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The Cyber Book Bind

Does a novel posted on the Internet count as a book? An electronic publisher has forced the issue in England, submitting a Web title for literary competition.

September 04, 1998|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Gettman may yet have the last laugh.

If "The Angels of Russia" is named a finalist for England's Booker Prize in literature next month, he'll know the book has been read by at least five top literary types (the judges), that they concede it actually is a book--and that it's a good one to boot.

So far, though, publisher Gettman is not even smiling. Since Oct. 17, when "Angels" came out, he has pursued the world's English-speaking reviewers persistently, to practically no avail. Aside from a short piece in one newspaper, Gettman's latest title, by French author Patricia le Roy, remains virtually unnoticed and not even considered for review.

The key word here is virtual.

The problem with this rather interesting novel is not its quality: "It's good," says John Sutherland, professor of literature at London's University College, who reviewed "Angels" for the respected London Times Literary Supplement and suggested that it be submitted for the Booker (England's equivalent of the Pulitzer).

The problem is the book's intangible-ness. "Angels" was not published on paper. It is not sold in bookstores. A 21st century read, it floats in cyberspace--a virtual book that can be accessed only as a computer file by those who order it via Internet (for $7) from Online Originals (http://www.onlineoriginals.com). That's Gettman's 1-year-old, London-based electronic book publishing firm, which offers digital literature meant to be read on a PC or any of the small hand-held devices designed for the purpose. (See accompanying story.) Or it can be printed out on paper by the purchaser.

But no matter how you read it, the traditionalists say, don't call it a book. Most dictionaries, they note, still define a book as something printed on paper, bound along one edge and protected between covers. In a physical sense, "Angels" does not exist.

"An electronic book is not a book," declares Richard Eder, the Los Angeles Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer. "A book is a piece of writing on bark or papyrus or cellophane or paper. That's the history of it. It is possible that something called a blubbitch might be as interesting as a book, but it would not be a book. If Shakespeare had hired a skywriter to write 'Hamlet' in smoke, would that be a book?"

More Offerings in the Net Pipeline

It is a question for philosophers and semanticists: those who believe books are ink on paper versus those who divorce the content from its container.

And while it's being debated, hundreds of Web sites are springing up to offer works by authors who choose to publish on the Internet--often because they cannot get published the traditional way.

Many of these literary offerings are made through firms that call themselves distributors rather than publishers. There is a big distinction between the two: Distributors typically do not edit, nor do they even really read the original works they offer for sale. Quality is not an issue. Money is. Distributors charge a fee for making authors' unedited books available on a Web site. Authors get paid a percentage for each book sold.

1stbooks, a distributor based in Bloomington, Ind., has been online for one year and already lists 1,200 titles. The firm adds 100 new titles each month, says communications director Danny O. Snow. Authors needn't worry about whether their writing is good enough to make the cut here. The firm employs no one to oversee content or to attempt to improve it. After a cursory scan to rule out hate material and hard-core pornography ("soft-core and erotica are welcome," Snow says), every work is deemed "suitable."

Authors pay an initial fee of $300 to $500 for a six-month listing on the site, and $10 for every month thereafter. They reap the first $299 earned from all sales and 40% of each sale thereafter. Most titles retail for $3 to $7.

The digital books are sent instantly to the computer of anyone who orders them, and the "store" is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Tim Jacobs, 49, a former insurance company CEO, co-founded 1stbooks in 1996 partly because he'd been writing children's books as a hobby for years and couldn't get any of them published. He says he and partner Dave Hilliard wanted to harness the transforming power of the Internet to "revolutionize publishing." With direct delivery of books from their computer to yours, there would be no costs for editing, printing, binding, boxing, shipping, storing or any of the many middlemen who usually come between an author and a reader.

Better yet, there are no returns, no unsold copies.

The 1stbooks title list includes fiction and nonfiction, from children's books illustrated with the authors' own drawings to 400-page, photo-laden cookbooks. It also offers books previously published in hardcover whose rights have reverted to the authors. "Letters to the Next President," by Sen. Richard Lugar (and formerly published by Simon & Shuster), and "Chennault," a biography by Jack Samson (formerly published by Doubleday), are two examples.

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