The E-Books Evangelist
Interview with Glenn Sanders
By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.
Also published by United Press International (UPI)
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Question: Why electronic publishing?
Answer: I was first introduced to electronic publishing on the Internet in the late 1980s and became intrigued by the power of this revolutionary development. Then, when Mosaic released the first Web browser in 1992, the Internet finally had a visual aspect. Suddenly, the vast Internet was transformed from a dimly lit warehouse for data storage and exchange, to a visible library and gallery for information. I was hooked.
In 1994, while teaching at a university in Japan, I created what was probably one of the first (if not the first) paperless reading classes. I taught myself HTML and built 26 Web-based reading lessons for the "comparative cultures" course I taught there. The reading material in each lesson linked to related websites and information. Instructions were included for the exercises, which usually included finding information or doing research somewhere on the Web. Students emailed their results to me, and I emailed feedback and grades to them. Students were not required to come to class, but were required to turn in their "class work" results to me by Friday evening.
Since then, I have created numerous Web sites, published a number of electronic & print books, and hundreds of articles. In the late 1990's I saw the confluence of three factors that foretold the electronic publishing and e-book revolution. The first was the imminent ubiquity of the Internet. Next, was the growing need for mobile access to information, and the availability of so much data in the digital domain.
Finally, I could see the day when technology would catch up with my vision of a portable information tablet. As of summer 2002, I am still waiting, but technological developments are rapidly nearing the time, probably somewhere around 2005, when affordable, portable, readable, wireless reading devices will reach the mass markets. The company where I work, Rolltronics Corporation, is developing thin, flexible electronics technology that will enable many of these devices in the future.
While living in Japan and working at Fujitsu, Inc., I founded eBookNet and began toying with the design of a next-generation information display device. In 1998, I founded eBookNet.com, which became a renowned Web site that provided news and community services for the e-book and e-publishing industry for several years.
In 1999, NuvoMedia (the company that pioneered the current generation of electronic reading devices with its "Rocket eBook" in 1998) acquired eBookNet and hired me. NuvoMedia supported eBookNet until April 2001.
A few months later, with the support of the Rolltronics Foundation, Wade Roush (former managing editor of eBookNet) and I founded the Electronic Publishing Resource Center (EPRC), an industry-sponsored, non-profit organization, and launched eBookWeb.org on the 4th of July 2001.
I see myself as an e-book evangelist, seeking to inform and educate the world about electronic publishing. My vision is of a world where information, entertainment, and books are readily available to professionals, researchers, students, and readers everywhere. So, even though I work full time for Rolltronics doing business development, I continue my daily efforts to help build the e-Book industry through eBookWeb.org. The Website now leads in providing news, information, resources, and community services to the e-media industries.
Question: This has been a bad year for e-publishing. Leading brands vanished, industry leaders retreated, technology gurus bemoaned yet another missed prognosis - that e-books will dethrone print books. What went wrong?
Answer: Ever since I first realized the need for portable information devices, my belief in the future of e-books has never been shaken. Despite the fact that e-book reality replaced hype in 2000, and 2001 brought a temporary cyclical economic downturn, I firmly believe and know that e-books and e-publishing, or more generally portable information devices, will play a primary role in the way that people write, create, design, read, learn, access news and information, communicate, interact, travel, enjoy art and entertainment, and experience their world.
It is just taking longer to get there than many had hoped around the turn of the century. There are still several factors that need to come together to make e-books a reality. The hardware is still not there. We need affordable, light, thin, readable displays with battery life measured in days or weeks, not hours. To be truly useful and portable, the devices need to be wireless and perhaps with a backup cellular connection for remote locales. Next, there needs to be much more content available for distribution to these devices. Secure but accessible infrastructure and standards need to be in place for mass-market appeal. Then, adoption by libraries and educational institutions will spread the use of e-books at the grassroots level.
Question: Questions of device compatibility and standards have plagued the industry from its inception. Will we end up with an oligopoly of 2-3 formats and 2-3 corresponding readers, or do you have a different take on the industry's future?
Answer: We may be destined to have several formats and platforms, each of which is used for certain applications and types of content. The reason is that there are basically four major players, each with their own plan to dominate the e-Publishing market.
Despite the fact that, in my opinion, Adobe's PDF is lacking as an e-Book format, there are hundreds of millions of documents in PDF in publishing companies, governments, corporations, and schools. These will not be replaced instantly, even if a unified format were agreed upon.
Then there is Microsoft, the 800-pound gorilla, who is slowly and silently insinuating their reading platform into their software and Windows operating system. The interoperability of MS Reader software with MS Office products will make it possible for many millions of documents to be converted to MS Reader format.
Of course, there will need to be a portable device to display all those e-documents. Despite the fact that many Pocket PCs have been sold, they don't seem to be a major factor in e-content sales. Now the timing of Microsoft's big push for the MS tablet PC begins to make more sense.
The Gemstar format has an established base of customers and actual dedicated devices, the Rocket eBook and REB1100 and REB1200s. Gemstar's format actually has a lot of popular content going for it, and their displays are much better than the average computer display. Therefore they are more suitable for portable reading.
And not surprisingly, the largest sales of electronic content are going to the Palm Pilot compatible devices. The established base of many millions of "Palm OS" customers has been buying hundreds of thousands of e-books each year, and the e-content sales are growing steadily.
How to unify these four goliaths? The Open eBook Forum's standard is good for the formatting of the original document. Microsoft and Gemstar adhere to the OeBF standard. But each company has its own way of converting and displaying the OeBF format in its device or software. So what is the answer? The only way to rectify all of these heavyweight solutions is to create a unified standard for displaying electronic content that is the same across all platforms. Is this possible? That is a question better answered by the experts at the OeBF...
Question: Some analysts blame the recent bloodbath on a dearth of good content and wrong pricing. They derisively equate e-publishing with vanity publishing. Do you find these criticisms correct?
Answer: The amount of content is growing slowly but steadily. There are two major problems that contribute to the relative dearth of titles becoming available. One is that extra negotiations and agreements are necessary to publish e-books, or to price them differently from "p-books." Another is that since the market still isn't there, many publishers do not have the resources, or haven't budgeted enough money to aggressively convert content. And many veteran publishers still produce the final version of a book in a format that is not easy to convert for electronic publication.
As far as vanity publishing goes, that is not defined by the medium. Of course electronic publishing makes it easier to distribute "vanity-published" works. And it is easier to become self-published. And there are a few vanity publishers out there, but they usually don't last long. Still, most publishers and electronic publishers strive to produce top quality titles. They know that this is the only long-term viable business model. They screen and edit the titles that they publish. They actively promote their authors' works. In this sense, a publisher's name brand will become much more important to customers than is presently the case.
Question: Traditional print publishers treat e-books (the content, not the devices) as electronic facsimiles of the print editions. Can e-books offer a different reading experience? In what way are they different to print books?
Answer: E-books that are nothing more than electronic copies of the print version offer only portability and access as advantages. Of course e-books can be searched and annotated. The vision impaired can read with large fonts. Students can look up words in a built-in dictionary.
But, similar to popular movie DVDs that include many extras, e-books should really take advantage of the flexibility and capacity of the electronic medium. Publishers could include the author's notes, rough sketches, background, audio or video from the author or the scene of the books. Reference works should be electronically updateable via the Internet. Book club members might be able to send each other their annotations and comments. Readers might send feedback to the author and/or publisher. Fans might write and distribute alternate endings, or add characters or scenes.
Question: E-publishing is at the nexus of sea changes in copyright laws. Does e-publishing encourage piracy? Have publishers gone overboard in an effort to preserve their intellectual property rights? Do you foresee new models of revenues and royalties and a novel definition of intellectual property?
Answer: E-publishing does not encourage piracy, but being in electronic format, it certainly becomes susceptible to the same kind of piracy that all other kinds of e-content experience. A number of models, or rather experiments, are being tried with respect to the level of control of intellectual property and the associated financial model. So far, there has not been a clear answer as to which experiment yields the best results.
One factor is that the market is still in its infancy and therefore is in a state of flux. The continuum runs from strict and limited control offered by digital rights management systems, to free e-content (hopefully) supported by either stimulating sales of print books, or advertisements. In the middle are publishers who provide limited security, or those who use no security and depend on the basic honesty of most people. As the market grows, we will discover which models work best in which situations for which types of content.
Question: E-books were supposed to bring about disintermediation and foster a direct dialog between author and readership. Have they succeeded? What is the future of content brokers, such as publishers and record companies?
Answer: Yes, there is an enhanced dialog between author and audience. On eBookWeb.org, we provide space for authors to have a personal page. These are some of the most popular pages on the site. On other Websites and through the publications themselves, authors are coming in closer digital contact with their readers through email or other forms of dialog. For low volumes of messages, this is a good thing. But top-selling writers could not handle email from thousands of dedicated fans. Even in an electronic world, it is still true that as one becomes more popular, one has to become less and less accessible in order to conserve one's time.
Yes, it is also much easier to become self-published electronically. However, there is usually a huge difference between simply being published, and actually reaching a large audience and reaping significant sales of your title. The Web continues to grow exponentially, but our time and attention span remain limited. These two opposing dynamics mean that we are forced to narrow our attention to a relatively few reliable content providers, representing an ever smaller proportion of the total content available.
How can an author be heard above the noise? Get a publisher who will promote your work. But before that, get an editor or publisher who will help you polish your work until it shines brightly enough to gain popularity once it secures the attention of your audience. The dynamics and demands of the free market, and the reasons for having publishing companies do not disappear on the Internet. In fact, they may become more important as the amount of content and choices continues to grow.
One important change that I do foresee is that small, independent niche publishers will make a resurgence due to the electronic medium. This is definitely a good thing for readers. Independent publishers who build a reputation for unique, quality content, will develop a following of faithful customers over time.
Question: Some marketing pundits believe in viral or buzz marketing. They advocate giving away free content to generate "buzz". They believe that sales will follow. Do you subscribe to this view?
Answer: This relates to the question of copyright laws and which model is best for a particular situation. It also has to do with previous models on the Web. If the goal is to gain an audience and fame, then giving it away to hopefully millions of people is a good idea. The popular dynamic of the Internet is to build a massive audience by giving away something of value. Then, one slowly begins to charge for some content or service, while still providing something for free, to continue to attract a large following.
The results of the late 1990s indicate a mixed success, probably due in part to the origins of the Internet, where everything was free. The expectation was that if it was on the Net, it was free. The beginnings of commercialism on the Net in the early 1990's were met with vehement resistance from the "old timers" who strongly opposed the commercialization of their beloved network. Of course, a number of companies such as eBay, Amazon, and Yahoo, attracted and kept a large audience. But only a few are truly profitable today.
If the goal is to make maximum profit from each unit of content that is downloaded, then one must charge money, or sell advertisements. Unfortunately, the revenues from advertising on the Net have fallen dramatically in the last few years. So if you put a price tag on your content, how much should you charge? Most independent electronic publishers charge a few dollars for their titles, anywhere from $1 each to about $5 or $7 per e-book. These relatively low prices reflect the desire to attract a large pool of customers. They also reflect the belief common among readers that since it is electronic and not print content, the price should be lower. They feel that without the cost of printing and transporting books, the publisher should set a lower price...
Question: As you see it, is the Internet merely another content distribution channel or is there more to it then this? The hype of synergy and collapsing barriers to entry has largely evaporated together with the fortunes of the likes of AOL Time Warner. Is the Internet a revolution - or barely an evolution?
Answer: In the beginning, the Internet was a revolution. Email brought the people of our Earth closer together. The Net enabled telecommuting and now as much as 10% of the world works at home via computer and Internet. The Internet makes it possible for artists to publish their own books, music, videos and Websites. Video conferencing has enabled conversations without limitations of space. The Internet has made vast amounts of information available to students and researchers at the click of the mouse. The 24/7 access and ease of ordering products has stimulated online commerce and sales at retail stores.
But it is not a cure-all. And, now that the Net is part of our everyday lives, it is subject to the same cycles of media hype, as well as social, emotional, and business factors. Things will never be the same, and the changes have just begun. The present generation has never known a world without computers. When they reach working age, they will be much more inclined to use the Net for a majority of their reading and entertainment needs. Then, e-books will truly take hold and become ubiquitous. Between now and then, we have work to do, building the foundation of this remarkable industry.
The Future of Electronic Publishing
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