In search of the e-book magic bullet

Who will rule the burgeoning e-publishing roost? A handful of digital-publishing upstarts are betting they can unseat the New York book establishment.

NEW YORK -- Will Random House, Simon & Schuster and other established publishers dominate the digital-publishing realm? Or will a handful of new upstarts be first to find the e-book magic bullet?

That was the question that preoccupied attendees of day two of the New York e-Book World conference.

And the answer: Who knows?

While digital-publishing newcomers have lots of good ideas -- as well as lots of battle scars accrued over the past year or two -- they have no lock on how to capitalize on the predicted e-publishing boom. In fact, even though most of the dedicated digital-publishing companies are only a few years old, many already have shed more than one business model during their brief existences.

Two of the participants on Tuesday's e-Book World panel, MightyWords.com Inc. and iUniverse.com Inc., learned the hard way that the idea of authors self-publishing, à la Stephen King, isn't immediately translatable into a sound business model.

While iUniverse CEO Richard Tam bristled at the suggestion that his company was required to retrench as a result, MightyWords President and CEO Chris MacAskill agreed that self-publishing isn't all it's cracked up to be, at least for a content aggregator like MightyWords.

MacAskill acknowledged that MightyWords initially made it too cheap and too easy for authors to distribute their unedited content. While self-publishing still has validity as a concept, MightyWords is now focusing, instead, on content aggregation and syndication, he said.

"We weren't filtering," MacAskill said. "We learned a lot in eight months. We had 40 percent of our sales coming from self-publishing. The quality was there, but the quantity wasn't."

Both MightyWords and another e-publishing startup, eBrandedBooks.com Inc., said they are currently focusing on the market for mid-size manuscripts: ten to 100 pages in MightyWords' case, and 1 to 100 pages under eBrandedBooks' model. Both companies are finding initial success in the business and technology communities, officials said, where individuals are willing to pay a premium for targeted, time-sensitive content.

"The problem we solve is we provide content of about 50 pages long that you can't get today in other formats," MacAskill explained.

Another force in e-publishing, Xlibris (a company in which Random House has made a substantial investment), is finding success with the current print-on-demand model.

"This (print-on-demand) is the bridge technology for the next few years, before e-books end up taking over the world," Xlibris co-founder and CEO John Feldcamp told the audience.

Like other panelists, Xlibris talked up the role that dedicated e-publishing companies fulfill, in terms of providing writers and readers with access to one another. Xlibris is focusing on aggregating content and consumers alike, Feldcamp said.

But unlike other e-publishing ventures, Xlibris allows authors to retain full rights to their work. Xlibris publishes titles in hardback, trade-paperback and e-book formats

"We are thinking of ways to enable individuals to sell content below the radar of the traditional publishing industry," Feldcamp said. "Publishers today want to find exactly the right titles and invest exactly the right amount of money in them. Companies like us are the pipes. ... At the end of the day, books are data."