The Cyber Book Bind

TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Gettman may yet have the last laugh.

If "The Angels of Russia" is named a finalist for England's Booker Prize in literature next month, he'll know the book has been read by at least five top literary types (the judges), that they concede it actually is a book--and that it's a good one to boot.

So far, though, publisher Gettman is not even smiling. Since Oct. 17, when "Angels" came out, he has pursued the world's English-speaking reviewers persistently, to practically no avail. Aside from a short piece in one newspaper, Gettman's latest title, by French author Patricia le Roy, remains virtually unnoticed and not even considered for review.

The key word here is virtual.

The problem with this rather interesting novel is not its quality: "It's good," says John Sutherland, professor of literature at London's University College, who reviewed "Angels" for the respected London Times Literary Supplement and suggested that it be submitted for the Booker (England's equivalent of the Pulitzer).

The problem is the book's intangible-ness. "Angels" was not published on paper. It is not sold in bookstores. A 21st century read, it floats in cyberspace--a virtual book that can be accessed only as a computer file by those who order it via Internet (for $7) from Online Originals (http://www.onlineoriginals.com). That's Gettman's 1-year-old, London-based electronic book publishing firm, which offers digital literature meant to be read on a PC or any of the small hand-held devices designed for the purpose. (See accompanying story.) Or it can be printed out on paper by the purchaser.

But no matter how you read it, the traditionalists say, don't call it a book. Most dictionaries, they note, still define a book as something printed on paper, bound along one edge and protected between covers. In a physical sense, "Angels" does not exist.

"An electronic book is not a book," declares Richard Eder, the Los Angeles Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer. "A book is a piece of writing on bark or papyrus or cellophane or paper. That's the history of it. It is possible that something called a blubbitch might be as interesting as a book, but it would not be a book. If Shakespeare had hired a skywriter to write 'Hamlet' in smoke, would that be a book?"

More Offerings in the Net Pipeline

It is a question for philosophers and semanticists: those who believe books are ink on paper versus those who divorce the content from its container.

And while it's being debated, hundreds of Web sites are springing up to offer works by authors who choose to publish on the Internet--often because they cannot get published the traditional way.

Many of these literary offerings are made through firms that call themselves distributors rather than publishers. There is a big distinction between the two: Distributors typically do not edit, nor do they even really read the original works they offer for sale. Quality is not an issue. Money is. Distributors charge a fee for making authors' unedited books available on a Web site. Authors get paid a percentage for each book sold.

1stbooks, a distributor based in Bloomington, Ind., has been online for one year and already lists 1,200 titles. The firm adds 100 new titles each month, says communications director Danny O. Snow. Authors needn't worry about whether their writing is good enough to make the cut here. The firm employs no one to oversee content or to attempt to improve it. After a cursory scan to rule out hate material and hard-core pornography ("soft-core and erotica are welcome," Snow says), every work is deemed "suitable."

Authors pay an initial fee of $300 to $500 for a six-month listing on the site, and $10 for every month thereafter. They reap the first $299 earned from all sales and 40% of each sale thereafter. Most titles retail for $3 to $7.

The digital books are sent instantly to the computer of anyone who orders them, and the "store" is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Tim Jacobs, 49, a former insurance company CEO, co-founded 1stbooks in 1996 partly because he'd been writing children's books as a hobby for years and couldn't get any of them published. He says he and partner Dave Hilliard wanted to harness the transforming power of the Internet to "revolutionize publishing." With direct delivery of books from their computer to yours, there would be no costs for editing, printing, binding, boxing, shipping, storing or any of the many middlemen who usually come between an author and a reader.

Better yet, there are no returns, no unsold copies.

The 1stbooks title list includes fiction and nonfiction, from children's books illustrated with the authors' own drawings to 400-page, photo-laden cookbooks. It also offers books previously published in hardcover whose rights have reverted to the authors. "Letters to the Next President," by Sen. Richard Lugar (and formerly published by Simon & Shuster), and "Chennault," a biography by Jack Samson (formerly published by Doubleday), are two examples.

One can foresee a time, says Snow, when "no book need ever go out of print--it can live forever" on the Internet.

Does the uneven quality matter?

"Not relevant," answers Snow. "I never could plow through 'Finnegans Wake,' even though I'm a Harvard graduate. If it had been offered to me as a manuscript for publication, I probably would not have recognized its literary merit. That's the point of all this: Let authors write what they want, and let readers decide if it's good or not. It's a purely market-driven operation."

Gettman, 42, shudders at such thoughts. He and his partner, philosophy professor Christopher Macann, started Online Originals specifically "to challenge the false notion that everything on the Web is unfiltered rubbish."

A Commitment to Cultivate New Writers

Gettman says they seek and publish "only works of high quality" that they believe will "make a positive contribution to literature or to the history of ideas." The firm has developed a list of 35 original works and adds about one title a month.

"Traditional book publishers used to cultivate fine new writers," Gettman says. "They built literary lists they believed in. That has all but disappeared. Most publishers today are owned by huge conglomerates. And most publishing decisions are made by marketers eyeing profits, not by editors whose primary concerns are intellectual and literary.

"We publish what we think deserves to be read, even if it doesn't seem commercial by current definition."

The partners function as editors as well as publishers. If they accept a book, they charge no fees to the author, but nor do they offer traditional monetary advances. Financial arrangements are simple: All books sell for $7, and the proceeds from each are split 50-50 between author and publisher.

The firm's contract with authors gives it electronic publication rights only. Gettman is acting as agent for some of his authors whose cyberspace debuts have attracted nibbles from traditional publishers.

He says he doesn't expect to make a financial killing just yet.

"So far, each of our books has typically sold in the hundreds, rather than in the thousands." But it's early in the game, and he and Macann both have other, full-time jobs as writers and academics. Still, things are going so well, Gettman says, that "by the year 2010, we expect to be an established, well-respected, literary publishing house."

Author le Roy had chosen Online Originals to publish her first novel, about Burma, when no traditional publisher would touch it. The experience was so pleasing, she says, that when she wrote her second book, "The Angels of Russia," she didn't even bother to show it to anyone else. "I wanted to work with David and to put it straight on the Internet."

Sutherland's review in the Times Literary Supplement called the book "a sweeping contemporary historical romance, set against the great drama of perestroika. . . . The story is, despite an initial predictability, gripping and finally surprising. . . ."

When the work first was proposed as a Booker entry, however, the prize committee rejected it, calling it a "computer file" rather than a book. Gettman managed to obtain an International Standard Book Number for the work, and the committee relented. But Snow, of 1stbooks, says none of his listings has been given an ISBN "because a virtual book is not yet recognized as a book; it is not a physical object and cannot be archived and inventoried in the usual way."

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