The paperless book

Leaving hardcovers and paperbacks behind, an Internet publisher experiments with downloadable literature.

Published July 31, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Online book publishing won't work: That's been the consensus among publishers and readers ever since widespread Web access made Internet books a real possibility. For commercial publishers, the idea of publishing a book without putting it through the marketing machine -- jacket blurbs, sexy covers, in-store displays -- is ludicrous. No one, they assume, would ever buy a book directly over the Internet. And many readers share this skepticism, arguing a book has a certain feel, a certain smell -- you can't crack the binding of a virtual book or snuggle up with it in bed.

"The idea of reading a novel by Dickens from a screen is mad!" Literary Review editor and writer Auberon Waugh recently complained. So it's no wonder that the growing visibility of Online Originals, an Internet book publisher, is causing a stir in publishing and literary circles.

Online Originals has a list of 32 fiction and nonfiction titles. Customers browse sample chapters on the company's Web site, then place orders by e-mail. The books are e-mailed to the reader as digital files. Each book costs four pounds sterling, or about U.S. $7, of which the author receives half as royalties. The company is based in London and Bordeaux and publishes books in English and French. Its authors are evenly split between Europe and America -- but it has attracted readers worldwide, with book orders coming in from 130 countries. To date, orders average several hundred per title -- though many of these orders are for a free book the publisher gives away each month.

Just how seriously should we take this company? On its home page, Online Originals is careful to present itself as a serious venture. "Welcome to Online Originals, a publishing company that operates solely on the Internet," new visitors are informed. "Online Originals are chosen for their intellectual or literary merit, as well as their originality." Many of the books are written by established writers with strong academic credentials, although none of them are household names.

Still, without reading the books, it's hard not to suspect that these are books that don't meet the standards of conventional publishing houses. Is Online Originals a vanity press for rejected authors? Or does it present -- as co-founder and managing editor David Gettman argues -- a serious alternative to conventional publishing? If so, is Online Originals the kind of publisher we'll see more of in the future?

Certainly, the literary world is taking notice of Online Originals. Last September, three of the publisher's novels received positive reviews in the Times Literary Supplement. "The firm's recent front-line fiction titles compare in literary quality with those of orthodox publishers and are strikingly diverse in style," wrote veteran TLS critic John Sutherland. This May, the management committee of the Booker Prize -- Britain's most prestigious literary award -- controversially agreed to consider one of those novels, "The Angels of Russia," by Patricia le Roy. It's the first time a novel published on the Internet has been accepted by the committee, which allows conventional publishers to enter two novels each.

The tech world is also paying attention. Online Originals offers its books in two formats -- one for desktop computers and one for 3Com's PalmPilot. The majority of orders are for the PalmPilot version; in fact, book orders only took off after the company started offering books in PalmPilot format. (Initially, only the desktop format was available.) "Readers aren't comfortable reading novels off their desktop screens," explains Gettman. "People need to have tactile contact with what they're reading."

Gettman has confidence in the success of the PalmPilot and other hand-held computers as reading tablets. He points out the ways that the PalmPilot is like a book (it's light and portable) -- and the ways that it's better (it can store at least two books at a time; there are two type sizes; it automatically bookmarks a reader's place; it can search the book for any word or phrase, rendering indexes obsolete; the backlit screen can be read under bedcovers without a light). He enumerates the social benefits of online publishing: the environmental advantage of paperless books; the possibility of delivering books to schoolrooms containing only a phone line and a computer; the ability to get books into countries with strict censorship laws (many orders come from Malaysia and Indonesia).

3Com, it seems, has equal confidence in Online Originals. When the publisher needed access to 3,000 pounds ready cash -- a publicity fee publishers have to agree to pay if their nomination makes the short list for the Booker Prize -- 3Com came up with the money, offering to pay the sum on Online Originals' behalf should "The Angels of Russia" achieve that distinction.

Gettman and commissioning editor Christopher Macann founded Online Originals in 1996 to counteract what they saw as the negative effects of publishing-industry consolidation. As large entertainment conglomerates bought up smaller publishing houses, editors were losing control of their lists to marketing departments. In order to meet high overhead costs, publishing decisions were being driven by sales potential rather than by quality. The conglomerates were more likely to publish books by established authors or celebrities than experimental books or books that challenged conventional views.

As publishing standards fell at conventional publishing houses, Gettman saw an opportunity to use the Internet to combat that trend. "The Internet struck me as an alternative because the costs are low and we don't have to worry how many sales we get," says Gettman. "It takes us one evening to produce a book. We can afford to make decisions based on quality and interest rather than on what we will sell."

To keep their publishing standards high, Gettman and Macann test each prospective manuscript against a rigorous set of requirements. Every Online Original book must be original in the sense that it hasn't been published in any form, virtual or print, and original "in the sense that it expresses new ideas." It must be "well-written" and "intelligent." Most important, it must do more than simply attack ideas already in circulation.

"Intellectual history is a conversation," explains Gettman. "It needs positive contributions to continue. All Online Originals must make a positive contribution to the history of ideas or to literature." The editors, who receive one or two submissions per day, reject over 90 percent of all submissions, accepting one out of every 30 or 40 manuscripts.

Gettman and Macann also solicit manuscripts from authors whose writing they respect. Early on it wasn't easy to convince authors to submit, so the two -- a writer and professor, respectively -- published manuscripts of their own. Today, says Gettman, it's much easier to come by good manuscripts; many authors on the current list are writing second and third works solely for publication online.

The authors don't make a fortune from sales, but they're treated well by their publisher -- a rarity in today's cut-throat industry. Their 50 percent royalties well exceed industry standards. They're not pressured to make their books commercial. (Volunteer reviewers make editorial suggestions on accepted manuscripts, which authors may or may not choose to follow.) Also, once Online Originals has accepted an author, that author's next work will be accepted -- an arrangement Gettman says authors appreciate: "They don't have to think about marketing. They know we believe they have something to say."

Another rarity is the absence of overt marketing. With the exception of the free book, no book is hyped or treated preferentially. A short author biography and synopsis accompanies each sample chapter. Books aren't categorized as they are in bookstores; rather, they're presented in a frequently reordered list, to ensure that no title receives undue benefit from a top position. Gettman hopes that customers will browse the sample chapters and make their reading decisions based on quality, rather than on hype and presentation.

Will it work? Are readers really so autonomous? The quality of the books already published by Online Originals, at least, suggests there's a large pool of good writing untapped by conventional publishers. Some critics argue the company won't survive because its distribution method isn't viable. If a book can be sent by e-mail, the argument goes, no one will buy it, since book files can be redistributed free of charge. But the same argument applies to the music and software industries, neither of which has yet gone bankrupt, despite how easy it is to copy their products.

Eager fans of online publishing go overboard in the opposite direction --
suggesting that companies like Online Originals will be so successful they'll render print books a thing of the past. Gettman doesn't see it that way. He compares reading tablets to mobile phones, which haven't replaced stationary phones and have increased overall phone activity. He hopes his company will have a similar effect, increasing the number of quality books published both online and in print.

After all, he says, books are fundamentally about the writing they contain: "There's an eternal tradition of writing that goes on regardless of medium. The tradition of storytelling and explicating arguments continues, whether presented on parchment or scrolls or computers. We want to participate in that tradition."

By Tamsin Todd

Tamsin Todd is a writer living in London.

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