Although agent and publishing theorist Richard Curtis’s online publishing imprint, E-Reads, has been around since 1999, it is only in the last few years that the segments E-Reads specializes in have gained some consumer traction. The titles Curtis publishes are available as e-books and as print-on-demand books through Lightning Source, and most of them are reissues of out-of-print genre fiction titles, meaning the overhead is low, and even small to modest sales (which are the norm for E-Reads) can be profitable. Since its launch, Curtis acknowledged, the company was “on cruise control, waiting for the rest of the publishing industry to catch up to our original vision.” Curtis slowly acquired titles, sometimes mining his agency’s clients’ backlists, until recently: “Clearly in the last couple of years the industry has finally gotten it,” said Curtis. “When I realized that was happening, I went on a buying spree.”

A pair of recent deals mark E-Reads’ shift into high gear. The publisher has just acquired 32 out-of-print titles by bestselling science fiction and fantasy author Harlan Ellison. In addition, E-Reads has signed a distribution agreement with MPS’s Global Reader, a platform for distributing and viewing book content via cell phones.

The Richard Curtis Agency currently represents Ellison, so Curtis didn’t have to go too far afield to bag Ellison’s books for the E-Reads list. Available only as e-books for $9.99, the first group of Ellison reissues on E-Reads includes Ellison Wonderland, Gentleman Junkie and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Others are on the way. Curtis feels confident these Ellison titles make a strong addition to his list: “We know that there are countless fans who will buy Ellison’s backlist,” he says. One of Curtis’s other innovative practices is his royalty structure: E-Reads splits net earnings 50/50 with authors. Curtis estimates that on both e-book and POD editions of E-Reads titles, the net profit is about $4 per title, meaning the author gets $2—a higher royalty than trade houses usually give on paperbacks—which gives Ellison the potential to make good money on books that were previously lost in the ether.

E-Reads distributes its e-books through several channels, including MobiPocket, Baker & Taylor, Fictionwise and OverDrive. Adding Global Reader to that list simply gives E-Reads access to another channel, though one that Curtis feels is a direct line to where publishing seems to be heading: “I have always written and stated that the likeliest handheld device of the future would be the cell phone,” he said. He believes e-books will take center stage in reading culture when “everyone carries one device in his or her pocket that they can do everything on,” he added. Looking to Japan’s example, where e-books are commonly read on cell phones, Curtis believes Global Reader gives E-Reads access to what will a growing market in the U.S.

Getting on the free content bandwagon is another part of E-Reads’ push forward. Since March, E-Reads has been serializing The Faithful, a romance by an author writing under the pseudonym Carla Dickens (harkening back to Charles Dickens, one of the great serializers), which follows a group of characters involved in the Obama campaign during the primary race. The action in the novel mirrors the real-life events of the campaign. Curtis is excited about it, and is pretty sure it’s been a useful marketing tool: “We’ve just had a ball doing it, and it’s drawn a good deal of traffic. We’re hoping a general publisher will want to extend the story though the general election, but we’re ready to publish the book as it is.”

E-Reads is an interesting case in the still-unfolding landscape of digital publishing. Rather than propose e-books as viable competitors with trade houses’ frontlists, Curtis has found ways to offer titles readers can’t get elsewhere—largely because it isn’t economically viable for publishers to keep huge backlists in print when each book only generates a few sales. Yet, with low overhead and no need to warehouse the books, monthly sales of 10 copies of each of 50 titles in a series of sci-fi books, for example, add up. Perhaps the E-Reads model is the future of backlist.

1 Gorean Saga seriesby John Norman, SF
2 Destroyer seriesby Warren Murphy, Action/Adventure
3 The Americana seriesby Janet Dailey, Romance
4 Various titlesby Dave Duncan, SF and Fantasy
5 Various titlesby Jennifer Blake, Romance
6 Tea with the Black Dragonby R.A. MacAvoy, SF
7 The Soong Sisterby Emily Hahn, History