geert lovink on 22 Oct 2000 04:58:12 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] the e-book wars

[The hi-jack of the e-book concept/hype by Microsoft, in close harmony with
big, traditional book publishers, well described in the article
below, could serve as a classic example of the shifting relation between the
so-called Old and New Economy. Naive, young start-ups, obsessed with their
Darwinist ideology of survival and competition, are up in arms when the Big
Boys are suddenly moving into their territory--way too early! This new
platform and distribution channel hardly has gotten time to create a market
of its own, now that the "e-book" has finally emerged out of its infancy. Is
anyone else on nettime monitoring this issue? I wonder what the old school
hypertext community has to say about the shift in the field of electronic
publishing after the Stephen King case. /geert].

 Oct. 20, 2000

   The e-book wars

   Does a glittering $100,000 prize signal the coming of age of digital
   books, or a takeover bid by Microsoft and New York publishers?

   By Kera Bolonik

 Nobody is more eager for literary kudos than the e-book
 community. This loose conglomeration of pioneers, small-business owners
 and dreamers was publishing e-books -- content produced in digital
 format, to be read on a computer or on special electronic reading
 devices -- long before New York publishing houses suddenly became
 enamored with the notion after Stephen King reportedly sold 400,000
 copies of "Riding the Bullet" in less than 48 hours. And until two weeks
 ago, many in the e-book community had reason to believe that they would
 finally get that recognition Friday, at the Frankfurt Book Fair during
 the first annual International eBook Awards ceremony.

 The four winners of the awards -- for best fiction and nonfiction
 original e-books, and best fiction and nonfiction e-book conversions --
 will each receive $10,000, and the best overall original e-book (fiction
 or nonfiction) will receive a grand prize of $100,000. Perhaps more
 important to an industry that has been laboring in obscurity, the winners
 will also gain the attention of publishing's major players during its
 most prestigious international conference, a gathering where the rights
 to books, often by authors of world renown, are sold.

 But on Oct. 2, when the Microsoft-sponsored International eBook Award
 Foundation (IeBAF) announced its 12 finalists, those hopes were dashed.
 Almost all of the books on the shortlist were by acclaimed print authors
 from big publishing houses: bestselling writers such as Colleen
 McCullough and Stephen Ambrose and lauded newcomers such as Myla
 Goldberg. The nominee list set off a wave of fury and corporate
 conspiracy rumors among the e-literati. They see the awards both as
 another example of big-time New York publishing arrogantly claiming to
 have the last word on what constitute good books and as a scheme by
 Microsoft to make sure that whatever e-book revolution may lie in the
 future will be owned by the world's largest software company. For
 e-publishing doyenne M.J. Rose, the announcement set off a 24-hour phone
 marathon that resulted in her establishing the first Independent e-Book
 Awards to reward the vanguard of the digital word.

 The controversy over the IeBAF awards and the birth of its grass-roots
 alternative (which Rose hopes will become the "Sundance of e-books")
 highlight some pressing issues for e-publishing -- issues that have so
 far gotten lost in either idealism about the freedom it may give authors
 and independent publishers or eagerness on the part of the established
 book industry to stake its claim in a new medium. Will e-books offer a
 way for writers who've been snubbed by the big houses to find success
 marketing their books directly to readers? Or will e-publishing simply
 present the same books and authors currently found in bookstores, only in
 a different, less tangible form? Will mainstream publishers' newfound
 interest in the e-publishing scene bring a higher standard of literary
 quality and professionalism to a community that until now was amateur in
 the best and worst senses of the word? Is a small bastion of independence
 being stamped out, or are e-book readers finally going to get content
 they find truly enticing?

 Martin Eberhard, co-founder and former CEO of NuvoMedia (creator of a
 reading device called the Rocket eBook and a cosponsor of the IeBAF), and
 now an Independent e-Book Awards judge, believes the roots of the
 conflict are as simple as "Microsoft buttering up the big publishers so
 that the big publishers will, in turn, make [Microsoft's] books
 available. It was supposed to be an independent award that Microsoft was
 just helping to get going."

 Rose says her awards are based on her idea of the electronic form as a
 means "to debut and grow new authors, to bring back the midlist, to give
 a real opportunity to authors who write between genres or for niche
 audiences, and [are] for innovators who envision books becoming
 multimedia experiments." The objective is to "recognize the true pioneers
 and creative minds," Rose says.

 Mary Wolf, publisher and editor in chief of the four-year-old Hard Shell
 Word Factory, an ever-growing, genre-driven e-publisher, thought that the
 Frankfurt eBook Awards were supposed to "be a way to highlight electronic
 publishing. We thought it was going to give us a chance to compete on an
 even field. I really believed that until I saw the list of judges, all
 New York publishing people." Wolf and many other e-publishers assumed
 that their authors would be competing against one another, as they did in
 the first annual Eppie Awards in August, sponsored by the Electronically
 Published Internet Connection. Hard Shell Word Factory won in seven out
 of 15 Eppie categories -- and not by having its first-time romance,
 horror and mystery writers go up against a literary darling like Zadie
 Smith, whose novel "White Teeth" was converted from print to e-format and
 thus became an IeBAF finalist.

 "When Bill Gates first announced the creation of the IeBAF, all the
 e-authors I know -- and I know at least 2,000 of them -- were all really
 excited," Rose recalls. "Then I saw the list of judges, none of whom are
 at the forefront of this new industry, and most of whom are very much
 entrenched in traditional publishing, except maybe James Gleick [author
 of "Faster"]. I lost my great expectations." Eberhard seconds this
 disappointment, revealing that "NuvoMedia stood next to Microsoft [at
 last year's Frankfurt Book Fair, when the establishment of the IeBAF was
 first announced] and volunteered effort and time and money, and we were
 excluded from any say about how the judging was done, or from
 contributing to the selection of judges."

 The IeBAF judges are largely culled from the print world; they include
 literary scout Maria Campbell, Parade magazine publisher Walter Anderson,
 Library of America president Cheryl Hurley and writers Henry Louis Gates
 Jr. and Daniel Boorstin. In contrast, Rose points out, the Independent
 e-Book Awards panel consists solely of people dedicated to e-books, who
 aim to "recognize excellence in electronic books, hypertext and digital
 storytelling" (the three fiction and nonfiction categories for the
 Independent e-Book Awards).

 Many of the Independent e-Book Awards judges also boast a profile in
 print publishing; for example, New York Review of Books co-founder and
 former Random House editorial director Jason Epstein and literary agent
 Loretta Barrett are among the 14 judges Rose has enlisted in the past
 week. The luminaries in the e-book world include former Yahoo executive
 and e-book author Seth Godin, Foreword magazine editor Mardi Link and
 Electronic Literature Organization executive director Scott Rettberg.
 Rose will also serve as one of the judges, turning over the organizing
 reins to Sunny Ross, co-creator of the Mystic-Ink writers community in
 California. The group will be soliciting original e-books exclusively
 from independent houses, which can send in up to two entries per
 category, and unlike the Frankfurt eBook Awards, the Independent e-Book
 Awards will include self-published writers.

 It is rare at this point for e-books to get review or media attention,
 the two things the e-community most desperately craves. Rose reports that
 the Independent e-Book Awards "are geared around attention, not money."
 The short-fiction finalists will be published by Random House Audible, a
 digital spoken-word imprint of Random House; first- and second-prize
 winners will also get reviewed in Foreword magazine; and the winners'
 works will benefit from a media campaign. The awards ceremony is
 scheduled for spring 2001.

 The IeBAF has a different vision of its mission, albeit a vision that is
 still being shaped. Its priority, judging director Peter Mollman insists,
 is not to boost what has already been done in a still nascent form, but
 to demonstrate that e-books can and should measure up to the standards of
 "p-books." "No one was trying to promote the big guys or anything like
 that. The idea of not representing the community -- that really never
 came into our minds as we were setting up the judges. The only criterion
 we were looking for in the judges was an ability to be a great critic, a
 great evaluator of quality and independent of mind."

 According to Mollman, the IeBAF judges, who limited entries to
 e-publishers that produce at least 10 e-books per year to filter out
 self-published works, found that the submissions just didn't measure up
 to the works of authors already established in the old media. Alberto
 Vitale, former CEO of Random House under S.I. Newhouse and the chairman
 of the IeBAF, thought "the purpose of what we have done was to put the
 spotlight on this new technology, and that, I think, we have achieved."
 Vitale sees "a major literary component to these awards, and if I'm going
 to put my name to it, I want to give a prize to quality, and not the
 opposite of quality." The implication is that if there are great books
 out there that aren't being picked up by big New York publishers, then
 e-publishers certainly aren't doing a better job of finding them.

 Mollman says the judges also saw little evidence of valuable
 technological innovation in the books submitted to the IeBAF this year.
 Few, if any, capitalized on the medium's ability to support hypertext
 links and graphics. He says the judges were all "disappointed. We believe
 that publishers -- all publishers -- should take advantage of the
 technology and have their e-books be more than just straight
 print-to-screen extensions. We recognized that this year, everything was
 new, so we stuck with literary quality."

 There does seem to have been some confusion as to exactly what the
 IeBAF's mission is. Rose attributes the bafflement and annoyance on both
 sides to "a complication in what they [the IeBAF] expected and what they
 said they were going to do. What I wondered was, did the best original
 e-book mean the best-quality fiction? Or did it mean the best quality
 plus marketing plus innovation? Nobody made that clear." It certainly
 threw Phil Rance, managing director of Online Originals (England's first
 and only e-publisher to date), for a loop. Online Originals submitted 12
 titles, "picking the books that we thought were the best quality of our
 work to demonstrate our range, and show that we were publishing a variety
 of different works."

 Mollman acknowledges the lack of clarity in the IeBAF's intentions. "This
 was an inaugural year for the awards, and this issue is one of the things
 we need to correct for 2001."

 For Online Originals author Patricia le Roy -- one of the more successful
 e-novelists, whose debut "The Angels of Russia" received a positive
 review from London's Times Literary Supplement and was subsequently
 published by Piatkus Books in the U.K. -- the IeBAF's selection of judges
 didn't hamper her enthusiasm, at least not at first. Before the finalists
 were announced, le Roy believed that the Frankfurt awards "had the
 potential to become as important as the Pulitzer or the Booker." But
 afterward, le Roy was "scandalized to see a shortlist drawn up with such
 a frightening lack of imagination and cynical absence of responsibility.
 This prize is supposed to 'extend the reach of reading'? To whom? A few
 benighted souls in cyberspace who might not have heard of Ed McBain?"

 The quality of the finalists also didn't strike Rance as particularly
 distinctive. "They appeared to me to be B-list experiments from the major
 publishing houses (predominantly Simon & Schuster, which published four
 out of the 12 finalists)." Rance suspects that "the prize is on the side
 of defending the status quo, which is hardly surprising, as the main
 sponsors will want to align themselves with the major incumbent

 Hard Shell's Wolf sees it that way, too, and thinks "those titles aren't
 original e-books. Those are print books that were brought out in
 electronic form quickly, to make them eligible for the award." In one
 instance, McBain's eligibility as a finalist for "best fiction work
 originally published in e-book form" was called into question because the
 Simon & Schuster Web site listed the hardcover publication date for
 McBain's "The Last Dance" as four months earlier than that of the e-book
 edition. But as Steve Zeitchik reported last week in the Industry
 Standard, Simon & Schuster's Adam Rothberg declares that "the Web listing
 was a mistake." Nevertheless, if the IeBAF doesn't amend its rules, or
 include e-book industry members next year, Wolf vows, she will not "enter
 our books for the award."

 Philip Harris, founder of the literary Electron Press, publisher of
 Village Voice Washington correspondent James Ridgeway and political
 journalist and print author Danny Schechter, says he was suspicious about
 the IeBAF from the start, and decided not to submit any titles. "It's a
 promotional thing, and your chances of winning are very slight. I would
 rather concentrate on getting more books out." Doug Clegg, an Independent
 e-Book Awards judge whose fiction has been both published in print by
 mainstream publishers Tor and Dell and self-published in e-format, can
 understand why Harris and other e-publishers are wary. "It'll just be a
 nice kudos for a major publisher that might be using e-books as a
 publicity and promotions exercise. I don't want to see e-books become the
 ads for the paperback editions the way hardcovers sometimes become the
 ads for subsequent paperbacks." Clegg predicts that "based on the
 nominations, these awards will have no impact on e-publishing."

 Other e-publishers see the conflict as something more venal than the
 clash between lofty literary standards and the desire to celebrate and
 promote ingenuity. It also represents the collision of a small, fairly
 intimate community of small-business people and authors with some large,
 intimidating corporations that want to secure a piece of what could be a
 substantial market. Book publishers don't want to be taken by surprise,
 as the music industry was by the advent of the MP3 file format and
 Napster, which allowed users to download music for free.

 One e-book luminary, who wishes to remain nameless, says that everyone in
 the e-community has been discussing the fact that Simon & Schuster,
 Random House and iPublish support Microsoft ClearType. "The books that
 have been picked as finalists are predominantly published by publishers
 who supported ClearType, so lots of people are saying that this is
 totally a corporate boondoggle, that this was a way to get Microsoft and
 those publishers a little more press." The IeBAF's Mollman finds no merit
 in this rumor. "The ClearType was sort of an add-on after the awards were
 way down the line. I think most of the award submissions that we got were
 in Rocket-eBooks, Glass Books and SoftBooks." Mollman insists that the
 Frankfurt awards "were not set up as a promotion for Microsoft. The
 awards were set up for the promotion of e-books."

 That's not what indie judge Eberhard thinks. "The whole awards thing is
 distorted, and Microsoft hijacked the awards for its own benefit. I was
 talking to Alberto Vitale three or four months ago at a conference, and
 he pointed out that basically his paycheck is paid by Microsoft. To me,
 that's saying it without saying it."

 If indeed a battle has begun, the spoils are still fairly hypothetical. A
 recent survey by Seybold Research indicated considerable reader
 resistance to the new format -- only 12 percent of respondents said they
 were "likely" to spend money on an e-book or e-book device, and only 12
 percent would read a book for pleasure on a personal digital assistant,
 or PDA, such as a Palm Pilot. Today, e-book reading devices (such as the
 recently unveiled REB-1100 and REB-1200 from Gemstar) cost between $199
 and $600, and many e-books from the big publishing houses tend to be more
 expensive than the hardcover editions. According to Publishers Weekly,
 there are only 20,000 e-readers in the general populace to date, and the
 top e-book sellers tend toward science fiction, technology, business and
 romance -- not exactly book-award-winning fare.

 Currently, Rance of Online Originals admits, "e-book sales are pretty
 low, but they have doubled this past year. I think it is the technology."
 To his mind, the problem has to do with the fact that "people have grown
 up reading books, and many people find it hard to believe that you'd want
 to consume text in any other way. We're talking about a new medium, in
 the same way that video is different from cinema. Different types of
 genres and writing will emerge from it." Eberhard couldn't agree more.
 "The whole beauty of e-publishing is that it allows so many more books to
 get published, and allows publishers to take chances on books that they
 wouldn't otherwise do."

 But first e-books have to catch on with consumers, and Rose doesn't think
 that will happen until reading devices come down in price. Rance
 pinpoints quality as another issue. "We need to be giving people content
 that they really want -- that's why Stephen King was so successful. He
 was giving readers something that they wanted, and they couldn't get it
 any other way. If you look at what's available at most e-book sites at
 the moment, even at the Barnes & Noble Web site, you don't go, 'Wow, I've
 got to have that!'"

 A cursory survey of e-books available from independent e-publishers
 reveals works by first-time authors whose imaginations and ambitions
 inspire them to meld too many genres into one narrative (call it
 innovative, or just the inability to find a sales handle) or whose
 writing often simply isn't good enough to capture the enthusiasm of New
 York publishing houses.

 And so far, p-book authors have been slow to flock to independent
 e-publishers. But that is slowly changing. Online Originals has just
 signed up a series of five new short stories by Frederick Forsyth,
 bestselling author of "The Odessa File." "This is something of a coup for
 us," says Rance. "It's really the biggest name author to have done
 anything exclusively on the Web since Stephen King." Novelist Fay Weldon
 is following suit, publishing her latest work, "Woodworm," in serial form
 through the political Web site, with no plans to publish it in
 print. Eberhard predicts that "as the e-book market grows, more and more
 writers will begin to experiment and publish this way."

 It remains to be seen how either awards ceremony will impact book buyers.
 Eberhard suspects that members of "the IeBAF will likely ignore the
 Independent e-Book Awards. They'll act like theirs is the real one." But
 he's confident that the Independent e-Book Awards "will be one of the
 valuable tools that readers will look at to select what to read. This
 award will garner some prestige, for it encourages those things about
 e-books that make them unique. It's got to encourage creativity in the
 way e-books allow creativity, and it's got to encourage the creativity of
 the publishers, or even [these publishers] taking chances ... that paper
 publishers wouldn't do."

 Rose wholeheartedly agrees with Eberhard. "Frankfurt just isn't the thing
 that I think our industry needs. While the International eBook Awards are
 an important first step, there's room for another kind of show -- the
 Independent e-Book Awards. I think the small publishers and authors
 desperately deserve and need it."

 Kera Bolonik is a freelance writer. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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