At the POD Races

Just like last year, and several previous ones, 2002 is billed as the year when electronic books will really take off. To show total confidence in this glorious future, US publisher Time Warner celebrated the end of 2001 by killing off its e-books department, iPublish ...

Since writing in SFX #63 about the alleged revolution in e-publishing and print-on-demand books, I've experimented with releasing Langford titles (mostly elderly) through various new small presses, in hope of either getting rich or collecting enough horror stories to fill a column. So far, I haven't got rich.

But I was pleased that, who sell downloadable e-books from their website, gave me advance money up front for electronic rights to thirteen short stories. (In the small press world, few outfits can afford advances. Even Fictionwise doesn't any more, alas.) Why thirteen? Twelve was a nice round number; another story was added when it became a hot property shortlisted for the Hugo.

To promote the site, Fictionwise made last year's Hugo short-fiction nominees available for free download throughout Summer 2001. My jaw dropped when the royalty statement arrived – they'd shifted 3,931 "units" of that story. On closer inspection it turned out that approximately 3,900 of these were promotional giveaways. As always, people love to get freebies from the web but are reluctant to pay for mere electronic text.

This was also the problem with the much-hyped E-Reads, where I experimentally placed my venerable SF novel The Space Eater (1982). It was supposed to be available both as an e-text and in POD or print-on-demand format as a real book you can hold. There were endless delays and glitches with the POD edition, though, and meanwhile hardly anyone wants to read full-length books on a computer screen. No royalties. The author continues to starve.

Problems with POD books are a major reason why haggard small press publishers stay up all night to get in extra hair-tearing time. The books arrive not on demand but months after demand, they're trimmed wrongly, a page at the end is missing, the POD/distributor deal that gets the book listed on Amazon mysteriously fails, or (very often) the book appears on Amazon with no blurb or description that might induce anyone to buy it ...

(My pal Molly Brown, author of the POD sf/fantasy collection Bad Timing, spent agonized weeks monitoring in hope of working out why, no matter how often she reinstated the blurb and reviews, some hidden hand deleted all details of her book from the website every Tuesday. It remains a mystery.)

Next, I placed some Langford masterworks with the Anglophile US imprint Cosmos Books, which struggles valiantly against the horrendous delays of POD. My Cosmos titles include a collection of SF review columns and the legendary gastric horror spoof Guts (co-written with John Grant), so resolutely tasteless that the major British publisher which long ago commissioned, accepted and paid for this novel couldn't bear to follow through and publish it. Though Cosmos is slow to get stuff into print, it appears in the end – oh dear, that may be another Guts joke – and they even sent me royalties at the end of 2001. Whoopee!

Of course I have a particularly soft spot for the new UK outfit Big Engine, since it launched last year with a reissue of my favourite Langford novel The Leaky Establishment and saved it from a fate worse than E-Reads. Even better, that nice Terry Pratchett contributed an introduction to this farce about nuclear weaponry: "I hate Dave Langford for writing this book. This was the book I meant to write. God wanted me to write this book ..."

Skipping the self-promotion, Big Engine definitely wins the Langford Lollipop of Approval for actually promoting my book. Reviews appeared in the most unexpected places, including the Morning Star and several SF magazines that don't normally cover reissues. Bossman Ben Jeapes (the Big Engineer) keeps talking about doing a film or TV deal for Leaky. And his royalties are pretty good too. Bravo!

E-Reads, I regret to say, gets the Wooden Spoon of Disappointment, not just for being so slow to produce an actual book but for the mingy contract clause that withholds the first $250 of your royalties to cover alleged costs of formatting the text and sending one "complimentary" copy – still not seen – of the POD edition. Boo! Hiss!

David Langford continues not to get rich. So what's new?