Free Article: Is an E-Book a Real Book?

(Note: This was first published in 2000 in the newsletter of the San Antonio Romance Authors based on a speech I gave to that organization and to the San Antonio Writers Guild. The article was reprinted in the newsletters of a number of other writers’ organizations.)

When I wrote my novel, I visualized a paperback on the shelves of the local bookstore. I wrote, re-wrote, edited, revised, polished, and tweaked. Then I sent the manuscript to publishers so one could buy it and distribute it to the readers who eagerly awaited this special story.

Then the real world intervened. Oh, I was lucky. I started getting “good” rejections. You know the ones: “This is a well-written story, but there is too much emphasis on the heroine’s illness and disability and not enough romance.” Or the ever popular: “Sorry, this manuscript does not meet our publishing needs at this time. Best of luck in placing this work elsewhere.”

The mysterious “elsewhere” proved so elusive that I decided the story was unpublishable. I had ignored the manuscript for over two years when a friend emailed me about a new electronic publisher that was seeking manuscripts featuring disabled characters, the very thing the print publishers had rejected.

The time from initial query to publication was amazingly short. However, as epublishing has grown, response times are much longer now than they were even a year or two ago.

The big question: Is an e-book a real book? The dictionary includes several definitions of the word “book.” If the word “book” means sheets of paper bound in a volume with a cover, an e-book is not a book. But if a “book” is the words, thoughts, ideas, and emotions expressed on those sheets of paper, an e-book is as much a real book as any other.

Since the industry is so new, differences of opinion exist within the industry on whether e-publishing is simply a new binding (paperback, hardback, leather, or electronic binding) or a completely new medium. There is also the question of exactly what is “legitimate” e-publishing. Generally, material placed on a website for anyone to read is not considered e-publishing. But even if the work is sold, there is a wide variation in how the work is selected and edited.

Just as in print publishing, self-publishing and vanity publishing occur in e-publishing. This material is not screened or edited; anyone who has the money to produce the work himself or to pay a subsidy publisher can put his writing on the web for sale. At the other end of the spectrum, print publishers are also e-publishing some of the same books they offer in print. These manuscripts have gone through the rigorous selection and editing process of a print book.

E-publishers who are “house” publishers operate exactly like a print publishing house except they offer e-books exclusively. Many e-publishers are “coop” publishers. They offer a basic set of services — editing, a basic cover (possibly text only), one or more formats, marketing — but the author can purchase additional services if she chooses.

The variety of formats has been one of the problems of the industry. E-books have been published in PDF (for the Acrobat Reader), Word, text, and formats for several special readers. A team of academics and industry professionals, with major input from Microsoft, recently developed OEB (Open E-Book) Initiative as a standard of the industry. Although OEB is not proprietary, Microsoft is developing technology to support and promote e-publishing.

It’s easy to see why Microsoft would promote e-publishing, but why would a reader choose an e-book over a print book? Disabled people find e-books a blessing. The blind have computers that read to them, and those with limited vision can adjust the font size and color on an electronic device. Individuals with limited use of their limbs can operate a computer through a number of adaptive devices.

Teenagers and children who spend so much time on television, movies, and video games often associate books with school rather than with entertainment. We can wring our hands and wish they would spend less time on electronic devices and more time in the library, but our wishing won’t make it happen. However, if children and young adults see e-books as a form of entertainment, they will be more apt to read. Color pictures, animation, and music can be added to e-books for nominal cost. E-books can introduce a whole generation of non-readers to the joys of reading.

For all of us, e-books are inexpensive, convenient, and environmentally friendly. Instead of carrying a suitcase filled with books on vacation, I can now carry ten books in the palm of my hand in my e-book reader. Businesspeople can have a novel stored in their PDA so they can check their email, update their calendar, and read a few chapters on their lunch hour.

When I’m fabulously wealthy, I’d love to have a huge library filled with first editions and leather bound volumes. But until I can afford the room and the books, I can fill my laptop with hundreds of books and my desktop computer with a library of thousands. The cost of e-books is generally much less than print editions because e-books can be produced one at a time. No trees are killed to produce hundreds or thousands of copies that will eventually be stripped and destroyed.

Readers have valid reasons for choosing e-books, but why would a writer choose to be e-published rather than print published? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and probably most e-authors would also like to be published in print. However, many writers find, as I did, that print publishers reject their stories for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the story telling. The subject matter is controversial; the setting is in an “unacceptable” time or place; the characters are the wrong age, occupation, whatever; or the story doesn’t easily fit into a specific sub-genre. Because print publishing is so expensive and requires a significant investment, print publishers hesitate to buy a manuscript from a new writer if it doesn’t fit their tried and true formula. While this makes sense from a business perspective, it keeps many excellent writers from being published and deprives readers of choices.

The lead-time to produce a print book is much greater that of an e-book. In addition, e-publishers usually communicate via email. The speed and efficiency of the entire process is demonstrated by my story—six months from query to publication compared to up to three years in print publishing. As the volume of submissions has increased, the response time of e-publishers has slowed because of the added workload. But the process will probably always be faster, simply because there is less work and fewer people involved in the production.

E-publishing is less expensive than print publishing. The production cost is much lower, and there are no costs associated with printing, warehousing, shipping, and all the other costs of selling print books. Not only do e-books cost the consumer less, but also the author makes higher royalties. Royalties typically range from 25% to 70%, usually around 35% to 50%.

Of course, there are both advantages and disadvantages to every situation. Although the royalties are higher for e-books, the distribution is smaller, so the net income is likely to be less than for a print published book.

A significant disadvantage is, to paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, that e-publishers and e-authors “don’t get no respect.” Many professional writers’ organizations do not yet recognize e-published authors as published.

A common criticism of e-authors goes something like this: “They’re not really published—they’re only e-published. Most of them couldn’t sell in print so they had to resort to e-publishing.” In some ways, this is a valid criticism. My novel certainly didn’t sell to the print publishers. However, I received good rejections from the very beginning. Almost every rejection letter included positive comments about the writing, but each one also included the negative comments about the proportion of romance to the story of the heroine’s medical and physical challenges.

Many e-books are different in some way. Some readers won’t like them; some will. But isn’t that the case with every book, print or e, new author or not? I have read two reviews of the same book where one reviewer gave the book 5 stars and called it a must-read; the second said it was one of the worst books the reviewer had ever read, and she wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. Same book, totally opposite reactions. Some of the classics were rejected more times than most of us can imagine. So just because print publishers rejected a manuscript that is later sold as an e-book doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good book. It just means “the manuscript didn’t meet their publishing needs at that time.”

There may be more risk of scams in e-publishing, simply because it’s easy for anyone to put up a Web site and call themselves a publisher. A writer should check out any publisher before she submits and get professional or knowledgeable advice before signing any contract.

How are print publishing and legitimate e-publishing the same? Many people may be surprised to know that there is a high rejection rate among e-publishers. A review of e-publisher acceptance rates at reveals that there is a wide range of acceptance rates, with most e-publishers accepting only a small percentage of submissions. Whether print or electronic, the best publishers publish only the best work.

Is e-publishing for you? Ask yourself the following questions:

1) Does your book fall outside the parameters of a genre or does it cross genres?

2) Do you have a niche market that isn’t addressed by print publishers?

3) Do you have a pioneer spirit and like to be involved in new frontiers?

4) Do you have the confidence to deal with the lack of respect and the critics who say, “oh she’s not really published; she’s just e-published.”

If you can answer “yes” to the above questions, you may be a good candidate for e-publishing. Check out EPIC, the voice of e-publishing, and the Web sites listed at E-Book Resources. Query the appropriate publishers, and soon you too may enter the world of electronic publishing. Join other e-authors who are REAL authors writing REAL books!