E and Me

One of the most stunningly boring chores in my writing career was feeding old Langford novels page by page through the scanner, to create electronic versions. Little cries of "Oh God, did I write that?" alternated with "I've been doing this forever and still haven't reached page 100 ..."

All that mighty effort was because this year, just like each of the previous five years, is supposed to be when e-text publishing takes off and starts making serious money. Maybe. There are many obstacles. One is that people expect all text on the web to be free. Another is that the web is tailor-made for vanity presses, and semi-infinite quantities of freebie fiction lurk out there, most of it ghastly beyond belief.

I and my pal John Grant gave it a whirl when the web publishers fatbrain.com (who do OK with computer/business books in electronic form) launched their e-Matter scheme and announced the forthcoming death of the printed book. We sent in our co-authored spoof SF disaster novel Earthdoom – long out of print – and waited to get rich. Of course we didn't.

The snag was that just like the web in general, e-Matter was totally undiscriminating. They'd take anything at all, from anyone, making no distinction between unreadable slush and "real" novels like Earthdoom which – though I admit it didn't quite deserve White Dwarf's review quote "Could this be the finest book ever written?" – had been accepted by a major publisher and paid for. Nor did it help that fatbrain.com initially didn't bother to catalogue the stuff on offer, so to find and buy a particular e-text you had to know in advance that it was there. Could this be the worst publishing scheme ever devised? My lawyer tells me not to answer that question.

Mr Grant and I hastily withdrew Earthdoom.

Another approach to e-publishing appears at the British "Infinity Plus" freebie site at www.iplus.zetnet.co.uk, showcasing short SF that's already been published – so at least one professional editor has given it the thumbs-up. (What's in it for authors? Just publicity.) Some US print publishers, like Baen and the very wonderful Tor, offer parallel electronic versions of their SF books.

Now a small stir is being caused by literary agent Richard Curtis, whose "E-reads" scheme at www.e-reads.com launched in January with a claimed 2,000 titles – including heaps of classic SF. Curtis is attacking the vanity-press image of electronic publishing by having everything screened by a board of editors. When you pay for a book, you're paying for editorial expertise in filtering out drivel.

But another problem of e-publishing is that people don't like reading lengthy novels on screen. At last the answer's here: "print on demand". The e-text is squirted into a huge great clanking machine which rapidly produces that hard-to-get SF classic in a neatly bound edition of one, just for you. Sounds great. But the machine hasn't yet reached my local bookshops ...

For the poor suffering authors who scrape by at the bottom of the book industry's food chain, e-publishing and print-on-demand look attractive – at first glance. "Midlist" books, the moderate sellers that used to be the backbone of publishing but are being phased out by the accountants' worship of the Holy Bottom Line, can make a comeback. Even I could have all my stuff in print again. Even John Brosnan!

But, said a pal who's a rather more established novelist than me and whose backlist is regularly reprinted, for him this is actually worse than remaindering. Once you've put a book into an e-publishing deal, he reckoned, print publishers won't touch it ever again – why should they, when it can be downloaded for less than the cost of a printed book? The e-publishers argue that net availability can increase print sales by spreading the word. The conventional publishers mostly don't believe them.

So I was about to send E-Reads my 1984 nuclear farce The Leaky Establishment (based on my grim years as a weapons physicist), when along came a tentative offer from a new publisher wanting to reprint that very book, for real money. But if I took the Curtis shilling, the deal was off. Decisions, decisions ...

Meanwhile, despite the imminent death of print, you can't help noticing that SFX still appears on paper.

David Langford can't believe he used to retype whole novels on a typewriter.

Footnote, late June 2000. The briefly mentioned "new publisher" Big Engine will indeed be reissuing The Leaky Establishment with a newly written introduction by Terry Pratchett, scheduled for September this year. When I looked again recently, www.e-reads.com – which had been mysteriously silent since January promises of an imminent contract for another Langford book – seemed to be hanging fire and even to have taken a step backwards, with the former catalogue of available titles at the site now replaced by an uninformative "test page". Meanwhile, a new holy e-grail beckons: www.fictionwise.com is reissuing previously published short sf by established authors and offering actual advances for electronic rights. I'm in process of leasing them a dozen shorts from the vast Langford backlist....

Further footnote, August 2002. The Leaky Establishment eventually appeared from Big Engine in April 2001. I wrote a follow-up column about all this in SFX 91, May 2002.