Originally created 08/09/99

Online publishers judging books by different covers



ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Budding novelist George Vercessi felt he had written a spine-tingling thriller about a devious first lady who plots against the president. So, hoping for his big break, he sent the manuscript to numerous publishers.

He got a stack of letters. All rejections.

"It's about this thick," he said, holding his fingers two inches apart.

That's where the story normally would end, but not in the Internet age. Mr. Vercessi, a retired Navy captain from Alexandria, turned to a new alternative for authors: Online publishers.

Mr. Vercessi published We the People and his followup SEAL-Test, about a renegade Navy SEAL, with The 1stBooks Library.

The Bloomington, Ind., company runs a Web site from which readers can download books for a price.

Mr. Vercessi has only sold a couple of dozen copies so far, but that's not the point.

"For a writer, the most important thing is getting published. If it sells, that's great," he said.

Thanks to online publishers, every writer's dream of getting that Great American Novel published may be easier now than ever.

For a fee -- $450 in the case of 1stBooks -- authors can sell their works through a variety of online publishers.

At 1stBooks, the writer recoups his fee once about 100 copies are sold. After that, the proceeds are split, 60 percent to 1stBooks and 40 percent to the author.

Supporters say that, just like other forms of Internet commerce, online publishing will boom.

"I'M ALMOST EVANGELICAL

about this," said Dan Snow, spokesman for 1stBooks.

Because 1stBooks and other online publishers are privately held, it's unclear how much revenue they generate. Mr. Snow says 1stBooks is in the black, but he declined to comment further on the company's finances.

The company has about 2,000 titles, including two New York Times bestsellers also published in book format: The Year of the Rat, No. 17 on the February nonfiction list, and The Millennium Bug, No. 7 on the 1998 business list.

"There's some incredible stuff in our library, but there's also some stuff that could have been written by a third-grader," Mr. Snow said. "The point is, we let the public decide what is good."

The company's free-for-all attitude is typical in online publishing, a field where many of the founders either worked in standard publishing or were authors.

Of course, that means readers may have to pick through lots of junk before finding a jewel. It also means any masterpieces found will become hits because of reader interest rather than corporate marketing, industry officials say.

Authors like the medium's global reach.

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM

rejected a contract with a book publisher and decided to publish Reaching for the Sky, which offers a revisionist theory about the Tiananmen Square crackdown, with 1stBooks because he about wanted to ensure it is read in China, he told The Asian Wall Street Journal.

Online publishing remains unknown to most -- don't confuse it with Amazon.com or companies that sell paper-and-ink books via the Internet -- but got a big boost last year because of a literary snit in England.

The Angels of Russia, written by Patricia le Roy, became the first virtual novel nominated for the Booker Prize, one of the world's most prestigious literary prizes.

The novel about a tragic love affair in Paris caused a stir when nominated. Critics dismissed the upstart book as more Internet trash.

Although it did not win, the controversy surrounding its nomination made headlines in London and was picked up in the United States by Newsweek, The New Yorker and others. David Gettman, the London-based co-founder of Online Originals, which published the novel, became a surrogate spokesman for online publishers.

"The traditionalists were saying, `This is the end of books,"' Mr. Gettman said. "It was a great debunking of the view that everything on the Internet is rubbish."

Like independent filmmakers who make movies for a fraction of the cost of Hollywood studios, Online Originals showed it could produce a good story on the cheap. The company has no office, thus no overhead or expenses, and Mr. Gettman corresponds by laptop with his partner in France.

Readers who order an online book typically pay $4 to $7 and receive a file they can print or browse by computer. But how many people want to sit at a computer to read?

ONLINE PUBLISHERS ANSWER

that by saying the rapid growth in sales of hand-held computers will soon make it practical for literature fans to carry a library of cyberbooks in their palms. Market research firms say sales of hand-held units such as the Palm Pilot will more than triple to 21 million by 2003.

Goldman Sachs analyst Michael Beebe said cyberbooks may catch on first in academic or literary circles where, rather than carrying a stack of texts, a student could tote a palm computer.

"It's still in its infancy but it could get very interesting in the future," Mr. Beebe said.

Mr. Vercessi, the unknown author, agreed.

"This will revolutionize publishing," he said.

Read all about it

1stBooks Library can be found on the Internet at www.1stbooks.com; Online Originals is at www.onlineoriginals.com.