Brave E World?
Steven M. Zeitchik -- 12/20/99
Beneath the hype, predictions and paranoia of electronic publishing lie millions of dollars and an endless array of visions. PW dissects the new (dis)order.

Brave New World
Anybody with resources can scoop up 10,000 books and put them on the Web. The challenge is reaching the smaller markets.'
Ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages, come play the new game of 21st-Century Publishing. Step right up. See the game that fulfills all your futurist fantasies. Anyone -- and we mean anyone -- can play. Take your best throw and knock down your favorite distributor, retailer or publisher. Round up that VC funding, toss out some New Media cliches. See whom you can disrupt, or at least scare. Everyone's a winner, so step right up.

In an environment where big prizes -- real and imagined -- abound, where the promise of remuneration eclipses all reason, where publishers sometimes look as vulnerable as the poor guy who sits above the pool awaiting contestants' best throws, who can blame all the people turning over their dollars and stepping up to the counter? After all, any New Economy business, from a service that delivers faxes by e-mail to a site selling customized music, comes, like your typical game at a state fair, with its own set of often irrational rules. And with its core content easily distributed and millions of people already reading online, book publishing takes the carnival hoopla of the Web and amplifies it tenfold.

It's hardly surprising, then, that electronic startups and spinoffs have begun to make an impact on the book business. Eventually, their influence might add up to more than just a different distribution model-it could change the book itself. Many in the book business dismiss such predictions, but maybe they are worth considering. In nearly every other form of media, technological improvements have changed the art form itself. The addition of sound to film transformed movies from a physically based medium to a writer's one, with emphasis on dialogue and elocution. Music's shift to CDs allowed artists to mix tracks in ways they never had before. Publishing itself saw a new breed of book evolve when the mass-market revolution hit. The term mass market books has come to mean a certain kind of narrative-heavy, character-light fiction, even though the phrase refers to a platform. "What we're trying now is to make a good book that's electronic. Soon we'll try to make a good electronic book," says Microsoft's Dick Brass.

In the meantime, the startups will continue to evolve and adapt, changing the industry as they change themselves. Keeping this in mind, PW set out to cover the new contestants, their goals, their MOs, their flaws.

We tackled electronic content-managers, the potentially lucrative sector of the new business that believes screens will one day approximate paper in ease of use and ubiquity. Shining the spotlight on these digital distributors, we explicate their arguments -- how e-publishing gains you flexibility, storage, speed and live trees -- and point out the holes. We look at how and where these books will be presented to the consumer, and we confront the ultimate question: Whither Microsoft?

We also look at on-demand and its struggle for acceptance. There are those who say it's an interim business, destined to become unfeasible for mass consumption once digital publishing catches on. Others believe it to be the future of the book -- a physical object that carries with it all the magic and power of a traditional volume, but one that also allows for customized print runs. Our story about on-demand examines the companies making the technology, the publishers supplying the content and the retailers lining up their ducks for an all-out clicks-and-mortar battle.

Of course, before any content can be given over, publishers need an efficient way to control and track such things as digital rights and meta-data tagging. Back-end needs are administered to by several rights software companies. Who will dominate, and why?

Finally, we single out Versaware, a company that handles on-demand, digital distribution, reference, multimedia and trade publishing, while throwing in a little vanity for good measure. In an age where everyone speaks of convergence, this is one company that's truly doing it all.

Step right up; there's a new fair in town. You might as well play -- the barker isn't shutting up anytime soon.