Books are written by writers, read by readers and rejected by publishers. This goes for novels and technical manuals, travel handbooks and textbooks. Publishers stand between writers and readers, performing the only equivocally valuable service of keeping the readers out of the hair of the writers and keeping the most inept of the writers off the bookshelves of their potential readers. The costs of this service -- in money, time, and the loss of worthy books that publishers never pick up -- are considerable.
On Tuesday, online bookseller Fatbrain.com launched a service called eMatter that will let authors sell their work directly on the Fatbrain.com site for royalties of 50 percent -- or a full 100 percent for the first few months. Anyone who thinks there's a market for their writing can sign up for Fatbrain's new service, which will convert the work into Adobe's Portable Document Format and sell it for whatever price the author sets. Fatbrain customers will be able to buy the work just like they buy books -- except they will download and print out the pages, instead of having them shipped.
The idea of self-publishing for profit online is nothing new. Back in 1997, Bill Gross, the prolific inventor of Internet businesses, launched a startup called Ideamarket that had essentially the same concept as Fatbrain.com's eMatter. Peter Lewis, a respected New York Times reporter, quit his job to help run it, but the project collapsed amid internecine squabbling and the general lack of a ready market for self-published content on the Web.
"Been there, done that," however, is not much of a reason not to try it again. There are a lot more people online; they're a lot more comfortable buying things over the Web and they're a lot more likely to have the technical means to do it. In fact, Xerox and Adobe Systems announced a technology partnership on Tuesday that will let Web sites sell copy-protected documents that can't be freely redistributed. The basic self-publishing impulse still holds: There's plenty of writing that is not economical for conventional publishers to distribute, whether it's poetry chapbooks or university lecture notes, and there might well be plenty more that conventional publishers are simply not interested in printing. And 50-percent royalties are a whole lot better from a writer's point of view than the traditional 10 or 15 percent.
Alas, the problem with self-publishing on the Web is this: Readers have no easy way to sample what they're going to get. Readers can page through the traditional book in the bookstore, or failing that they at least have the illusion that an editor in a New York high-rise has given the book a thorough going-over. Unknown self-publishers without promotion budgets by contrast are locked in a Catch-22. If readers can't see what they're getting, it's hard to interest them. But if would-be buyers can get the book or document without paying for it, then sellers don't make a cent.
Neither Fatbrain nor Xerox and Adobe seem to have solved this problem, but I hope they will try. I know that the most immediate use of Web downloads is likely to be technical manuals, investment reports, and the like. But I do not know what comes further down the line, and it might very well turn out that democratizing the process of publishing can only serve to extend the democratizing tendency of the Web -- the same tendency that has editorial writers in New York fretting about Matt Drudge, record execs in Hollywood complaining about music downloads, bankers worrying about people managing their own investments, and all that other good stuff that has sent the complacent and comfortable running for cover.