A Month of Pratfalls

In case you don't know it, the e-book community consists of two personalities, one Laurel, the other Hardy. We've been treated to some real slapstick the past month or so.

Laurel is the little skinny guy who always falls down, and represents a dozen or so professional little publishers including Clocktower Books, Awe-Struck E-books, Hard Shell Word Factory, and Bookmice, to name just four.

Hardy is the big fat guy who always hits Laurel and then ends up looking dumb in the end. He represents the eight surviving congloms in New York who of late have been diddling with the idea of being ebook publishers. Given the statistics I read of late, 2/3 of the commercial books churned out in NY come from one house, Bertelsmann, and another 25% or so from two other big houses (all three foreign-owned—there are only three American-owned commercial publishers left of the old flagship crowd in NY, owing to two generations of mergers and bad business decisions). Oh, hell, why quibble...let's just call them the Foreign Publishers. That big sucking sound you hear is the sound of lawyer-and-MBA-managed American publishers sacrificing sanity to the bottom line (sacrificing the midlist in favor of bestlosers). Maxwell Perkins is turning over in his grave. But it's Hallow E'en time, and we're about levity here.

Where to start? Well, German-owned Random House, seeking to establish its dominance in an ebook market it knows nothing about but is sure it will soon learn to love, bought a 51% stake in a vanity publishing outfit called iUniverse. This is a place where, in the finest tradition of vanity row, any old hack can write and publish a book, for about $149, that would have been rejected with scorn and disdain by those literary pillars of the Crazy Eight. Ba-ba-da-boom! But that's not all!

These new millennial publishing pioneers and mercenaries promptly turned around and lost over 300 books. Yeah, you heard me right. There are these things called Survurs, on which reside Pixuls and AskMeCharacters, and those darned wiggly little pixuls and AskMeCharacters won't stay put. When you're not looking, or when you're feeling drunk with success, they just jump around and fall behind the inkwell in the scriptorium. There, dark with ink, they just squiggle around and refuse to jump back into their Servur. It's all very technikul. Anyway, they lost over 300 books and either didn't know about it or were ashamed to admit it. Hell, I'd be ashamed. I wouldn't tell a soul. I'd just pretend those books are in there someplace and they'll come out when they damn well please. I'd say it's all very technikul and that ragged crowd of scruffy authors should mind their position in life.

Well, it's called Random House, right? I mean, if they knew where the pixuls and AskMeCharacters are, they would be called Orderly House, right? Stands to reason.

Evidently, on the command of their lawyers and MBAs, they refused to tell the paying authors, who were puzzled not to find their books at the Germans'/iUniverse website. When the paying authors, oddly enough, queried, the guilty party at first denied everything. From what we hear, they are still stumbling around trying to reinvent e-book publishing, but they seem to have located the 300+ books. Or maybe not.

Note: we said paying authors. That's right, apparently the future of e-book publishing is in vanity least that's what the Crazy Eight in NY seem to be telegraphing. That's news to the folks who invented e-book publishing, who seem to believe that the publisher should pay for editing, production, and all related costs. I'm talking about those dozen or so little e-book publishers who don't seem to want to go away. Next thing you know, they'll be paying the authors. What a strange idea.

Then there's the World's First International e-Book Awards, held in Frankfurt. This comedy was sponsored by Bertelsmann and a few other heavyweights like Microsoft. This is kind of like the Kaiser and the Austro-Hungarians promising sovereignty to Bosnia...I mean, do we have a brain? Rumor has it the judges were all kindly men who had never seen an ebook but were happy to read a lot of free books. The idea was to foster the new e-book industry, in which only those dozen little pioneering publishers had thus far participated. All the world's e-book publishers were invited to submit their best books. The rules were changed repeatedly to make everyone happy.

The e-book publishers sent their best books. Clocktower Books, for example, sent a modern masterpiece of nonfiction entitled "A Small Journal of Heroin Addiction," by London author and one-time Oxfordian Robin Marchesi. The book is a profound and moving blend of prose and poetry reminiscent of the best of the Beat Poets of the 1950's, for those who attended school and studied Literature. The foreign publishers in NY heard about the contest, decided they were e-book publishers too, and sent their best works in. Strangely enough, the foreign publishers of NY won all the awards. No offense to mystery writers, but the e-book publishers missed the boat with their literary works and a mystery story won; at least, it placed in the finals and I didn't bother looking after that so I can't report who took the final honors. As people say, "Oh shit."

Now the e-book publishers are mad as hornets and starting their own contest. Last I heard, they were inviting the foreign publishers to submit their best works, which is a sure-fire recipe for the rules being changed constantly and everybody ending up happier than they have ever been before. I'll keep you posted on the new, real e-book awards.

The hidden irony, of course, is that print on demand POD) technology is the hottest thing right now, and everyone is doing it. It's hotter than e-books, since there isn't a real e-book appliance on the market yet and the closest thing to it, the Rocket eBook, is no longer being made ( its place, Gemstar is marketing a less capable knockoff called the RCA1100 that reflects not the reading public's desire for good books, but the MBAs' and lawyers' paranoia about encryption). While the foreign publishers of NY are stumbling around inventing a new form of electronic vanity publishing, many e-book publishers are exploring the exquisite joys of peeling trees and squirting ink, and somewhere the two worlds are meeting in a big squishy noise.

Also quite funny is the tale of Nuvomedia, the brilliant little upstart company that presented the world with its first sorta-real e-book. That would be the late Rocket eBook, which attracted many skeptics among those convinced that quills and parchment can never be replaced. There is a gentleman who shall remain unnamed here, whose company is called Gemstar, and who has made billions of dollars and has never been wrong. This gentleman apparently likes to read. Or so we hope. Well, let's backtrack a moment. This gentleman is said to have made his billions in creating "stuff" for television-programming software, a kind of online TV Guide-oops, he bought the paper version of TV Guide also-but stated in an interview that he never watches TV. Doesn't like it. Doesn't have time for it. Just makes billions off the dopes who do. (He didn't say that; I just did; my point being that, if you are a genius, you don't have to actually use a product in order to make billions from it).

Nuvomedia was this wonderful little company that treated people well-even the little e-book publishers-and, yes, to the eternal regret and demise of its visionary leaders who stuck their heads in the lion's cage-the foreign publishers in NY. Nuvomedia, despite the leadership of Martin Eberhard and other visionaries, was never quite able to pull off the numbers-they sold too few Rocket eBooks, and those were way too over priced. Then the Gemstar gentleman, who has never been wrong, bought Nuvomedia in early 2000. Rumors abounded. The Rocket eBook hand-held reading device itself was for sale, then it wasn't, then it was again. It was going to be replaced by a better model in the Fall, called the Saturn, that would be priced $99 or lower and take the world by storm. This was going to overlap with the e-book premise of delivering quality books at a fraction of the price of what the NY publishers have been charging for their print jobs (which doesn't have all that much to do with the cost of manufacturing print books; it doesn't cost $18 more per book to put hard covers on them). Oddly enough, there were also stories about how the gentleman in question was courting the foreign publishers in NY, showing off the Rocket eBook.

Then the news broke in October 2000 that Gemstar/RCA/Thomson's less capable knockoff of the Rocket eBook would cost $300 and only feature the Frankfurt award winning books of the foreign publishing establishment in New York! They would sell millions of the devices! Every man, woman, and child in America would line up to spend their next year's left-over, fun-only money on one of the devices! Elders would stop buying their alzheimer's medicine-you can picture them sitting in their wheelchairs by the window, hands trembling as they peer at the latest $28 mystery story. Children would give up their candy money! Young couples would give up their children! Candy stores would go out of business! Businessmen would lie down with starving authors and create a New World of Disorder. Those with disorders would no longer feel somehow unique!

Gemstar was also going into a major alliance with the foreign publishers of NY to take advantage of the traditional way of producing vastly overpriced books created in a 1400's medium, now to be available on a vastly overpriced and under-capable appliance resembling a giant LED wristwatch. No more cheap little ebooks by fly by night publishers who don't charge the authors, this is the age of commerce, when a man can go into publishing and charge the author good money to publish a story that the reader buys for good money while the publisher smokes a big fat vanity cigar and gloats on how he can never be wrong. That's America, which sells national treasures like MGM and Radio City Music Hall to the Japanese for a fortune, and then, having buggered the Japanese into stillbirth, buys these assets back for a song when the Japanese go bankrupt. Maybe the people who sold the U.S. publishing industry to the Germans, the Brits, and the Australians have a similar strategy. Have a cigar, sit back, and wait for the conspiracy to unfold.

As the Oliver Hardys slap the Stan Laurels around or ignore them (or more likely can't see them, like insects buzzing around Hardy's girth), I seem to remember that Hardy always ended up falling down harder and looking dumber in the end. I can cheerfuly predict that someone will come out soon with a $19 knock-off of the Rocket eBook--in the next few months--and that someone won't be in the Kaiser's pay. When the ordinary book buying Joe and Jane is confronted with the choice of either buying the foreign publishers' $300 device on which to read $28 electronic texts (priced that way for no good reason other than that's how the reading public was accustomed to being gouged) or paying about three bucks for a good story they can read on a free gadget resembling a calculator, given away as a promotional item by the smart folks who are about to pioneer the next step in the history of publishing...oh Hell, I'm fresh out of AskMeCharacters and must stop here. Happy Reading until next month's edition of Deep Outside SFFH, where I will continue reporting on the stunts of the intrepid lawyers and MBAs of the foreign-owned vanity publishing establishment in New York. After all, we deal in Speculative Fiction, and this is the future we are talking about! Til next month, toodle-oo!


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