E-Doldrums: A Book Publisher Confronts E-Books


I know e-books are a cheaper product – both to produce and consume  – and I’m certain that writers do too.

I have several messages saved permanently on my cellphone’s voicemail. Every month or so I trudge through the parade, when I’m required to re-save them. There’s a message from my wife and business cohort, Eliza, telling me that our daughter, Rio, has successfully managed to stand on her own. Another one, chronicling Rio’s first steps. Several from Rio, as some words inch out, Eliza gently prodding her along in the background.

And then there’s a stew of Two Dollar Radio-related messages. There’s one from independent publicist Lauren Cerand, saying that she saw Erotomania: A Romance, a novel by Francis Levy, in the window at City Lights. I also have saved messages from nearly every one of the authors we’ve published at Two Dollar Radio over the last two years informing me that their author-copies have arrived. They sound satisfied, and what they have to say always makes me smile.

I remember talking with Larry Shainberg, whose book Crust we published last October. I was asking Larry about Samuel Beckett, whom he was fortunate enough to meet on a handful of occasions and befriend (Larry also wrote a Pushcart-winning monograph on Beckett for The Paris Review). Larry told me that he went to see Beckett in Europe, and the pair was returning to the hotel where Beckett was staying when the desk clerk provided him with his mail, which contained the author-copies of one of his books. I don’t recall that Larry mentioned which book of Beckett’s it was, but I remember him saying that it didn’t matter whether it was your first book or your fiftieth, there’s still that feeling of intense satisfaction and joy that arrives with finally holding your book in your hands.

As a publisher, I derive a great deal of satisfaction myself when the finished book arrives. Recently, when copies of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s second and third novels, Flats and Quake, which we’re re-issuing in a back-to-back edition, came from the printer I immediately broke out my camera and took pictures. Certainly, some of the glee could be attributed to the fact that the book looked as we intended: we were nervous about the flipped/upside-down pages.

I’ve learned that publishing is a drawn-out process that above all demands patience. There is that initial burst of enthusiasm after reading a remarkable submission, then the re-kindled energy over presenting the title to the reps at sales conference, but the real flood of excitement comes upon holding the finished product in my hands. That’s when it’s real, the transition complete, when I find its spot on the bookshelf in my office: it is now a book.

As a publisher we’ve dragged our heels in embracing e-books (or even acknowledging their presence). Through our distributor, Consortium, we’re able to partake in their parent company’s program, that allows publishers to make their books available electronically rather painlessly, albeit with a modest fee. But it took us at least eight months to sign the contract, and we’re still, now, months later, resolving any further contract entanglements with authors.

Part of my reluctance is my inability to resolve in my mind the bitter truth of what we’ll be stamping our brand upon. As a publisher, I know e-books are a cheaper product – both to produce and consume (providing you can foot the tab for the e-reader) – and I’m certain that writers do too. What makes anyone believe that readers won’t arrive at this realization as well? Once the honeymoon with their sleek new gadget ends, they’ll start to demand more for their money. As a commenter to Nick Harakaway’s blog post on e-books points out: “I wouldn’t pay more than $10 for an eBook, because at more than that, I want more than I’m getting. I want a dust jacket, I want something physical. There’s an inherent belief (and I agree) e should never cost as much as its old world equivalent. You really do get less.”

Gimmicks such as Simon and Schuster’s snigger-trigger “Vook” are just the tip of the iceberg. Soon, because of the lack of page-count constraints, e-books will come complete with deleted chapters, a writer’s and editor’s cut, and alternate endings. The result will resemble more a videogame fantasia than a traditional “book.” And I don’t want to read that.

As Emily Pullen, of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, so aptly points out in a blog post: “Creating digital literature and harnessing the medium’s unique capabilities requires a specialized knowledge of programming languages. As such, it is software engineers and computer programmers (the techies) who are best suited to use this new literary medium, not the traditional Writer.”

Most likely, it will be several years and rungs on the evolutionary ladder of the Vook before even its initial potential can be imagined. In the meantime, at Two Dollar Radio we’ll casually make our books available electronically. At our size, the potential fifty dollars a month from e-book sales can make a difference. But I don’t expect many messages from authors calling to share their enthusiasm at their e-books arriving. And I won’t blame them.

Eric Obenauf is the publisher of Two-Dollar Radio, an independent book publisher. More from this author →