Disjointed Thoughts on eBook Publishing

When the popular press and industry experts proclaim a technology “dead,” it usually means there’s either plenty of life left or things are just getting started. When the media isn’t latching on to the “death of e-mail” story, they are reporting on the end of the eBook. On the contrary, I’m sure plenty of independent publishers would be happy to stake their business models on the fact that eBooks are just getting started.
The problem with eBooks, according to industry experts, is two-part. Lack of a hardware platform for reading eBooks is the first piece, with an ongoing war over delivery format being the other major hurdle. The hardware problem is solving itself. Most people aren’t looking to add another device to their collection of gadgets – look at the cell phone market, where users are combining phone, PDA, and camera functions into one device to save space. The screen resolution on most of the phones is lacking, so they may not be ideal for eBooks, but Pocket PC and Palm OS devices are available with outstanding screen resolutions for under $200.
Palm Reader and Adobe Reader formats work on every desktop and portable computing platform, providing virtually ubiquitous access to content. Microsoft clings to providing a Windows only solution with its .LIT format and may ultimately lose because of this. Getting the word out about Palm Reader’s platform independence should be the top priority of PalmGear.com, the new owner of Palm Digital Media, and most successful mass-marketer of eBooks.
Further standardizing these three publishing formats would be ideal. All three purport to be compliant with the Open eBook specifications, but implement them in entirely incompatible ways. eBook reading should work like Web browsing, with standardization making eBooks “work” no matter what your chosen reader and hardware combination happens to be. Palm Reader is my preferred format, because it has the smallest footprint and works on all major platforms. The format could be further improved through updating, since it was originally created with monochrome Palm OS devices in mind. Everyone is familiar with PDF, making it the most likely candidate to succeed in the eBook arena, but PDF formatted files are often bloated by inefficient tagging and are really meant for documents destined for a printer. Microsoft’s support of ClearType in .LIT files means they extend readability further than either Palm Reader or Adobe, but their insistence on proprietary is a huge turn-off.
Despite all the shortcomings I list, small publishers, including me, are churning out new eBooks at a rate that puts the traditional publishing industry to shame. Many of the more successful titles aren’t novel-length volumes, rather they are short documents designed to solve a particular problem the reader might be facing, whether it’s computer related, self-help, or a home improvement project. These pioneers will pave the way for book length material to succeed as well, despite the opinion of higher ups at Barnes & Noble or any of the traditional publishing houses.
In the meantime, authors in all segments of the publishing arena would be wise to start building their personal brand. Create a blog or topical site related to whatever it is you write about and post regularly. Make sure the people buying your dead tree material know where to find you on the Web, and offer them additional opportunities for content not sold under the imprint of a traditional publisher. These efforts will increase reader loyalty and reduce your reliance on old publishing models for revenue. I’m not suggesting abandonment of traditional publishing – it still serves a purpose. Think of your branding efforts as a symbiotic relationship between the traditional publishing world and Web-based self-publishing efforts. The two mediums will drive each other and when the shift from print to electronic media happens, authors who are prepared will already have more control over their future.
This same thing is starting to happen in the world of popular music. A few bigger names aren’t signing new recording contracts, instead using their name and the Web to effectively self-publish new material, keeping more of the creative control and profits for themselves.