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E-Books: What They Mean for Writers, Readers and the Written Word


The publishing world is undergoing a major shift as reading becomes increasingly digitized, and that's affecting readers and writers too.

Many people have written about the impact of technology on the publishing industry – the road from typesetting to e-books – but I have seen little about the impact this change has had on writers and the writing process. It’s strange, considering there have been major changes in the last 40 years in terms of the tools, the process, the markets and the opportunities in a writer’s life.

I know from experience. I’ve been writing for 40 years, and even though I must be in the running for the worst typist in the world, I’ve managed to publish three books and more than 1,500 articles, columns and news stories over these 40 years. Were it not for the appearance of personal computers and word processing software in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

My first book was keyed by me, printed and rekeyed by the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, re-edited, printed and sent to me to proof, then re-edited, typeset, published and distributed. The whole process took a little over a year, and by the time the book was published in 1984, "Microcomputer Communications: A Window on the World" had lost its relevance.

In contrast, my most recent book, a collection of poems, was uploaded to Amazon, and the book was available as a printed soft cover within two weeks. An e-book version was available almost immediately.

I’ve seen similar progress when submitting articles and columns. In the beginning, I would write and edit the piece, print it, and mail it – or even hand deliver it. I then moved to mailing or delivering a floppy disk. Now I just email a story to my editor as a Word document. In other words, it takes seconds to submit something which, in the past, would have taken much longer and been much more troublesome.

The options available for writers in terms of publication have followed a similar trend. Forty years ago, the only option for most aspiring authors was acceptance by an established publisher. Back then, there were just three basic ways that an author could receive a commitment from such a publisher:

  1. The author could be an established expert in the field solicited by the publisher to write a book
  2. The author could have an agent who would solicit publishers for the author’s work
  3. The author could submit work directly to the publisher

Readers should note that the chance of successful publication was directly related to the method of submission, with option No.1 being the most likely way to land a new book in bookstores.

Another, less common, option was vanity publishing, in which an author would incur the entire cost of publishing – usually hundreds or thousands of dollars – to print some number of copies. The author could then pay someone to publicize and promote the book, or could attempt such work him- or herself. Because most people lacked the ability to promote and market a book like a publisher could, many such books were relegated to obscurity.

Recent technology has provided yet another publishing method: print on demand (POD). Using this methodology, the author completes a book, uploads it to a service, and pays a small fee. Once approved, the book is put up for sale through an online service such as The author may use the service to publicize the work (at a cost), or choose to do it him- or herself. POD services will also usually perform other functions, such as editing and direct marketing. The biggest difference between POD and traditional publishing methods is that the book is only printed once an individual orders it. The author generally receives a percentage of each sale.

While it may seem that the POD system will not provide anywhere near the support of a traditional publisher, that is generally not the case. Even so, traditional publishers have an advantage in that they can get copies of the books they represent into established bookstores; a POD author can only direct potential customers to a site such as Amazon to order the book or maintain an inventory of books for sales at signings and events. So, unless the author is well known, getting the word out about the book can be difficult.

Many critics of new publishing methods have called POD the death knell for small bookstores, which are already struggling against a tide of e-books and online book sellers. But one company, On Demand Books, and its Espresso Book Machine, has helped independent book sellers strike back. In partnership with Xerox, the company installed local print-on-demand machines in more than 70 bookstores and libraries throughout the world, printing off books in less than five minutes. What this suggests is that traditional booksellers could survive if technology allows them to compete with the ultra-low prices and expansive catalogs of online book sellers.

The biggest disruptive influence, however, for writers (as well as publishers and bookstores) has been the emergence of electronic publishing, or e-books.

The Rise of E-Books

Electronic books (e-books) have been creeping up on us since the 1960s and ’70s, but finally arrived with a bang with Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle e-reader in 2007. That first model sold out within hours. By 2010, Amazon was selling more books in the Kindle format than paperbacks. In November 2009, Amazon’s biggest competitor in book sales, Barnes and Noble, released its reader, the Nook, and has produced competitive models and software apps for the Kindle. As a platform, the e-reader had arrived.

The idea of electronic books goes back to the 1960s, but that initial vision was radically different than today’s e-books. Visionaries such as Douglas Engelbart at SRI, Andries van Dam at Brown University and Ted Nelson of Project Xanadu developed various implementations of hypertext. This approach would become extremely useful for corporate employee manuals and system documentation. (You can read more about some of the influential figures in the The Pioneers of the World Wide Web.)

The person who gets the credit for creating the modern e-book is Michael S. Hart, who entered the U.S. Declaration of Independence onto a computer system at the University of Illinois in 1971. Shortly after this, Hart founded Project Gutenberg, with the aim of loading as many public domain books onto a computer system as possible for the public to download. Project Gutenberg made books available to computers, desktops and laptops, but manufacturers soon focused on developing handheld readers, which people could bring with them as they would a paperback book. Alan Kay included e-books in his design of the never implemented Dynabook at Xerox PARC in the late 1960s (before Gutenberg) and 1970s. In 1992, Sony introduced the Data Discman, which it envisioned could be used as an e-book reader. But it was not until the 1998 introduction of the Rocket e-Book Reader (which was eventually sold as the RCA e-Book Reader) that the general public began to take e-book readers seriously.

While the technology for reading e-books was constantly improving, the method of getting the books to the readers was too clunky for the average non-techie. Users would search for an e-book online (whether in Project Gutenberg or other online repositories), find a title, download it to a personal computer, connect the reader to the computer and transfer the book to the reader.

Then, in 2007, Amazon had its answer to the delivery problem – and a great business model. Users could buy a Kindle and then buy the e-books directly from Amazon. Amazon had the infrastructure and the technology (its WhisperNet network) to make buying e-books fast and user-friendly. This was a game changer, and it established the e-reader as a major platform.

Until recently, the e-books sold by Amazon and Barnes & Noble were simply electronic versions of whatever those retailers had in print. Now, however, we are increasingly seeing an emergence of both enhanced e-books, using music and video to supplement the written text, and books written specifically to be published as e-books.

At the 2011 Books Without Borders conference, mystery writer C. E. Lawrence related that her publisher had asked her to develop a short e-book for publication a month or two before her latest book was to be released to stir up interest in its characters. Another panelist, Mark Goldblatt, added that he had delivered a 10,000-word e-book to a publisher on contract. The publisher liked it so much that Goldblatt was asked to expand the work to 30,000 words for a print edition.

The last anecdote points out one of the differences between printed books and e-books: their length. While there are standard lengths for novels, novellas and short stories, an e-book may be any length at all. As a result, writers are increasingly selling short stories and other works that simply wouldn’t make the cut as a print edition. So, just as e-books have changed the way readers consume books, this platform’s infinite flexibility may also change the way writers write.

The advent of e-books has created many options – and many questions – for writers in terms of what they write and how it is published and marketed to the public. Much like the Internet and other technology, the rise of e-books and electronic publishing has democratized access to publishing.


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John F. McMullen

John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. MucMullen has a wealth of experience in both technology and in writing for publication. He has worked as a programmer, analyst, manager and director of…