Self-publishing electronically

by Jeremy O. Butler

from Jump Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 62-68
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 2000, 2006

"A flood of new technologies and business alliances is breaking down bathers to digital books…The breakthroughs are leading authors to bypass publishers, retailers to become publishers and publishers to become bookstores…" — Don Clark, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 31, 1999

The book publishing process may be broken down into three key stages:

  1. the creation of the text (and images),
  2. the physical production of the book, and
  3. the book's distribution and marketing.

Individual authors control the creative process, but the publishing industry has long held a monopoly on the production, widespread distribution and marketing of printed materials. Consequently, authors are forced to acquiesce to the demands of that industry in order to reach readers. Authors do not decide if works will be printed or if books will be revised/updated; and they do not set the amount of compensation they will be paid for those works. Corporate capitalism and the laws of intellectual property have helped this model persist for centuries, but the development of the Internet and, in particular, the World Wide Web has roiled the previously placid waters of the publishing process.

During the second half of the 20th century, we've been promised many false revolutions in publishing and other mass media. Zealots have prophesied that the inventions of photocopying, small-format filmmaking equipment, audiocassette recorders, and video camcorders would herald revolutions in personal expression and cultural production. Since at least the 1960s, a broadside or a movie or a recording of music/ voice could be inexpensively produced. Indeed, since at least the 1960s, there's been a thriving underground culture of do-it-yourself (DIY) media in print/ film/ video/ audio recordings, but where is the revolution? The impact of these DIY productions has been quite minimal outside of their respective cultural ghettos due to the lack of effective, widespread distribution. For simple text and still images, that distribution problem was solved by the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. The Web allows authors to create virtual "books" and to connect directly with readers-effectively subverting conventional systems of distribution. Your home computer and a simple text editor can serve as your printing press and your $20-permonth Internet service provider (ISP) can function as your distributor. Thus, the history of mass media and its failed "revolutions" teach us that the true potential for revolutionary change hem lies mostly in the distribution of creative work, not its production.

The principle of a distribution "web" of interconnected documents was proposed by Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau in 1989, in an effort to share text and data in high-energy physics collaborations. Berners-Lee then wrote the specifications for the language of the Web (HTML — Hypertext Mark-Up Language) and the system for sharing it among networked computers (HTTP — Hypertext Transfer Protocol). Initially, the network was limited to CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (Switzerland), where Berners-Lee worked, but in 1991, HTML and HTTP were released to the Internet at large. This established the foundation for the World Wide Web, where anyone and everyone could self-publish texts. But few did. This text-only, monochromatic Web had little impact on the general public, most of whom had barely heard of e-mail at the time. The spark for the exponential growth of the Web was a "graphical" browser, i.e., one that contained images and colors. The first such browser was Mosaic, which the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) put into final release in November 1993. By combining text, colored elements and (still) images, NCSA Mosaic made Web documents the equal of visually rich newspapers, magazines, and books, and, crucially, it was built on a delivery system into which virtually anyone could tap. A new distribution system for text and still images was born. And that birth was just six short years ago. In the next few years it will also become feasible to send full-motion video down that same pipe, but, as of this writing, video is still struggling — as anyone will attest who has suffered through a Real Video Webcast of a video image the size of a Saltine cracker, running at 15 frames per second.

A new paradigm of text/ image distribution raises important questions for authors: Must we remain shackled to the current system of large publishing houses distributing/ marketing books at great expense, and taking the lion's share of the profits? Is a new model of publishing emerging and will it revolutionize the ways that text and image are disseminated? And, more specifically, might this new model benefit media studies?

For me, these publishing issues were thrown into sharp relief when a TV-studies textbook of mine was declared out of print by Wadsworth Publishing Company, a subsidiary of the enormous International Thomson Publishing (ITP). Wadsworth was not satisfied with sales of approximately 1,000 units per year of Television: Critical Methods and Applications and declined to do a second edition. Once I had copyright returned to me, I set out to find a publisher for a second edition, but I also considered publishing the first edition myself and doing so electronically. The following comments outline the potential and pitfalls of DIY electronic publishing. They center on textbook publishing but also apply to situations that counterpoise authors and publishers — be that the publication of a textbook, an academic monograph, a journal article, or a best-selling novel.

The Economics of Textbook Publishing: A Case Study

College-level textbook publishing differs substantively from other academic publishing. Despite the fact that textbook writing can be a very creative effort and that all college teaching relies principally on textbooks, they count nothing toward tenure, promotion, and merit pay raises. It is presumed that textbooks do not involve original research, that they do not advance the knowledge within a particular field, and that, at best, they synthesize extant knowledge and, at worst, they rehash received wisdom and are simply written out of previous textbooks. Moreover, teaching activities are generally not rewarded by the tenure/ promotion/ merit pay systems of most academic institutions. And thus the creation of books from which to teach is perceived as less important than publishing books to advance the discipline — and, subsequently, to advance one's career.

Balancing the lack of professional dividends in textbook writing is substantial financial remuneration. Where authors are never paid for essays in, for example, Jump Cut, Cinema Journal and Journal of Film and Video, and seldom receive much by way of royalties for academic monographs; textbook writing can pay quite handsomely. Television earned well over $15,000 in royalties during its first five years. And its sales were considered "modest" by Wadsworth's standards. Obviously, the most popular textbooks can earn their authors much more. Thus, the compensation for missing merit-pay increases can be rather significant.

Due to the amount of money involved in textbook publishing, it tends to operate on a more bluntly commercial model than other academic publishing. Authors must negotiate financial terms with publishers and those terms can translate into thousands of dollars. Some textbook authors even hire agents to represent them, which is virtually unheard of in other academic publishing. During negotiations, the amount of royalties, advances, and other monetary compensation is hammered out. Textbook authors typically receive royalties that are 9-15% of the wholesale price of the book — not including copies that are distributed as promotional material (e.g., examination copies sent to teachers). However, the way that publishers calculate royalties is a bit mystical since the wholesale price varies based on the distribution method. The author is at the publisher's mercy when it comes time to calculate royalties.

The case of Television illustrates this point. The negotiated royalty on it was 15%. From 1994 to 1998, it sold 5,127 units at a retail price of approximately $50 resulting in total retail sales of about $256,350. The royalties earned during that time period were close to $18,000 or 7% of the retail sales-less than half of the ostensible 15% royalty. Looked at from another perspective, the authors of this $50 textbook earned approximately $3.50 per unit. And thus 93% of the retail price went to Wadsworth, its distributor, and the bookstores which sold the book. Obviously, the authors' compensation is a relatively small part of the price the student pays. If all production, distribution and marketing costs were subtracted from the book, it could have been sold for $3.50.

The Paperless Classroom? Print vs. Web vs. PDF

For my purposes, computer-based publishing formats may be divided into two broad and overlapping categories: those that exist only on the computer screen and those that may be displayed on screen but which also may be printed. The former consist of truly interactive applications that have been created by "authoring" programs such as Macromedia Director and typically are produced and distributed on CD-ROM. Such projects stretch the meaning of the word "textbook" and resemble computer games in that they draw users into a virtual world-teaching them through participatory exercises. They are essentially computer programs or applications and do not translate into print form.

Herbert Zettl's CD-ROM on TV production (Video Producer: A Video Lab, 1995) was the first I saw that was produced as a textbook in digital form. Since then there have been very few similar works. Ellen Seiter's HeroTV (1998) teaches students about children's superhero television through stories and interactive games; and Robert Kolker's Film, Form, and Culture (1998) bundles a CD-ROM of illustrative material with an introductory film textbook. I've been excited by these efforts, but I must confess that none of them have made their way into my syllabi. This is partially a logistical problem as my department's computer lab only caught up to "multimedia" technology last spring, but it's more a pedagogical one. I need a textbook that students can bring to a computer-less classroom with them. I want to be able to say,

"Turn to page 87 in Television. Who can explain what Butler means by 'mise-en-scene'? Can anyone apply that to the episode of Seinfeld we just saw?"

Beyond the question of whether students can stand to read dozens of pages of on-screen text in preparation for class, text on a monitor just does not work for me in class. I've taught in computer labs for the past four years and trying to lead a discussion while students stare at computer monitors is a disaster. To me, it appears that the best application for computer-based learning is not in-class, but outside of class where students can use CD-ROMs for self-paced learning. Computer-based learning also has terrific potential for distance-ed applications. In both these cases, the CD-ROM needs to be more than just text on screen. It must also engage the user in interactive ways that are only possible while he/she sits before the computer.

For my pedagogical style for the foreseeable future, I'll need a print textbook; but that print textbook may be electronically produced and distributed. The printing might occur at the last stage of the publishing process and might be done on the little inkjet printer connected to the student's home computer or in his/her neighborhood photocopy shop. Currently, the most popular computer-based formats for material that may be both read on a computer screen and printed to paper are Web pages, which are based on the Hypertext Mark-Up Language (HTML); and digital documents using Portable Document Format (PDF). It's useful to understand the differences between the two as they offer variant solutions to the publishing problem.

Web pages commonly combine text and images. What holds the page together is an HTML file that contains both simple text and also instructions that tell Web browsers such as Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) how to compose the page. HTML controls where text and image appear, what color and size they'll be, how the hypertext links will appear, and so on. If you're curious, you may peek beneath the surface of any Web page and view its HTML source code. (Both Navigator and IE have "Show Source" options under their View menus.) However, HTML does not totally control the layout of the Web page. The user may manipulate several aspects of the browser — causing the HTML code to adjust the layout of image and text. For example, the simple promotional Web page for Television may fill the entire computer screen, as in figure 1; or the browser window may be resized, thus squeezing the text and images, as in figure 2.

It's clear to see how this is a graphic designer's nightmare. There's no way to tell where a line of text will end. Words wrap in different places and images move around on the screen. This allows great freedom for the user, but it creates inconsistencies in on-screen displays and the printed version of the on-screen material. When one user prints it, the text will end at a certain point, but it may end at a different point for another user. Consistent pagination is newly impossible, although there are cumbersome workaround solutions (e.g., inserting markers for page breaks). A textbook printed from HTML pages is thus difficult to use in class.

The desire for invariable on-screen viewing and printing led Adobe Systems, Inc. to create the Portable Document Format (PDF). PDF documents retain the layout information, color scheme, and illustrations from the original-regardless of the size/resolution of the computer screen, the type of computer being used (Windows, Mac, Unix, etc.), or other variables. Figure 3 shows a page from Television, the book, which has been converted to PDF.

It contains a photograph, a block of text, and a diagram; and duplicates exactly the look of that page as it appears in print. Unlike the HTML pages in figures 1 and 2, the user may not alter the layout of this page. If he/she enlarges or reduces the image, the layout stays the same and the entire page simply appears bigger or smaller. Reshaping the viewing window results in a smaller portion of the page being visible and not in a reshaped layout — as can be seen in figure 4. Additionally, the layout of a PDF document remains consistent when it is printed. That is, the way it appears on a computer screen is very close to how it'll appear on the printed page — including fonts, pagination, line breaks, and other layout elements.

PDF documents are becoming increasingly common on the Web. For example, the IRS chose PDF to make tax forms available online. Indeed, PDF is so common now that it is quickly becoming the de facto standard when precise control over document appearance is required. However, there are still some disadvantages to using PDF. The foremost disadvantage is that it requires users to install an additional piece of software called Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the documents. Although Acrobat Reader may be used as a standalone application, users most commonly view PDF documents while browsing the Web with Navigator or IE (as in figure 3). In that situation, Acrobat functions as a browser "plug-in" — which largely automates the process of PDF display. However, if one does not have this plug-in installed, one cannot view PDF documents online. Fortunately, the plug-in is widely available without charge from Adobe. Adobe also authorizes anyone to distribute Acrobat Reader for free, which means that many computer and CD-ROM manufacturers include Acrobat Reader with their products. It is likely, therefore, that many users already have Acrobat Reader installed. And still, it is a source of concern as the prospect of installing any software can be daunting or inconvenient to many computer users.

A second disadvantage of PDF for self-publishing is that it is not "open source" software, which is to say, it is owned and controlled by Adobe. The dangers of proprietary software such as this become evident when one considers the cost of producing PDF documents. Although the PDF viewer (Acrobat Reader) is free, the software required to create PDF documents (Acrobat proper) is not. Adobe Acrobat 4.0 currently lists for $249, although the street price is closer to $220. And if one is associated with a school, one can buy the academic version for $79.95 (Windows) or $84.95 (Mac). Other PDF-producing software (with limited features) is beginning to emerge on the market at the time of this writing, but Adobe products are still the principal source of PDF documents. This contrasts sharply with HTML, which is a standard currently developed and monitored by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a non-profit, international organization that no one commercial entity controls. Further, HTML production requires no special software. HTML documents can be created with the simplest wont processor. And both Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect will let you save wont processing documents as HTML files.

Although expensive and proprietary, Acrobat is still very useful software. It enables you to create PDF files from any other software-including all word processors, desktop publishing applications, and spreadsheet programs. Essentially, Acrobat functions much like a printer on your system. You originate a document in, say, Microsoft Word and then "print" to PDF — a process that Adobe calls "distilling." The resulting PDF file looks remarkably similar to the original Word document. Other Adobe software will also create PDF documents. For example, the 6.5 Plus release of Pagemaker, a desktop publishing program, will generate PDF documents. In fact, the Television sample in figure 3 was created in Pagemaker. (Pagemaker lists for $499. with an academic price of $239.95.) In addition, the following high-end graphics programs support PDF creation to greater or lesser extent: QuarkXPress, Adobe Illustrator, and CorelDRAW. Support of PDF is evidently gaining in the world of graphic design and publishing.

New Capabilities in Electronic, PDF Documents

As I've argued above, the feasibility of on-screen textbooks is debatable, but I must admit that on-screen PDF documents offer features that have piqued my curiosity. Many of these features would be difficult, impossible or prohibitively expensive to replicate in a print publication. (Please see the online version of this document for examples of PDF in action: www.tcf.ua.edu/JumpCut/DigRev)

PDF documents open new possibilities for image and sound. Print publications often limit their illustrations to black-and-white stills, because of the enormous expense of printing full color images. PDF can ignore this limitation — using color photographs, colored text and graphic elements as appropriate — because color is no more difficult to display on a computer screen than black and white. The PDF use of image goes beyond the freedom to incorporate color. Moving images and sounds can also be embedded in PDF documents. This could be quite a boon to screen studies. In the midst of a discussion of camera movement in the films of Orson Welles, there could be a clip from TOUCH OF EVIL No longer would the author have to rely upon clumsy shot descriptions, he/she could present the shot itself, and he could include Henry Mancini's intense, bongo-driven score with the shot.

Much like HTML documents, PDF documents may contain hypertext links. This offers the reader a new way to navigate the material. In our Welles example, there could be links to illustrative TOUCH OF EVIL stills that appear much earlier/ later in the PDF document Students don't have to flip through pages, searching for illustrations. Rather, they can simply click on a word and be instantly transported to those illustrations. If the reader is online while he/she is reading the PDF document, the links can even be to sounds, still or motion images, or full sites out on the Web. You could thus link from your Welles discussion to a TOUCH OF EVIL poster or a Mancini sound file on the Web or the full Welles filmography on the Internet Movie Database.

As you might expect for any electronic text, PDF documents are fully searchable. E.g., a search for "Welles" in the example above would take the reader directly to the part of the document dealing with Welles. Beyond simple searches, however, PDF documents provide useful indexing and "bookmarking" capabilities. A PDF index functions much like a book index, with the added hypertextual capability of clicking on a word in the index and instantly being taken to that part of the document As 15th and 16th century bookmakers learned, sorted lists of names and topics provide non-linear access to information in a medium that was initially limited to linear access — most notably in the inscribed scrolls that antedated printed books. A PDF document accelerates the speed of that access. The PDF bookmark is a cross between the index and a table of contents. Bookmarks are displayed in Acrobat's "navigation pane" — as in figure 5, from Adobe's
Portable Document Format Reference Manual.

Bookmarks organize the document into an outline and guide the reader toward significant components within the document. Each bookmark is a hypertext link to the specific section in the document. Thus, with bookmarks and the index the reader is afforded alternative routes into the document.

One final option that PDF documents provide is heightened interaction between the reader and the author. Authors may elicit specific responses from readers by using PDF forms. The reader fills in the form, clicks on a button, and his/her responses are instantaneously sent to the author. Of course, in the past, readers could always send letters to authors, but the PDF form is a significantly more dynamic method for catalyzing responses. Forms may be put to all sorts of interactive uses. In an educational context, for instance, forms could be used as the basis for exams. Student responses could automatically feed into grading programs which provide teachers and students feedback on their performance. Or form responses could be entered into a database. If an academic department were building a list of alumni, for example, a PDF form could be used to gather the data, which might then be displayed on a Web page.

Getting Documents onto Users' Screens and into Their Printers

The creation of HTML or PDF documents is just the first step in becoming your own publisher. The bigger challenge is distributing those documents to users. As of this writing (fall 1999), there are several rapidly changing ways to accomplish this. The potential for change is enormous, but there still are major pitfalls to be encountered. The following notes cover the most promising current options.

1. Web-based distribution

The simplest way to distribute one's work is as an HTML document posted on a Web site, which users can print on their own printers. I have already outlined the layout problems inherent in HTML documents. For me, printouts of HTML documents will not suffice as textbook material. HTML distribution raises another, equally troubling problem for the professional textbook author How will he/she be compensated for his/her work? So-called "banner" ads (the ads at the top of many commercial Web sites) have not proven to be an effective model for generating revenue. Besides, what textbook author has the time or resources to sell ads for his/her book? An author could place his/her HTML documents on a password-protected Web site and charge users for that password, but this also seems like a very inefficient and labor-intensive system.

One intriguing recent development is the appearance of Web-based companies which automate the sale of digital documents. 1stBooks and FatBmin.com, for example, will completely handle the distribution of such digital documents — for a fee. FatBrain.com charges just $1 per month to host a document, while lstBooks requires a onetime startup fee of up to $500 (established authors may have this waived). Both companies market their holdings, process the billings, and they pay the author royalties ranging from 30% to 50% — much higher than the 9-15% royalties that are typical in conventional print publishing. Anyone may publish through them. It is the author who determines if a book will be published, not the publisher — making for a radical reformation of the dynamics of publishing. The author maintains control of his/her work to a degree that is unheard of in print publishing. Not only does he/she determine whether or not a work will be published, but he/she can also decide when it will be revised. Moreover, electronic documents can be revised much more cheaply than print documents — allowing for more frequent revisions, should the author so desire.

Electronic books may also be sold much more cheaply than print publications since they do not have the overhead of physical books, which must be stored in CITIZEN KANE-style warehouses and delivered by trucks and planes. Electronic distribution is economically and ecologically sensible.

The process by which digital documents are distributed differs from company to company, but FatBrain.com's eMatter program illustrates one method. According to their Web site, here is how it works:

1. Someone purchases and downloads your [the author's] secured document.

2. The first time (and only the first time) the document is opened, it contacts Fatbrain.com [over the Internet] to verify the License Key entered by the user. [Thus, the user must be online when he/she first opens the document]

3. If the License Key is valid, FatBrain.com sends the necessary information (called a key) to unlock the document and read it. When the document is unlocked, it is permanently registered to that computer. From that point on, the key will only work on the computer where the eMatter is registered, and not on any other.

4. After the first time the document is opened, the key will open the document as long as it is on the same machine.[1]

The essential component to eMatter is the ability to force users to "unlock" the document before reading it. This is accomplished using PDF, which permits the encryption of documents in a fashion that HTML does not. Once an HTML document has been downloaded to a user's computer, it can be endlessly copied and printed. Not so with an encrypted PDF document. (PDF files may also bear a digital "signature" which authenticates where it originated.)

Once the eMatter user unlocks the PDF document he/she has the option of printing the textbook him/her self. True, the user does bear the expense of printing the book-should he/she choose to do so — but the cost of toner/ink and paper is much less than a print textbook. Plus, the reader can pick and choose the chapters he/she prints-thus further economizing. For example, if Television were published through eMatter, which pays a flat 50% royalty, it could be sold for just $7 and still earn the authors the same amount they received from the $50 print version. The student could incur $20 of printing expenses and would still save 50% over the print version.

Niggling issues remain to be resolved in systems such as eMatter. If a user sells his/her computer will he/she be able to open the document on a new machine? What if he/she owns more than one computer, or wants to read the document on a school computer? Must we force students to use credit cards to buy textbooks (as these online services have no other billing options)? Can we count on users being online when they first try to read their document? And, in these days of still limited Internet speed, how long will it take to download a 300-page book? This last question is vexing. When converted to PDF files, the 369-page Television weighs in at approximately 12 megs — closer to 20 megs if certain PDF tricks are used to optimize the printing process. Downloading that large a document will take hours over a phone line. The probability of mishap and frustration runs high. One solution to the size problem would be to store the document on a CD-ROM disk.

2. CD-ROM distribution

The CD-ROM drive has become ubiquitous in today's computers. As we stand on the precipice of the CD-ROM-compatible DVD era, it is clear that publishers can rely upon most computers having CD-ROM capability for the foreseeable future. Thus, one solution to the PDF file size problem would be to put all of a textbook's PDF files on a single CD-ROM disk and sell it directly-either through an online company or a traditional catalog. Aside from obviating the need for a long download session, a CD-ROM textbook would also support additional material such as motion video and sound clips — embedding them in PDF files. (This assumes that you could get around the thorny copyright issues.)

Production of such CD-ROMs has gotten inexpensive enough that an author could do it him/her self. Companies such as Disc Makers and Oasis Duplication will manufacture 500 disks — with jewel cases and artwork — for about $1,500 or $3 per disk. If one were to sell them for, say, $19.95 one would only need to sell 75 copies to recoup that investment. Distribution is more of a problem. Amazon.com's "Advantage" program allows authors and small publishers to sell material directly through them, but currently it does not accept CD-ROMs. However, they or other online book retailers may accept them in the near future. Web-based textbook stores such as VarsityBooks.com and BigWords.com are sprouting like mushrooms these days. Selling professor-produced CD-ROMs would seem a natural thing for them. There are plenty of general interest online stores that are willing to sell your material, but all charge for this service. If an author has just one or two books he/she is selling, then paying $100 per month to an online store doesn't make financial sense.

3. Custom publishing and Print On Demand (POD) books

Even though Kinko's got out of the course packet business after being successfully sued, most college bookstores still offer packets of assigned readings drawn from various sources — incorporating copyright clearances for them. Perhaps an author could draw on this resource. E.g., the author could provide PDF files to a campus bookstore or national "custom publishing" company, which could print/ bind/ sell books directly to students. The author could charge a higher, one-time fee (say, $500) for the files and permit unlimited duplication, or a percentage of the sales could be remitted to the author as a royalty.

The Print On Demand process is described somewhat breathlessly in a Time magazine article:

"With POD the book is digitized and stored until it is ordered by a customer. At that point a whizbang printing-and-binding machine whirs into action, creating a slick, high-quality paperback ready for shipping. Indeed, such machines may soon be coming to the bookstore down the block, where they will be able to spit out a new thriller in the time it takes to froth a cappuccino."[2]

POD has made inroads with many conventional publishers — including academic presses, which typically have fairly modest print runs.

POD books are of most interest to the self-publishing author if they are automatically jacked into a distribution system — although they could certainly be sold through online sources, as with CD-ROMs. lstBooks, one of the electronic publishers discussed above, offers such a distribution system, but not to every author publishing an electronic book with them. Authors selected for lstBooks' POD program have their books distributed widely through the Ingram Book Group, which circulates printed books to over 24,000 U.S. bookstores, 1,700 bookstores outside the U.S., major bookstore chains such as Barnes & Noble, and online bookstores such as Amazon.com. To have a POD book distributed in this manner is not true self-publishing, however, since lstBooks functions the same as a traditional print publisher and decides who will be distributed and who will not. The author is thus at its mercy, unlike other systems of digital publishing.

4. eBooks with electronic readers

Throughout this article, I have referred to electronic publications as documents which may be viewed on one's conventional computer screen. In recent years, however, new ways of displaying electronic publications have been developed by companies such as Glassbook and SoftBook Press. They sell "eBook" reading devices that are about the size and weight of a hardcover book — such as the Softbook and Glassbook reader (figures 6 and 7, respectively).

Typically, the reader connects this device to his/her computer and transfers an electronic publication (often one distributed via the Web) from the computer to the reader. The impact of eBooks on the textbook market has already begun. Pilot programs are underway where grade school students use textbooks installed in eBook readers. The jury is still out.

The eBook is in its infancy, and it's difficult to tell if enough devices will be sold to make it a feasible platform upon which to self-publish. However, its viability for self-publishers was boosted in October 1999 when the "Open eBook Publication Structure Specification" was established by an industry consortium. This open standard means (1) no one company can control the eBook, (2) inexpensive software will likely appear that'll allow one to create one's own eBooks, and (3) eBooks developed that adhere to the standard should work on any eBook reader device.

The eBook blends the positive factors of electronic publications (online distribution, text searching/ indexing/ bookmarking, heightened graphic capabilities, sound, interactivity) with the portability of conventional books. If I had a classroom of students with eBooks, I could ask them to search for "mise-en-scene" in their e-copies of Television and have them explain what I meant by that term and how it applies to an episode of Star Trek.


Electronic publishing and distribution have significant advantages for both consumers and authors. If one subtracts the distribution overhead weighing down large print publishers, one could reduce the cost of textbooks by 50%, 75% or more — making them more affordable for students. An electronic version of Television could be sold for $7 per copy instead of $50 and the authors could still earn more per unit than they did with the print version. Electronic publishing is also more flexible than print publishing. Revising digital documents is nowhere near as time intensive as revising a print publication. This allows for frequent updates of the material. Similarly, electronic distribution is much quicker than print distribution. An online document can be revised overnight and its information instantaneously distributed. Even the fastest print distribution cycle takes months of preparation. Consequently, electronically distributed material can be much more current than print. Electronic publishing permits heightened interactivity, new pathways into data, enhanced graphics, and the introduction of sound. Unlike static printed publications, electronic text, images and sound are vibrant, alive and open to different manipulation by both authors and readers.

And yet…the printed textbook produced by established publishers is still a significant component of the learning process. It's a way of packaging and communicating information that has proved its resiliency over the centuries. To date, its supremacy has been insured by expensive publishing and, most importantly, distributing systems. Networked computing now challenges those systems — permitting a broader range of voices to be heard.

Web Links

1stBooks.com <www.lstBooks.com>

Adobe <www.adobe.com> <www.adobe.com.acrobat>

CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics <www.cern.ch>

Disc Makers <www.discmakers.com>

FatBrain.com <www.FatBrain.com>

Film, Form and Culture <www.mhhe.com/socscience/art-film/kolker>

HeroTV <www.southmoon.com/info_herotv html>

Internal Revenue Service PDF Forms <www.irs.gov/forms_pubs>

Library of Congress "Electronic Texts and Publishing Resources" <lcweb.loc.gov/global/etext/etext.html>

Macromedia (publisher of authoring software)

Non-Adobe PDF Resources <www.pdfzone.com>

Oasis Duplication <www.oasiscd.com>

Open eBook Publication Structure Specification

Television: Critical Methods and Applications:

Video Lab <communications.wadsworth.com/rtf/0534529135/html>

World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) <www.w3.org>

Yahoo! Listing of Electronic Publishing Resources

Or just search for "electronic publishing" on <www.yahoo.com>


HTML and PDF versions of this essay are on the Web at: <www.tcf.ua.edu/JumpCut/DigRev>

1. Fatbrain.com, Inc., "How Do You Protect My eMatter Rights?" 1999
<http://ematter. fatbrain.com/ematter/support/faq_023.asp>

2. Walter Kim, "The 60-Second Book," Time, August 2, 1999.