Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Uniformity in E-Publication

By Lazette Gifford

2001, Lazette Gifford 

There was an article recently -- forgive me, because I've lost all reference to the actual piece -- that said what the e-publishing market needs to become accepted is uniformity: use of ISBN's, similar book styles, web sites set up on the same plans, etc.

Right.  If this sort of uniformity was all it took to sell books, then print publishers would be putting out nothing but black covers showing ISBNs.

What (in my opinion) it's going to take is time, patience, good writing/editing, professionalism, and then more time and patience.  This is a new medium and a growing market.  We are getting used to quick changes in our life where technology is concerned, but that doesn't mean it's going to automatically be accepted just because it's there.

Saying that people who read want uniformity in books is missing an essential point in why they read at all.  People who read books are looking for change -- especially in the fiction market.  That's the entire reason to read fiction, isn't it?  To step outside of their normal world and experience change without really having to change themselves.  ISBN's and such may be a sign of something being a 'real book' to book publishing professionals, but not to most readers.  I worked in a bookstore for eight years.  The vast majority of the reading public has no idea what an ISBN is, and couldn't care less about it. 

Nevertheless, I think ISBN's are important.  If you can get the reading public to pay attention to them, they are an invaluable aid for ordering, for listing in reviews, and things like that.  ISBNs are a tool that can be used well for publishing.  But they are not going to be the drawing point for readers.

Let's really look at the paper-print market versus the e-pub market and see what marketing could bring in the print readers.  After all, it would be great to draw all those people, wouldn't it?

But we aren't going to do it, because of one single, important fact:  many of these people are not computer users at all. They may have a computer in the house, but how often is that 'for the kid's school work,' rather than anything they would even bother to touch?  That's not our market, and though a few might wander in when they see someone else with one of those neat book readers, most are not going to be drawn in by any amount of marketing and wishing, especially if that is confined to on-line, where they are never going to see it. 

It's those kids, working every day on those computers, and growing up with this as a normal part of their lives, who are going to be the real market of the future.  They don't find reading material on a screen, PDA, or Rocketbook at all unusual.  It's a part of their lives, and they've already accepted it.

There is a large section of the population that you are NEVER going to reach.  It's not the material in the books, it's the medium itself.

However, having said all of that, if the ebook publishing market wants to be taken seriously by others in the business -- and those others do have the power of national reviews, indicating books available in multiple formats, etc. -- then ISBN's and such are a good way to start getting there.  Though, in truth, I don't think it's going to make that much difference.  If every ebook and POD now had ISBN's, there are people out there who would find another reason to say they aren't as good as print. Those people are always going to be there.  I'm sure there are some of people out there who still think paperbacks are an abomination that ruined the reading market by making material available to the plebs, where hardbound books were a very aristocratic (and expensive) item.

Telling epublishers that they'll do better by making websites look the same is like telling bookstores they have to all line up their books in exactly the same way, and all covers have to show exactly the same thing.  That's silly.  It's nice when a site looks professional, and I'm sure that helps sell books, but I knew a lot of dusty, hole-in-the-wall print bookstores where I found gems hidden on their shelves.  The trick is to find those bookstores...

And that brings me to my last related point.  What we have is not a bunch of bookstores; we have ebook publishers with too few central points where a potential reader could go and look for books.  Part of the reason I started SFF.NET's E-Stand (http://www.sff.net/estand) was to try to create a place where people could 'browse' through the new titles from ebook publishers and the table of contents for ezine publishers, just like in a bookstore.  I have fallen down on the job of promoting it since I became the managing editor for Vision, but I hope now to put more time into it again.  I think places like Estand (and there are others) are another helpful step, by bringing together a variety of publishers, much like bookstores do.  The World Wide Web is too large for people to flitter from place to place, even with the help of search engines, in hopes of finding the book that's right for them.

If print readers had to go to each publisher's location to get a book, rather than Barnes and Noble, it would be an entirely different reading world.

I am never going to get my Aunt, who is in her 70's, to buy an electronic reader, even though she reads two or three romances a day, and this would be a perfect device for her.  I'm not going to get her 40-something daughter to get one either, since she blanches at the very word 'computer.'  However, her sons, in their twenties, can't imagine a life without a computer.

The markets for ebooks are not going to just spring up and engulf the entire world in a sudden flood of awareness and acceptance.  I've seen far too many ebook authors who are surly about this lack of acceptance.  Snappish notes to the writers of articles are not going to help the cause.  Childish replies to someone who doesn't understand the market is no help either, especially when they see print in newspapers and magazines.  We are all ambassadors of the new medium.  We need to remember that lecturing the public about how stupid they are is no help.  Pointing out the good sides of epublishing, rather than demanding acceptance, is going to help far more than any uniformity, ISBN's and other tricks.