Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The e-book invades the publishing world

The e-book is creeping closer and closer to the common reader. That's you and me.

Right now it seems to be overtaking the publishing industry. Since last November, reports Publishers Weekly, the publishing house Hachette has given 300 Sony Readers ($299 each) to its editorial, sales and marketing people. Simon & Schuster and St. Martin's Press (full disclosure: Forge, my publisher, is part of the St. Martin's family) are doing the same, and now the Random House publishing empire is adopting the Sony Reader in a big way.

Why? E-book readers save tons of paper, ink and laser toner that must be expended for manuscripts to be distributed through several departments. Instead of packing three or four thick and heavy manuscripts into a satchel to take home for the weekend, an editor or salesman or publicity aide can just shove a memory chip into his Reader.

A sales chief in New York can electronically transmit an entire book in seconds to a salesman in San Francisco rather than trusting FedEx or UPS to fly a printed "advance reading copy" overnight. Packages do get lost and need to be re-sent, causing delays; if electronic transmissions get screwed up, they can be instantly retransmitted.

Editors in particular can skim over just-submitted manuscripts on their Readers before deciding whether to buy or skip and go on to the next. (They do edit the manuscripts on their computers; Readers don't have keyboards.)

Soon editors will be asking authors to submit books in digital form, on CD/DVDs, memory cards or as uploads. This will be a time-saver as well as money-saver for us: No more laborious printing out, counting pages, boxing, binding, addressing, stamping and hauling to the post office or UPS outlet.

Publishers very likely will want all manuscripts submitted as Microsoft Word files, which the Sony Reader handles easily. This does not mean an author has to buy a copy of Word -- he can use the free OpenOffice (I wrote A Venture into Murder with it) and save his manuscripts as Word files. Many other word processing programs do the same.

I'll stick my neck out and make a prediction: Now that the Sony Reader has become an accepted tool, not a gadget to play with, marvel over and discard, the chances are it -- or its successors -- will become common in the homes of authors, then readers.

Why haven't the publishing houses adopted the Sony Reader's chief competitor, the Kindle, Amazon.com's $399 device? Availability, for one thing. The Kindle sold out in five hours after Amazon.com put it on sale last November. Since then there has been a huge backlog of orders, but last week Amazon.com said production had been ramped up and soon orders will be shipped quickly.

Am I going to buy a Reader or a Kindle soon? Not just yet. I'm waiting for Sony, or Amazon, to produce a second-generation e-book reader: one that can also be attached to a folding keyboard (much like a PDA) and used to edit manuscripts on the go, as well as send e-mail, surf the Net -- and upload and download stuff to my editor as well as e-books from a vendor and maybe even movies. In short, a super-lightweight, book-sized laptop.

Perhaps some people would like it to have cell phone capabilities, too, so instead of carrying a heavy satchel stuffed with battery-fed devices, they could pack only one electronic Swiss Army Knife.


  1. Ok, maybe I'm missing something here, but wouldn't it just be easier to make the books available on laptops?

  2. Compared to an e-book reader -- the size of a paperback -- a laptop is large, heavy and so visible that it is eminently stealable. An e-book reader can be hidden in a purse or grip.

    Otherwise there's nothing an e-book can do that a laptop can't.

  3. One key difference between laptops and these dedicated e-book readers is the display technology. Your laptop uses a backlit LCD display that tends to irritate the eyes over long periods of time. Sony and Amazon have used a display technology from a company called eInk that doesn't use backlighting and is much easier on the eyes.

    Joe Wikert
    Publishing 2020 Blog (www.joewikert.com)
    Kindleville Blog (www.kindleville.com)

  4. Joe, surprisingly, I find a book page backlighted on a laptop easier to read than a paper book page. I have an unbalanced eye condition that makes it difficult for me to focus on a printed page, but a backlighted screen somehow overcomes the problem. This is one possible negative about a non-backlighted e-book for me. However, I have not tried an e-book for any appreciable amount of time, so am keeping an open mind on this issue.

  5. "one that can also be attached to a folding keyboard (much like a PDA) and used to edit manuscripts on the go"

    My, my. Once an editor, always an editor. It gets in the blood, doesn't it? Keep on blogging, you old war horse.

  6. It does get in the blood. But not, I hope, so much so that I end up unconsciously editing restaurant menus in ink, the way an old Chicago editor used to do.

  7. I never thought I would go the way of ebooks but I love my Kindle. It is so handy to take a huge stack of reading material in one small device. I can even check my email on it. You can't edit, but you can highlight and take notes.

    I think if Amazon made it a little smoother to use email and the price comes down a bit the Kindle will take off even more than it already has. It really is a great device.