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iUniverse.com's Brave New Publishing World
Calvin Reid -- 2/21/00

When Barnes & Noble bought a 49% stake in the on-demand publishing Web site iUniverse.com, it signified a bit more than an expansion of B&N's frontlist publishing interests. B&N's investment in iUniverse served to validate what would have once been considered a subsidy or "vanity" publisher, and has helped create a new kind of book-publishing entity.

iUniverse.com president Richard Tam told PW that "the economics of the traditional book industry means that a lot of quality books can't be published. We want to help correct that." In effect, iUniverse is a publishing portal site offering an impressive array of services and online resources in support of its client-subsidized print-on-demand publishing programs. The company was launched in 1996, focusing on education and computer training. By 1998 it had started an on-demand book publishing line called t xcel.com. Today iUniverse employees about 300 people and has offices in San Jose, Calif., Lincoln, Neb., New York City, Rochester, N.Y., Falls Church, Va., and Shanghai, China.

iUniverse.com offers a wide variety of self-publishing programs, some for as little as $99. And while its alliance with B&N offers what appears to be guaranteed retail outlet for the books, Tam was emphatic that iUniverse titles are not assured shelf space in B&N. "B&N is only one partner. Our books are available through Amazon.com, Borders, Fatbrain.com," he said, as well as at thousands of independent booksellers. Nevertheless, B&N is a formidable resource and Tam was quick to mention Natasha Munson's Life Lessons for My Black Girls: How to Make Wise Choices and Live a Life You Love!, an iUniverse title that caught the attention of B&N buyers. The book is now a frontlist title, with a marketing and promotion budget, and is featured in an advertising campaign promoting the iUniverse program.

Tam told PW that iUniverse is a partner to its writer-clients and helps them to self-promote. The site provides an Authors Tool Kit, with extensive information on marketing, promotion and dealing with agents. Tam claims that bookstore buyers often discover iUniverse titles through the promotional efforts of the writers. "We send out sales sheets and we have sales reps," Tam said, "but our services to writers are low cost. We have to make our money on book sales. That's why we consider ourselves to be partners with the writers. We try to create a network of institutions and authors and offer a wide selection of choices to readers."

However, it is difficult to get a fix on the size the iUniverse program. When asked, Tam tends to supply absurdly large, unexplained figures. This year, he claimed, the site will publish 30,000 titles, a phenomenal number when you consider that between 50,000 and 60,000 books were published in the U.S. last year. In addition, Tam said he has 7000 independent bookstore accounts, which is more than double the number of independent stores listed by the American Booksellers Association. Pressed on the figures, Tam conceded that the list numbers are inflated by agreements with publishers to make large numbers of their out-of-print titles available on-demand.

Nevertheless, iUniverse is not simply a vanity-publishing site. "We have a review process and we decline to publish a number of books," Tam said. iUniverse books are published through associations with a number of established writers' organizations. iUniverse partners such as the Writers Club (under Writers Club Press) and The Writers Digest (under The Writers Showcase), he said, review manuscripts submitted and make recommendations about whether or not to publish them. iUniverse also partners with the Author's Guild's Backinprint.com to bring AG members' titles back in print through t xcel, now an iUniverse imprint. t xcel also focuses on on-demand reprints of out-of-print university press titles. There's even an arrangement with Kinko's, called Express Yourself Press, that allows professors to publish academic materials or copyright-approved course work.

And the site offers an array of support for its writer clients. There's the Author Tool Kit, and iUniverse writers can take more than 50 different writing courses online through the site. Tam said the site has POD facilities in Europe and Asia and sells internationally through the Web. iUniverse even has its own online bookstore, which sells as well as offers the full text of all titles for free. The site's various communities are regularly updated with new material, columns by published authors, message and job boards and much more. Tam even says that there is a program "in the works" for electronic texts, but declined to discuss it further.

Tam said that in "rare cases," iUniverse will pick up a book the traditional way: pay an advance and publish it. "But we're really after new possibilities. It's a new paradigm," he explained.

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