Monthly Archives: May 2009

E-Card Handouts at BEA Weigh Little But Promise Tons

Publishers Weekly reports that his year’s Book Expo America looked and felt smaller than any in recent memory. Was it a predictable dip caused by the economy? Or the first shovelful of soil dug in the graveyard, as book industry prophet Mike Shatzkin recently speculated?

Notable in their scarcity were advance reading copies of forthcoming books being pushed by exhibiting publishers. Traditionally, experienced convention-crawlers line up at the gates early in the morning and, like Black Friday shoppers, the moment the green light is flashed they charge to booths with swagbags agape, scooping up any and every bound galley they can get their hands on whether they’re seriously interested in the titles or not. This year, however, there were far fewer ARCs on display, as PW’s Lynn Andriani reported, and trophy-hunters had to be satisfied with downloadable simulacra. But one of these has seized our attention and given it a good shake. “Traffic moved freely at the HarperCollins booth,” writes Andriani, “where the publisher was giving out Symtio cards carrying digital versions of its galleys.”

You might want to commit the word “Symtio” to your memory, as I suspect you will be hearing a lot about it in the near future. Craig Morgan Teicher, another PW reporter, explains it:

The concept: stores stock and sell Symtio cards, which are good for downloads of particular e-books or audiobooks from the Symtio site. Consumers can access the site only by entering the code from the card bought at a store, but once they’re logged on, they can buy more books, and the purchases are credited back to the store where the card was bought, meaning retailers can make more sales following the sale of a single Symtio card.

Symtio was created by Verne Kenny for Zondervan, a religious imprint of HarperCollins. More than two dozen publishers and hundreds of retail locations signed up after market tests indicated strong support for the concept. We support it too: in theory it provides a critically important bridge between brick and mortar bookstores and the digital sphere.

The company’s website details the operation:

Symtio is the easiest way to buy digital media in a retail store. Digital books, both eBook and audiobook, are released the same day as print books and available for immediate download. That means you’ll always be able to get the latest releases no matter how you choose to read them. Plus, we keep track of your purchases in a media footlocker. If your computer crashes or you accidentally delete your downloads, we’ve got backups that you can re-download at no extra cost.

Among the benefits users get when they create an account:

  • A “Media footlocker” where you can store your Symtio purchases.”Think of it as backup protection—your purchases are safe if your computer crashes or your hard drive fails.”
  • Re-download—”You can come back to at any time and re-download your digital purchases.
  • Order history—The service keeps track of your purchases and provides you with historical data such as date, time, cost and number of times you’ve downloaded your purchases.
  • Product Gift Cards – “Giving a Symtio digital product card says you’ve thought about your gift, much as when you used to give bound books or music. While Symtio products have the feel and convenience of a gift card, the difference is that you’ve hand picked and purchased a specific product with the recipient in mind.”
  • DRM-free – To download an e-book, you select your device from a drop-down menu, then choose the appropriate file format. For audio you can use any MP3 player or supported media program to download digital products.

Of particular interest was the procedure for downloading e-books. Though not wireless, it is largely device-agnostic, and that includes (choirs of angels raise their voices) Macs.

Once a Symtio eBook is downloaded to your computer, transfer it to your digital media reader such as a Sony Personal Reader, PDA or personal computer as you would any other file. Or, if you prefer, you can read Symtio eBooks right on your Windows or Macintosh computer as long as you have a program that reads the format you purchased.

Supported hardware includes:

* Windows computer
* Macintosh computer
* Sony Reader Digital Book (PRS-505 and PRS-700)
* Amazon Kindle
* Palm based PDA or Smart Phone
* Windows Mobile based PDA or Smart Phone
* Symbian Smart Phone (Nokia and others)

Supported software includes:

* Adobe Digital Editions (.epub)
* Adobe Reader (.pdf)
* Mobipocket (.prc)
* Microsoft Reader (.lit)

Will consumers go for it? According to PW, they have done so in spades: Symtio sold “thousands of products in the first 10 weeks,” Kenny told PW. “Not only were people finding the bestsellers but they were browsing to find the backlist.”

“Retailers are obviously concerned about the loss of traffic to online stores,” Kenny, noted in the grandest understatement to come out of this year’s BEA. “I thought, what could the consumer do inside a retail setting to buy digital content. Out of that grew the idea of Symtio.”

You can visit the firm’s website and read up on the Symtio cards FAQ. The site also has a store locator. We entered our zip code a few others at random and for now the bookstores are pretty much all dedicated to Christian literature. But it’s hard to believe the product will expand not just to other HarperCollins imprints but to other publishers as well.

And why limit the products to books and the stores to bookstores? Let your imagination soar. Mine is working overtime.

Richard Curtis


Blogger Risks Life to Capture Manhattanhenge Sunset

Tonight, the evening of Saturday, May 30th I happened to be on the Second Avenue bus on my way to a post-BEA publishing party. The time was 8:10 PM. As it crossed 42nd street the bus lighted up a brilliant orange. I glance out the west window and saw the sun setting squarely at the end of the avenue. And then I remembered that tonight was Manhattanhenge, one of two annual dates on which the setting sun aligns itself perfectly with the cross-streets – at least, 42nd Street. By an extraordinary fluke I was present for that magical moment, and by even greater good luck I was carrying a camera.

I dashed off the bus at the 42nd Street stop, waited for a red light to halt the crosstown traffic, removed my trusty Panasonic Lumix from my pocket, hastily selected the settings, ran into 42nd Street and started shooting. In moments I was joined by other shutterbugs who themselves presented photo-ops almost as interesting as the sunset. The traffic light turned green and the magic was shattered as angry drivers, backs turned to the glorious spectacle and more concerned with reaching their destination than beholding cosmological wonders, started leaning on their horns. I responded with a well-practiced gesture commonly employed by New York pedestrians in their guerrilla war with car and taxi drivers.

When I returned home I googled Manhattanhenge and learned that a few days earlier Neil deGrasse Tyson had written a little piece about it for the Hayden Planetarium website, and I urge you to visit the blog. “As you may know,”Tyson writes, “Manhattanhenge takes place on two consecutive days, twice a year, when the setting Sun aligns precisely with the Manhattan street grid, creating radiant sunsets that burst across our brick and steel canyons, simultaneously illuminating both the north and south sides of every street. A rare and beautiful sight.”

It is indeed, and I’m happy to show you what it looks like. The “henge” reference is apt: gazing at that corruscating orange ball wedged in the convergence of buildings on the north and south sides of 42nd Street, it was easy to be at one with the awestruck primitives who marked the limits of the sun’s transit with a crude stone memorial.

Richard Curtis


Scribd Author Joe Quirk Exults in His Choice of Publisher

Joe Quirk is a bestselling novelist and bestselling science writer. Rather than go the conventional route with his latest novel Exult, he turned to Scribd, where you can download Exult and his first novel, The Ultimate Rush, for $2.00 each.

Exult is the story of a thrilling sport that, in the author’s experts hands, becomes a metaphor for all that is ecstatic and tragic in life. “Is a full life worth an early death?” asks Quirk. “Jack Ostruck loves hang gliding, but when someone he loves dies in a crash, the grieving mother demands that Jack come to the funeral and explain why flying is worth her child’s death.” The novel has moved the likes of Khaled Hosseini, bestselling author of The Kite Runner, to sing its praises.

Because Scribd is a new venture and a controversial work in progress (read what Kill Zone had to say about it), we asked Joe to blog about his experience and that of two author friends of his who similarly cast their lot with him. You can watch a video of the three on YouTube, read a guest editorial in Publishers Weekly by one of the three, Kemble Scott, and read Joe’s own comments below.

I’ve fantasized about since 1996, well before its founders reached puberty, when I wrote an essay about the coming “Revolution in Publishing” that no publisher would publish. I had to wait to publish my first novel, which gave me the opportunity to provoke an argument with my publisher during my first book tour. I held up my hardcover book and declared to my horrorstruck editor, publicist, and assistants that soon we won’t need this hunk of tree pulp any more. I announced that the substance of a novel is not in the book but the words, which were easily digitized, and the next generation will be about about as sentimental about the smells and textures of books as we were about the smells and textures of LPs.

Read Joe Quirk’s statement in its entirety.


Generosity-Driven Publishing Puts Freeists to Shame

The blogosphere is saturated with conjecture on the effect of books and e-books given away free. But nothing comes close to the business model of Concord Free Press. In truth it’s not a business model at all. If anything it’s an anti-business model. Or perhaps the Los Angeles Times characterized it best: “An unusual Robin Hood-style publishing model.”

What makes Concord Free Press distinctive? It seems the publisher is giving away all 2,000 copies of Wesley Brown’s novel Push Comes to Shove on the condition that recipients “make a voluntary donation to a charity or someone in need…then pass their book along so others can give.”

The company’s website states its case:

It’s simple. We’re not proposing a new business model for publishing. We’re a non-profit organization interested in:

  • expanding the definition of publishing
  • exploring the connection between people and books, and
  • inspiring new levels of engagement among readers.

Like any non-profit, we keep our expenses incredibly low (e.g., our office rent is not exactly Manhattan-esque). Writers, designers, printers, and others generously donate their work and services for free. Our press runs are fairly short—2,000 copies or so—making our books limited editions. And to pay for it all, we ask people who like what we’re doing to support us via grants, checks, and the occasional wad of cash.

In short, we are freed from the burden of profitability. That said, though our books don’t generate traditional profits, they create real value:

  • Writers get a chance to get their work to readers via an interesting new channel, one that can help them sell commercial US rights, foreign rights, film rights, etc.
  • Readers get a great book for free and a chance to be part of an experiment in publishing and community
  • Charities and people in need receive real support from generous readers—who turn their good intentions into cash donations

Though it’s said the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, Concord’s road has led to an inspiring record of humankindness. Its first venture, Give + Take, produced over $40,000 in donations. “Factoring in our start-up costs, that’s an ROI [Return On Investment] of more than 800% – even though others, more in need than us, received that money. The second book, Push Comes to Shove, has generated even more. A sampling of donors, donees and donations is below.

Concord, Massachusetts, the publisher’s home base, should ring a bell: it’s the home of Henry David Thoreau. And if anyone would appreciate Concord Free Press’s concept and purpose it’s the sage of Walden Pond.
Richard Curtis
From Concord Free Press’s website:

Our readers have already made $44,000+ in donations around the world—tell us where you gave

Push Comes to Shove

Marilyn K. of Minneapolis, MN gave $25 to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey

Kellie J. of New York City gave $175 to WBGO

Deborah P. of West Tisbury, MA gave $400 to a South African elementary school

Esther L. of Brooklyn, NY gave $50 to the Brooklyn Museum

Toby G. of Exeter, NH gave $50 to the NH SPCA

Garry T. of Central Square, NY gave $50 to the North Shore Food Bank

Cheryl T. of New York City gave $50 to the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in memory of Bill Kough

Fern S. of Chatham, NY gave $25 to Think OutWord

Debra J. of Harlem, NYC gave $50 to the Teachers & Writers Collaborative

L. Nevai of Averill Park, NY gave $25 to the Amanda Moon Children’s Theater Scholarship Fund

For a complete listing, click here.


Book Expo Begins Today, But When Does It End? Mike Shatzkin Says Sands Running Out

When you admire a guru, you have to take the bad prophecies with the good. Mike Shatzkin, who is giving a significant presentation at the commencement of Book Expo America, is certainly our favorite guru. But damn!, his gloomy prognostication about the future of the convention is hard to live with, even though deep down we suspect it’s true.

There are two classes of people in publishing: those who remember the American Booksellers Association (ABA) convention – BEA’s predecessor – and those who don’t. The latter roughly parallel those who don’t remember typewriters, black and white televisions, or automobiles with clutches. If these artifacts of 20th century civilization draw a blank stare, it will be equally hard to imagine what publishing must have been like when booksellers were important.

Before getting to his doomsday prognostication, Shatzkin takes us down memory lane to recall what BEA used to be. This is not merely idle reminiscence but, rather, Shatzkin setting us up to understand what the the convention has become and why it may no longer be a viable destination for a publishing industry that is exploding like a fragmentation grenade.

When I was a pup, the ABA was definitely an order-writing show. The number of independent bookstores who bought a big chunk of any trade list properly presented to them was in the thousands. (Now: what would you say? the dozens? wouldn’t hundreds be an exaggeration?) Only a few of the biggest publishers had sales forces large enough and disciplined enough to really cover them all, so most exhibitors encountered retailers who would do immediate business. Everybody had some sort of show “special” to encourage ordering. I think for many years it was “blue badges” that signified booksellers: you kept an eagle-eye out for them as the traffic streamed by and you knew exactly what and how you were going to pitch them.

Each night at the main convention hotels, several publishers — and all the mass-market publishers — ran “hospitality suites” offering liquid refreshment and munchies very deep into the evening. You’d make the rounds of those after you had gone to whatever events, dinners, and parties had taken place in other locations. I always found the time in the hospitality suites to be a highlight of the convention.

The halcyon days of the 1970s and 80s gave way to a more corporate environment when Reed Exhibitions, which bills itself as the world’s leading organizer of trade and consumer events, acquired a controlling share of the show, changing its name to Book Expo America. “Reed Exhibitions excels in creating high profile, highly targeted business and consumer exhibitions and events to establish and maintain business relations, and generate new business,” says the organization’s website.

Interestingly, Reed’s takeover paralleled the rash of trade book publisher mergers and acquisitions that, like a collapsing star, imploded the industry from hundreds of vibrant companies to fewer than a dozen behemoths in the space of a decade. 1996, the very year Reed acquired controlling interest in ABA, was the same one in which the mass market paperback business underwent a convulsive contraction that transformed the format into the Fifteen Top Blockbuster airport model that characterizes mass paper today. (I’ve written about this at length in a two part article, “The Rise and Fall of the Mass Market Paperback”: Part 1, Part 2.)

Thus, while Big Publishing seemed to be soaring in the late 90s it was actually peaking, and the shift made itself manifest in the book fair. “The long expansion of the US book trade, which had continued pretty much unabated from World War II until the mid-1990s, stopped and started to reverse in the Internet age,” writes Shatzkin. “Even worse for the industry trade show, consolidation of both big publishers and retailers accelerated. That meant fewer publisher customers to buy the booth space, and fewer retailers walking the aisles to make the booth space valuable.

And now, a little over a decade later, the collapsing star of Big Publishing generates more heat ($24 billion annually) than light, and that’s reflected in the dimming of the celebration called Book Expo America. “The BEA of today isn’t the ABA of old,” laments Shatzkin. “The booksellers are just about gone. The late-night hospitality suites don’t exist anymore. And hardly any publisher goes to the show expecting to write orders. It is time to organize a betting pool where the question is: how many more BEAs before, like its Canadian counterpart [Book Expo Canada shuttered permanently early this year] it simply ceases? Three? Four? Hard to see more than that.”

Also shpracht Shatzkin. You can read it all in his blog, How many more times for BEA?

But wait – there’s a PS. BEA’s show director Lance Fensterman reports that the convention’s attendance is down 14% over the last one held in New York City, 2007, and exhibitor personnel registrations are down 10% to 15%. Overall exhibition square footage is down 21%. It looks like the Guru of Gloom is right again, dammit.

Richard Curtis


Are You Listening? Audio Stats Say You’re Not

Which is Better, Jump Off Bridge or Stick Head in Oven?

That may be one of the panel discussion topics when audio publishers convene, as they do every year, a day or two before the commencement of Book Expo America, the publishing industry’s annual celebration of itself. According to Associated Press’s Hillel Italie, “The Association of American Publishers has seen a 47 percent drop in audio revenue this year: Just 14 publishers reported, but they include Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and virtually all the major New York companies.”

Since many people have been under the impression that audiobooks were flying high, this tailspin is bewildering until you hear Anthony Goff, president of the APA, explain that it has to do with CD sales. Like other tangible products such as printed books, physical audiobooks are giving way to their digital successors. But – again, like books – the e-versions don’t generate a fraction of the profit that their material counterparts do. At least not yet. At least not enough to reverse a 20% plunge in CD sales this year over the same period in 2008. Nielsen BookScan projects a total drop in the audio business for this year of almost 5%.

Though CDs are expensive to manufacture, package and distribute, their high prices can bring handsome profits if the volume of sales is high. But volume has been hobbled. “The shrinking economy has had a very direct impact,” says Italie. “The fewer people who work, the fewer people who drive to work. And many audio customers listen in their cars, more than half, according to Chris Lynch, executive vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio.”



F U Cn Rd Ths U R Umn

Unless a security notice pops up on your computer screen warning you of an attempted hack or viral invasion, you’re seldom aware of the vicious guerrilla war in progress beneath your fingertips. But it’s constant, and with every escalation by the attackers, the measures taken to throw the enemy back escalates as well. As in every guerrilla war the offense has the advantage of knowing when and how it will strike, and it employs weapons of mass destruction in the form of bots to probe vulnerabilities, neutralize defenses, and overwhelm its victims.

Though your computer’s defensive team uses powerful programs of its own to thwart attacks, a surprisingly simple weapon has proven effective in holding the line against invaders. It’s called a captcha. New York Times reporter Anne Eisenberg, in New Puzzles That Tell Humans From Machines, describes them as “a set of distorted, squiggly letters and numbers that people can decipher and type correctly for admission, but that machines still can’t.” You’ve undoubtedly cooperated with requests to type in the word you see on the graphic, and, I suspect, you’ve done it with a tolerant sigh, wondering why you’re being asked to play this childish game.

The answer is that captchas are one of the most effective ways to thwart many forms of abuse. In addition to the wiggle-words, captchas employ pictures that are elementary to most nursery schoolers raised on Where’s Waldo? but make no sense to a crawling stealth bot seeking to penetrate the soft underbelly of your desktop or laptop.

“Captcha” is a splendid onomatopoeia, sounding like the task it performs. But it is also a clever acronym coined by the team at Carnegie Mellon University that worked on it: Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart.

Will evil hackers eventually gain the upper hand, like a flu virus recombining after losing out to a vaccine? Eisenberg thinks the good guys will stay ahead:

“Many people worry that as machines become smarter, the days of captcha protection will be numbered, whether the puzzles take the form of distorted text, audio snippets or rotated images. But Henry Baird, a professor in the department of computer science and engineering at Lehigh University, disagrees. Dr. Baird and colleagues have proposed a system for captchas that, like Google’s, can be woven into the theme of a Web site.

“’Machines’ abilities are slowly improving,’ he said, “’but I think there is still a huge gap between human inborn perceptual abilities and machine skills.’”

My curiosity about the technology took me to the official Captcha website, where I discovered that anyone can download a free implementation and plugins including audio tests for blind users. And if you want to pit your wits against Captcha’s computer system there’s a new website,, containing a host of “addictive games that help computers learn to think more like humans. You play the games, computers get smarter!” After I took the gender test I was informed that there was a 97% certainty I was female. Looks like I will now either have to straighten out the GWAP program or commence an extensive course of gender reorientation.

Captchas, the site informs us, “have several applications for practical security.” Among them are:

  • Preventing Comment Spam in Blogs
  • Protecting Website Registration
  • Protecting Email Addresses From Scrapers
  • Preventing Ballot stuffing for Online Polls
  • Preventing “Dictionary” Password Attacks
  • Thwarting Search Engine Bots
  • Plausible solution against email worms and spam

Thanks to Captcha technology the playing field has tilted back to humanity after the humiliating defeat of the human race, represented by chess master Gary Kasparov, by the Deep Blue computer in 1997.

Richard Curtis


This and $359.00 Will Get You on a Subway

Ads for the Kindle have been spied on the New York subway system. Here’s one such which we scraped off The Business Insider.

The publication’s Dan Frommer notes that subways are a good place to promote Kindles, and we can roger that. You can hold it in one hand while gripping a rail with the other. No one can see the book cover because there is none. And because there are no wireless signals in subway tunnels, you can’t talk on your cell phone, so you might as well do the next best thing and read.

Our relationship to Kindle is a love-hate one, Frommer says, and he lists five loves and five hates:

5 Things We Love

  • It’s really good at what it’s designed for: Reading books that are mostly text.
  • It’s discreet!
  • Kindle-optimized Web sites are on the way.
  • It’s super for traveling, with a few caveats.
  • New books are cheaper on the Kindle than on paper.

5 Things We Hate

  • Your book library starts from scratch.
  • The design is better than the first Kindle, but still not fully thought-through.
  • It’s expensive and novel, so people have an incentive to steal it!
  • For something that only does one thing really well, it’s still pretty bulky.
  • Old books double as living room decor.

“All in all,” says Frommer, “we’re pleased with the Kindle 2. As potential buyers, we’re hoping the price goes down soon, because we think it’s still too expensive. (Especially because we have to start our book libraries from scratch.) But we think Amazon is on the right path, and especially with new stuff like the iPhone Kindle app, is the clear leader in the nascent e-book industry.”



The Big Turnoff: Furor Over Kindle Audio Puts Random Between Rock and Hard Place

You shall not curse the deaf nor place a stumbling block before the blind.
Leviticus 19:14

I realize it’s unfashionable to feel sorry for Random House, but I think they’re getting the rotten end of the stick for a problem not of their making.

You’ll recall that Amazon’s initiative to convert the texts of Kindle e-books to speech generated a furious response from authors and publishers because of potential infringement on their reserved commercial audio rights. Under threat of legal action, Amazon backed off, leaving the decision to speech-activate Kindle texts up to content owners. Many publishers opted out. Random House was one of them.

Now, The Reading Rights Coalition, representing more than 15 million visually challenged Americans, has censured Random House for denying audio service to its constituents. “When Random House turned off the text-to-speech function on all of its e-books for the Kindle 2,” declared Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, “it turned off access to this service for more than 15 million print-disabled Americans. The blind and other print-disabled readers have the right to purchase e-books using this service with text-to-speech enabled. Blocking text-to-speech prohibits access for print-disabled readers and is both reprehensible and discriminatory.” Maurer was joined by executives of Lighthouse International, American Association of People with Disabilities, National Spinal Cord Injury Association, American Council of the Blind and other organizations in denunciations of Random. A petition is being circulated.

It would be unspeakably callous to disregard the needs of the blind and reading-disabled. And that’s the point: book publishers have always been in the vanguard of industries sensitive to the needs of the visually challenged. Language guaranteeing to them free access to published books is a standard feature of every book contract I have ever seen. A recent Random House contract says, “Random House shall have the right to grant transcription or publication rights in any Work in Braille or other non-book formats specifically for the visually impaired without charge.” The subsidiary rights grant in a HarperCollins contract on my desk grants Harper “Braille, large-type and other editions for the handicapped (the Publisher may grant such rights to recognized non-profit organizations for the handicapped without charge and without payment to the Author).” I’m ready to bet that every one of the thousands of contracts in our agency’s files has similar language.

I don’t think the leadership of the Reading Rights Coalition is doing its members a favor by attacking publishers, who have been victimized by Amazon/Kindle’s audio initiative just as severely as the visually impaired. There is a line between a function intended for the disabled and one designed for fully sighted and literate. Amazon’s aggressive step across that line put publishers on the horns of a cruel dilemma: by withholding audio rights from Kindle they deny service to a genuinely needy population; but by enabling Kindle’s audio feature they deprive legitimate copyright holders of the opportunity to exploit a commercial right. They also incur liability: a publisher can be sued by authors whose commercial audio rights had been given away to Amazon. And because that threat of liability is ever-present to Random House and its brother and sister publishers, it’s not likely that petitions or humanitarian appeals (including to President Obama) will gain any traction.

What’s the answer? We must come up with a voice-enabling technology expressly targeted to the handicapped, and segregate it from commercial audio. That’s not a job for publishers. It’s a job for technologists, and we wish them godspeed in solving the problem.

Amazon should be in the forefront of those supporting such an initiative, because there are 15 million visually impaired individuals ready to buy a device that serves them what they need and are entitled to. If Amazon doesn’t or can’t do the job – well, there are a lot of e-book devices coming on stream, and the one that solves this audio dilemma will have a huge advantage and a ready-made market.

For the Coalition’s full statement click here.

Pictured: The HumanWare VictorReader Stream digital-audio player for the blind.

Richard Curtis


Scribd Author Joe Quirk Exults in His Choice of Publisher

The Revolution Will Not Be Printed
by Joe Quirk
Author of Exult (Scribd)

I’ve fantasized about since 1996, well before its founders reached puberty, when I wrote an essay about the coming “Revolution in Publishing” that no publisher would publish. I had to wait to publish my first novel, which gave me the opportunity to provoke an argument with my publisher during my first book tour. I held up my hardcover book and declared to my horrorstruck editor, publicist, and assistants that soon we won’t need this hunk of tree pulp any more. I announced that the substance of a novel is not in the book but the words, which were easily digitized, and the next generation will be about about as sentimental about the smells and textures of books as we were about the smells and textures of LPs.

My entourage ganged up on me. Nobody wants to read on a screen, they said. I prophesied that eventually a screen would look better than a paper book. Once computers are cheap and portable, and “digital books” (a term I thought I made up) cost two bucks, young people will buy it. Only sentimental old fogies will buy this expensive, tree-hating, cumbersome brick of paper. I threw my newly published hardcover on the table with a satisfying bang!

They made me promise not to mention this during any media appearances they’d scheduled. I folded my arms and said fine. But I declared in my best Nostradamus voice that the infrastructure that gave them jobs would be threatened by “digital books” within fifteen years, reminding them that geniuses are never recognized in their own time.

Ten years later, the economy crashed. This was great news for me. The Paperback Revolution occurred during the Great Depression. Time to get the Digital Revolution started.

I told every writer I knew I wanted to start our own author-owned digital publishing company. I wanted to call it I talked to my author friend Tamim Ansary about it. He asked me if I stole this idea from Kemble Scott, a third author friend. I said no. He said I better talk to Kemble Scott.

Kemble and I got together at his house for lunch and we hashed out the business plan in a half hour. I still have the piece of paper where I scribbled it out:

“Digital books. $2 each. 80/20 split. Author 80%. Luvlit 20%. First chapters available free on-line. No agents. No advances. No paper used– green publishing! No professional reviewers. Only customer reviews. Create Independent Author’s Youtube channel: call it YourBook. Launch with bestselling and award-winning authors from mainstream publishing. Then anybody can upload. Writers retain all rights.”

At the bottom of the piece of paper, I wrote a spontaneous manifesto that was only slightly less embarrassing than the one I wrote in 1996:

“We are smashing the great bottleneck between our art and our audience that takes 90% of the reader’s payment. We’re establishing a true meritocracy … ”

Manifestos are embarrassing to read but invigorating to write. As soon as I finished scribbling and smiling, I was hit in the face with the obstacles ahead. The software engineering! The credit card payments! The lawyers! The logo! How long would it take to get this started? Who would invest in it?

As I dejectedly ate dessert, Kemble Scott let me know he was meeting tomorrow with some recent graduates from Harvard and Stanford business schools who started some kind of document-sharing site. Great, I said. Maybe these whippersnappers would contribute their wisdom and experience to the venture.

Kemble called me the next day.

“It was like they had an electronic bug in my kitchen,” he said. “They recited everything we had in our business plan, right down to the 80/20 split. All the engineering is done. They already have at least 50 million unique viewers, several millions in start-up money. They want to sell original novels.”

Kemble and I realized all they needed was clout. They wanted bestselling mainstream authors to publish their first editions with them.

“How many writers do they want?”
Kemble, Tamim, and me. Done.
“Can we call it luvlit?”
“It already has a name. Scribd.”
“How do you spell that?”

Since then, half the writers I know have ganged up on me with the same arguments I got eleven years ago. These purists want to pay an extra twenty bucks for smells and textures, and nobody wants to read literature on a—yuck!– screen.

Oh yeah? Go to my novel on Scribd, click the little box on the upper right corner of the document to make it big. Then, if you have a PC, go to View on your browser and click Full Screen.

Tell me that’s not a pleasant way to read a novel. Personally, I prefer to read ebooks with my laptop on my lap and both hands free. I’m too lazy to hold four ounces of paperback up to my face and laboriously heft that page. I just want to look at my lap and click.

Two bucks. Welcome to the Revolution.
Author photo by Craig Merrill