Thursday, December 30, 1999

self-publishing has never been easier

A budding "e-publisher" gets a big boost from Barnes & Noble investment

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in Forbes in December 1999).

Hemingway wannabes, sharpen your pencils.

Or more accurately, turn on your computers. Thanks to the Internet, budding Emile Zolas and Victor Hugos can get published with a click of the mouse, bypassing such fuddy-duddy concerns as getting an agent, selling the idea to a publisher and marketing.

Technologies like print-on-demand - the ability to publish a single copy of a book as opposed to a huge print run - have made the proposition of becoming a published author more economical. And the kind of marketing muscle necessary to tout Stephen King's next thriller is being replaced by the connectivity of the World Wide Web and the word-of-mouth capabilities the Internet affords.

Slowly but surely, "e-publishers" are beginning to tout themselves as the next best thing to a royal benefactor. With thousands of rejected authors out in the world, electronic publishers have a ready, disgruntled audience to target. They unashamedly even call themselves "vanity publishing portals."

Companies such as Hard Shell Word Factory,, and are the early entrants in what looks like it may become a multi-million-dollar electronic book publishing industry. Of these companies, one that stands out by sheer weight of its backer - the gigantic Barnes & Noble - is Last month, Barnes & Noble bought a 49 percent stake in San Jose-based iUniverse. The company charges between $99 and $299 (depending on the suite of services an author uses) for publishing a new title.

That price may seem a bit hefty, but at iUniverse, authors get Barnes & Noble as a partner, which means some of the author's books will be available not just through, but also through Barnes & Noble's stores and its Web site, both of which will feature the titles prominently. In addition, iUniverse's books will be available at other traditional and online bookstores, including Barnes & Noble rival

Adding spiffiness to its partnership is iUniverse's technology that enables it to actually print quality paperbacks of the manuscript if a reader prefers that to an electronically downloadable version. All this within 30 days of submitting a manuscript.

"It sounds irresistible," said Charles Gerlach, an analyst at Boston-based Mainspring Communications Inc. "They will be able to hook you up to all these distribution channels and then there's their relationship with Barnes & Noble, which is just huge."

What's in it for the writers? They will get 20 percent royalties if they choose the print-on-demand option and a whopping 50 percent for choosing the electronic book option. While the books can currently be read online, they are not in the most reader-friendly format, something iUniverse has done on purpose.

If You Write It, They Will Buy

"The idea is that just like in a traditional book store, where you can go and read a few pages to see if it grabs your attention, you can do so here too," said Richard Tam, president and chief executive of

The company has not started offering electronic books yet, but expects to do so in the next quarter after Microsoft makes its Microsoft Reader available. The Reader is a new software application for PCs and hand-held devices that delivers an on-screen computer reading experience that approaches the quality of paper.

iUniverse expects to publish 80,000 titles by 2001. In comparison, the traditional industry publishes about 60,000 titles a year. iUniverse's Tam says that while the mix of out-of-print versus new titles is 60-40 currently, he expects it be 50-50 by 2001.

The company says it has the capacity to publish 2,000 titles a month, which amounts to revenue of $80,000 a month, based on the lowest price end of $99, and a 60-40 ratio of out-of-print versus new books.

One concern that analysts have about this business model is that free, electronically-downloadable books are expected to become readily available in the marketplace. In this case, Tam's counting on the traditional reader, if not the "traditional" author.

"We are the only ones that can print and bind an actual book so it looks like any other traditional book and we can do it cheap," said Tam. He also expects there to be more demand for printed books. "Current statistics show that the book that sold the most was also the one that the most people had read parts of online," Tam said.

Writing 101

What about the quality of writing, though? Can just anyone, with a crummy manuscript have their "masterpieces" published? Tam says "yes," but adds that iUniverse offers various editorial guidelines and services on its site.

"If it's a bad book we offer classes, tell the writers that there is an editing zone on our site and if they have even higher aspirations, they could use some of our more high-end programs," Tam said.

The company has affiliated itself with a Web site called the Writers Club University (, which claims to have 50 courses, including "Adding Depth and Texture to Your Novel" and "Writing Tips: Advice & Know-How for Money." They also offer the provocatively-titled course, "Strip Tease Writing(Show - don't tell)."

Classes are held via message board and e-mail and cost $60 for four weeks, $80 for six weeks and $100 for eight weeks.

But iUniverse is a "vanity publishing portal" and vanities run deep in the creative community. What if the author doesn't care for all this suggested learning and just wants to get a book out there?

"Then we'll publish it," sighs Tam, taking to the pulpit again, for the cause of "millions of ignored, talented writers."