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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

One can foresee a time, says Snow, when "no book need ever go out of print--it can live forever" on the Internet.

Does the uneven quality matter?

"Not relevant," answers Snow. "I never could plow through 'Finnegans Wake,' even though I'm a Harvard graduate. If it had been offered to me as a manuscript for publication, I probably would not have recognized its literary merit. That's the point of all this: Let authors write what they want, and let readers decide if it's good or not. It's a purely market-driven operation."

Gettman, 42, shudders at such thoughts. He and his partner, philosophy professor Christopher Macann, started Online Originals specifically "to challenge the false notion that everything on the Web is unfiltered rubbish."

A Commitment to Cultivate New Writers

Gettman says they seek and publish "only works of high quality" that they believe will "make a positive contribution to literature or to the history of ideas." The firm has developed a list of 35 original works and adds about one title a month.

"Traditional book publishers used to cultivate fine new writers," Gettman says. "They built literary lists they believed in. That has all but disappeared. Most publishers today are owned by huge conglomerates. And most publishing decisions are made by marketers eyeing profits, not by editors whose primary concerns are intellectual and literary.

"We publish what we think deserves to be read, even if it doesn't seem commercial by current definition."

The partners function as editors as well as publishers. If they accept a book, they charge no fees to the author, but nor do they offer traditional monetary advances. Financial arrangements are simple: All books sell for $7, and the proceeds from each are split 50-50 between author and publisher.

The firm's contract with authors gives it electronic publication rights only. Gettman is acting as agent for some of his authors whose cyberspace debuts have attracted nibbles from traditional publishers.

He says he doesn't expect to make a financial killing just yet.

"So far, each of our books has typically sold in the hundreds, rather than in the thousands." But it's early in the game, and he and Macann both have other, full-time jobs as writers and academics. Still, things are going so well, Gettman says, that "by the year 2010, we expect to be an established, well-respected, literary publishing house."

Author le Roy had chosen Online Originals to publish her first novel, about Burma, when no traditional publisher would touch it. The experience was so pleasing, she says, that when she wrote her second book, "The Angels of Russia," she didn't even bother to show it to anyone else. "I wanted to work with David and to put it straight on the Internet."

Sutherland's review in the Times Literary Supplement called the book "a sweeping contemporary historical romance, set against the great drama of perestroika. . . . The story is, despite an initial predictability, gripping and finally surprising. . . ."

When the work first was proposed as a Booker entry, however, the prize committee rejected it, calling it a "computer file" rather than a book. Gettman managed to obtain an International Standard Book Number for the work, and the committee relented. But Snow, of 1stbooks, says none of his listings has been given an ISBN "because a virtual book is not yet recognized as a book; it is not a physical object and cannot be archived and inventoried in the usual way."

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