-manufacturing process, we can bring down
such costs and risks to a level that can only be thought of as
We can reduce the lengthy years between delivery of a
completed Work to the publisher and earnings of revenue which can
be paid to the Author to several months, obviating the necessity
of large up-front "advances."
Storage costs approach zero: about $1.00 per Work, period.
Manufacturing cost before placing a title on sale: $0.00.
(Preparation of the Work is now the author's financial
A grand total of One Copy needs to be published on disk
before making the first sale: all further copies of most Works
can be placed onto disk in minutes; a copy can be downloaded via
modem in somewhat more minutes--but minutes nonetheless.
Availability to the consumer can better mass-market distribution,
while every order can be filled as if it were a special order.
3) There need be no out-of-print titles, no remaindered or
destroyed copies. We can reduce inventory to one copy per title.
Shipping cost per unit on disk approaches that of first-class
letters or--for download via modem--can be costed directly to the
4) There is no necessity of a time-limit on availability of
a title: costs can be amortized over a much longer time than for
5) There is no necessity of choosing one particular
category in which to publish a Work: it can be simultaneously
published in all marketable categories: categorization by key-
word can now be inclusive rather than exclusive,
encouraging--rather than discouraging--diversity in the
6) Works no longer need to be placed onto inappropriate
"shelves" because of the author's name value: cross-referencing
can make it available in all marketable categories.
7) There is no necessity of relying on surefire
bestsellers: twenty titles selling moderately well can produce
the same profitability as one title selling very well.
8) Finally, there is no longer any reason to reject any
worthwhile or interesting Work because of the risk: the risk of
publication approaches its being a non-existent market feature.
Virtually in one-fell-swoop, electronic availability manages
to eliminate almost the entire downside risk of publishing and
distributing Authors' Works. As a consequence, the cost-per unit
to the consumer can equal and ultimately drop far below mass-
market paperbacks, while the unit profitability to publisher (and
retailer) can approach that of hardcovers.
The Author's Viewpoint
From the Author's standpoint, the marketing of books is
almost always a nightmare rather than a dream. An Author's most
brilliant Works are often unpublishable because they are unique,
or new, or cross categories lines, or because they are difficult
to describe in twenty words or less.
First Works, particularly first novels, are often
unpublishable merely because readers won't know the Author's
name, and therefore the book is unlikely to overcome economy-of-
scale minimum print-runs and produce a profit. This is
compounded if the first Work is also particularly unusual or
brilliant--which is often the case.
Certain categories of books--such as fiction anthologies or
short story collections--go in and out of fashion--if one tries
to sell one the wrong year, tough luck.
The author's share of the proceeds from sales--called
"royalties," under a contract in which the publisher reserves
editorial responsibility -- is small: usually 10% for hardcover
(up to 15% royalty after sales numbers achieved only by a small
percentage of books); between 4% and 10% for paperbacks, with 8%
being the commonly achieved rate given the sales figures of most
paperback books. For books first published in hardcover, these
paperback royalties must be shared between author and hardcover
publisher, usually fifty-fifty. Usually only successful authors
are able to negotiate better splits. This often leaves the share
of paperback proceeds paid to author at 3% to 4%. Most states
collect more in sales tax on a paperback book than the percentage
received by the author who created it.
Since it takes a long time to publish a book, book
publishers have the additional start-up cost of paying an author
advances against royalties in order to acquire the right to
publish their books.
It usually takes a year from delivery of a completed
manuscript to first publication. There's a year more after that
for an author to see any royalties from the first three months of
sale, and if earned royalties have somehow managed to exceed the
advance against royalties given the author by the publisher, the
publisher will hold back a high percentage -- sometimes as much
as 80% -- against the possibility of bookstores returning copies
to the publisher's warehouse.
Often these "reserves against returns" prevent authors from
seeing significant royalties for three or more years. Given such
delays, and the short shelf life of a book, authors regularly
figure that their advance is the only money they'll ever see from
a book sale.
Except for bestsellers, advertising ranges from minimal to
zip. Publicity tours are likewise fantasy for anyone but the big
names. The average author is lucky to get a two-in-the-morning
radio call-in show. For that all-important day of glory--the
bookstore autograph signing--the author had better phone friends:
they are likely the only ones who'll show up.
As for reviews, they are usually sporadic, and sometimes
nonexistent. A paperback original stands as much chance of a
front-page review in the New York Times Book Review as Jesse
Jackson has being elected . . . Pope. Even a respectable novel
published hardcover by a major publisher may find itself ignored
by every major newspaper, magazine, and book review in the
Even success has its downside. An author who has had any
success at all in one category may find it impossible to sell a
book in another category. The author can, of course, use a pen
name . . . but then the author loses all the painstakingly
acquired name value and it's as if the author is publishing a
This is a serious drawback to such a move. A beginning
author must often sign a publishing contract on a take-it-or-
leave-it basis, with publishers offering little advance money,
giving no guarantees, assuming the right to edit the author's
Work any way they see fit, and taking high percentages of
subsidiary rights. It seems to an author like outright thievery
until one realizes that even stacking the cards this way, the
publisher is still more likely than not to lose money on the
A few authors do manage to run this gauntlet all the way to
the bestseller's list. Here is comparative paradise: high
advances, good distribution, prime reviews, real advertising,
publicity tours, movie sales. But for most authors, the
bestseller list is a Shangri-La, never to be found.
No wonder statistics show that there are only four hundred
or so authors in this country of a quarter billion who are able
to make a full-time living out of writing.
The Electronic Alternative
Here are just a few of the ways electronic availability
will be better able to serve Authors than the current book
Author's Problem 1: The Work is unpublishable because it is
too inventive, or doesn't fit a publishing category, or the
public doesn't know the author's name, or the publisher doesn't
know an easy way to describe the book, or that sort of book is
out of fashion.
The cost of storage and distribution of a Work
electronically is low enough that there is virtually no quality
Work on which an electronic bookseller can't take a chance.
Additionally, an impressive enough number of copies may sell that
traditional publishing may take notice and publish the Work in
Author's Problem 2: Retailers, distributors, and the
publisher eat up the lion's share of revenue produced from sale
of a Work, leaving only crumbs for the Author.
When the Author places the Work onto disk, this is First
Publication, making the Author the Work's Publisher. The
Author/Publisher may then place the Work on consignment with a
distributor and contract with the distributor to provide
marketing and electronic dissemination services.
Pre-publication functions usually assumed in the publishing
contract to be the province of the Publisher will therefore
remain with the Author: editing, proofing, copyright, placing the
Work in a format suitable for publication--here, putting it into
a machine-readable form. The Author/Publisher may choose to
contract with the distributor to provide these pre-publication
services, but this is a separable function; the Author/Publisher
will be free to contract elsewhere for these services.
Agents may well decide to become "Packagers," preparing
their client's Works for electronic publication.
Book publishers contracting with an electronic distributor
for Works they control will find the process identical to a
standard subsidiary rights arrangement.
Because of the low cost of electronic storage and
dissemination, a much-higher percentage of sale proceeds will be
paid to Proprietors than offered by standard book-publishing
contracts. (For example, the current writer's company, SoftServ
Publishing, pays between one-third to one-half of the proceeds to
their Proprietors [Author/Publisher], depending on how the work
Author's Problem 3: It takes a year or more before a
completed Work is published, and a year or more before royalties
are finally received. Significant portions of revenue due
authors are held back as "reserve against returns."
An electronic distributor should usually be able to take a
completed Work in machine-readable form and have it on sale
within thirty days. Statements of account and payments of share-
of-proceeds for copies sold the previous month should follow
every thirty days thereafter. There will be no "reserve against
returns" because there will be no returns.
Author's Problem 4: Loss of control over the editing,
packaging, and promotion of the Work.
All these are the domain of the Publisher. However, at
Author/Publisher's discretion, all these can be contracted to be
handled by the distributor, either at cash cost charged against
the Author/Publisher's share of the proceeds, or with percentages
of proceeds against sales dedicated to these purposes open to
Author's Problem 5: Little or no advertising for the Work.
Advertising can be handled either by the Author/Publisher,
or by the distributor, and a percentage of sales set aside for
Author's Problem 6: Few reviews of a Work.
While how long it will take for newspapers and magazines to
begin reviewing Works available only electronically is a matter
of speculation, it can be assumed that the stodgy book-review
media will take as long to review Works available only
electronically as they have to review mass-market paperbacks: no
time soon. (Still, Analog Magazine does now have a column
reviewing electronically-published books.)
Nonetheless, additional review media already exist and can
be created for electronic Works. Reviews can be garnered from
computer bulletin boards, from fanzines, from computer users
groups, and those reviews placed on computer consumer networks
such as GEnie and Compuserve.
The Reader's Viewpoint
From the Reader's end, book-problems are more likely to be
annoyances rather than life catastrophes. Readers take many of
these itches so much for granted that scratching them is like
providing word processors to people who've used nothing but
typewriters: apprehension at first, soon followed by the
question, "How did I ever put up with it?"
Here are an even dozen common problems that electronic
distribution will eliminate for readers:
Reader's Problem 1: Unavailability. Variations of: "Yeah,
I know you just saw the author on TV, but--"
"We don't have it in yet."
"We sold out."
"The library only has one copy, and it's out."
"We just sent all our copies back to the warehouse."
"It's out of stock at the distributor."
"We only have volumes two and three of the trilogy."
More serious unavailabilities:
"Never heard of it."
(Or the reader has never heard of it!)
"It's out of print from the publisher."
"I haven't seen a copy of that for years."
"This library doesn't have the budget to order that many
titles since Proposition 13."
Most serious unavailabilities:
"The town council has passed a resolution forbidding this
library to carry that book."
"The Campus Bookstore may not carry any book deemed by the
Student Council to be racist or sexist."
"We burn books like that!"
Solution: Works distributed electronically can remain in on-
line storage permanently, available on a moment's notice by
modem, twenty-four hours a day. They can be delivered directly
into the home, out of reach of all censorship short of cutting
off all telephone service or banning computers and modems.
Indexing of titles and cross-referencing with reviews stored on
line can make information about the Works also instantly
Reader's Problem 2: High price: "I'll have to wait until it
comes out in paperback." This leads to an additional
unavailability: many hardcover books never sell to paperback.
Solution: An electronic distributor should be able to sell
all but the lengthiest Works at paperback prices, but offer
revenues to Authors equivalent to hardcover sales. Moreover,
even when scheduled for book publication, Authors can make their
Works available electronically a year before the first printing.
Reader's Problem 3: Misleading packaging due to category
requirements: "This novel is titled The Tomb but there's no tomb
in it anywhere!" Or, "There's a spaceship, a Bug-Eyed Monster,
and a Beautiful Babe on the cover--how come they're not in the
Solution: There's no necessity to limit works sold
electronically to one particular category. In fact, the more
categories a book can be indexed to, the better. Current book
publishing is category-exclusive. Electronic Publishing can be
Reader's Problem 4: Lack of variety: "After a while, these
sorts of books all run together. Doesn't anybody write anything
Solution: Works sold through electronic media need have
none of the retail market limitations on content, originality,
inventiveness, breaking category, or necessity of mass sales to
the "lowest common denominator." The elimination of most start-
up costs and market risks makes even a first novel by a complete
unknown a potential money-maker. Because of this, electronic
publishing is beginning to produce a veritable renaissance in
literature by eliminating all retail-created limitations on
Reader's Problem 5: Storage space. Schulman's First Law:
Books will exceed bookshelves.
Solution: Given the storage capacities of current diskettes,
most people could keep their entire library in a shoebox. When
CD-Rom becomes industry standard, entire libraries will be
storable on one compact disk.
Reader's Problem 6: Shipping weight of books when moving.
"Leave them behind? It took me ten years to build this
Solution: Take the shoebox (or CD) with you when you move.
Reader's Problem 7: Small type.
Solution: Set your screen fonts or computer printer to print
Reader's Problem 8: Difficulty of replacing worn-out copies.
Solution: Electronic copies are digital. Placing a copy
onto a permanent medium such as CD-ROM will store it permanently.
Short of that, "backing up" file copies onto disk or tapes keep
it ready for the creation of a new printed copy at will.
Reader's Problem 9: Difficulty locating a particular quote
in a book, or a particular scene, or a character.
Solution: Global "string" searches could locate all
instances of a name or key word--a useful capability for both the
student and the professional.
Reader's Problem 10: Illiteracy, Blindness, Poor Eyesight,
Reading Dysfunctions, or English-language difficulties.
Solution: Illiterates or those with other reading problems
can simultaneously display available works on screen as text and
have a voice synthesizer read them aloud. Or just the latter.
For the blind reader, electronic works can be immediately
available to Braille printers, refreshable Braille pads, dot-
matrix printers using software designed to print Braille, voice
synthesis modules, or any other equipment capable of accepting
Reader's Problem 12: Difficulties in judging a book by its
content, rather than by its cover, particularly: a) Obtaining a
wide variety of reviews of a Work--a comparison of opinions--
before purchase; and b) Difficulty of reading a significant
portion of a book--enough to decide on purchase--while standing
in a bookstore.
Solution: Through on-line reviews -- all indexed both to
Title and Author--the Reader will have access to a powerful tool
in determining which Works are worth purchase.
Besides all these solutions to already-existing problems,
there will be one primary reason Readers will come to electronic
media to find the Authors they wish to read: That's where the
Authors will be.
Given the overwhelming problems electronic publication is
able to solve for most Authors, and the much-higher-share of
proceeds-per-sale that will be available to Authors as compared
to traditional book publishing, the market will surely gravitate
toward even bestselling Authors placing their Works in electronic
media then selling them to book publishers.
Finally, since many Works--even by name Authors--will remain
unpublishable as books given the high costs, high risks, and
limitations of book publishing, electronic "bookstores" will
often remain the one place where Readers will always be able to
find a book.
Why Hasn't It Happened Yet?
Right now, electronic distribution requires more technical
skill and effort than is worth it for most readers, given (a) the
limited number of titles available electronically; (b) the
inferior convenience of having to read on a VDT or spend time and
effort printing a work out; and © the lack of a graphics
standard that can universally integrate text and graphics.
In other words, at the current level of market development,
for most people horses still make more economic sense than
The time when the advantages of electronic distribution will
outweigh its disadvantages are, however, visible on the horizon.
1) Sony has introduced its Data Discman in Japan, a handheld
reader whose CD-rom drive can store 100,000 pages of text. Sony
has sold over 70,000 of them in Japan since they introduced
the Data Discman in July, 1990 -- and they've also sold over
200,000 disks from a selection of under 25 titles. The consumer
electronics industry expect Sony to introduce the Data Discman in
America and Europe by the end of 1991.
2) The U.S. book publishing industry now takes the idea of
electronic publishing seriously. Many publishers are now
demanding "display rights," in the expectation that this will be
a significant source of revenue. Writers organizations such as
the Science Fiction Writers of America are recommending to their
members that authors maintain these rights unless publishers are
prepared to pay for their use.
3) New text-formatting and graphic standards are beginning
to be offered in the electronic marketplace. It will take only a
perceived market demand for a text-and-graphics "reader" software
package to be engineered and marketed.
4) SoftServ Publishing, this writer's company, began the
acquisition of electronic rights to works by major authors in
1987, and began selling electronic editions of these works in
December, 1989. Since that time, SoftServ has shown the
economical feasibility (though not the profit feasibility) of
distributing electronic editions of books via computer networks
and bulletin-board systems, both nationally and internationally.
A Developed Market
What would a developed "paperless book" marketplace look
Imagine yourself at an airport, in April, 2001. You have a
half hour until your flight, and want something more interesting
to read on the plane than the in-flight magazine.
You head over to the Bookware electronic kiosk next to
the ATM's -- it looks and operates about the same as an ATM,
except that it has a 101 key keyboard and a trackball -- stick in
a credit or debit card, punch in your PIN number, and select
"search parameters" by Title, Author, Subject, Category, New
Releases --and/or any "key words" you desire. You use the
trackball to move the cursor and pull down menus, choosing
"Science Fiction" and "Released After March, 2001" as your
parameters, and the Bookware system searches over 500,000 titles
in its database.
In a few seconds, the Display tells you "175 titles
selected" and asks you if you want to limit the search further
with a key word. You select "alien" from a list of key words
displayed and a list of 24 titles appears on the display. You
highlight one of them --Street People From Titan-- and a full-color
"cover" illustration appears on one side of the screen, with
"dust jacket copy" on the other. A price of $2.95 appears in the
upper-right corner. You read the jacket copy, get interested
enough to select "Browse" -- and the first page of the book
appears on the screen, along with a little "clock" in the upper-
left corner showing that you have ten minutes of free browse time
-- enough time to read the first chapter, or the first few
paragraphs in several chapters, or time enough to see how the
book ends, if you want to. The top of the screen gives you
several pull-down menus, including "SEARCH/MOVE TO?/READ REVIEWS/
CHOOSE ANOTHER TITLE/PURCHASE."
You choose "READ REVIEWS" and after seeing that Locus Magazine
is calling the author "the next Kurt Vonnegut," you decide to buy
the book. The screen asks you: "DOWNLOAD OR DISK?" You select
"DOWNLOAD," and the screen tells you "READY TO SEND."
You take your Atari ReadLite out of your jacket pocket -- an
electronic reader weighing 9 ounces, with a high-rez, page-white
screen -- and plug it into the Bookware terminal. In 12 seconds,
the screen tells you "Download Complete -- Select Another?" But
you just heard first boarding call for your flight, so you decide
The screen tells you that your checking account has been
debited $2.95, and reminds you that you have earned 500 bonus
points with this purchase, which brings you up to 5000 points and
Level 2 in the Bookware gift program. You tell the machine that
you want to apply your points to frequent-flyer miles.
The screen reminds you to take your debit card, receipt, and
ReadLite -- and you take all three, stick the Readlite back into
your pocket, and head for your plane.
On the way to your gate, you pass the newsstand and decide to
buy a pack of chewing gum. It costs you another $2.95.
A heck of a lot better selection than the 30 bestsellers
you'd have to choose from at the airport newsstand today, no?
The Bottom Line
Judging by how well it can serve the needs of Authors and
Readers as compared to the problems of book publishing today,
there seems little doubt that the "paperless book" is an idea
whose time has come.
For further information about SoftServ, log onto the
SoftServ Paperless Bookstore BBS at (213) 827-3160
24-hours-a-day; or write to:
SoftServ Publishing Services, Inc.
P.O. Box 94,
Long Beach, CA 90801-0094.
Voice Phone: (213) 827-7259 (M-F, 10-6PM PT)
Fax: (213) 827-7259 (Touchtone 23 after answer to connect manual fax)
GEnie address: SOFTSERV
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