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Just as using modems and going on-line become much more routine, so the bulletin board has the capacity to develop rapidly as a marketing and distribution medium. It provides a remarkably cost-efficient way to establish an electronic bookstore either as a major commercial venture, or as a way for an author or small publisher to keep in touch with readers.
There seems to be particular interest in services that are the virtual equivalent of book clubs. Once they have identified their clientele, such bulletin boards can establish long-term relationships by running special reader discount programs and fulfilling orders placed on-line over the Net or commercial services.
The PaperLess Readers Club launched in 1991 by Jay Phillips of Advantage International in Houston, Texas, is probably the first of what promises to be many electronic book clubs. Although the club started with mainly out-of-copyright classical works, some interesting contemporary writings are now also appearing on this publisher's list. A notable achievement was Josef Newman's Family Values, being first published by The PaperLess Readers Club in 1992, then becoming part of the Library of Congress permanent exhibit on The Holocaust, a nominee for the 1993 Pulitzer prize for literature, and contender for the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction.
Advantage pays no advances, but compensates authors with royalties at rates agreed before publication and linked directly to the numbers of copies sold either on disk or through the various bulletin boards and on-line services used to distribute paperless books. These services include Advantage's own BBS, The PaperLess Book Shoppe (713-977-9505, 300 to 9600 bps, 8-N-1), and CompuServe.
Copies on floppy disk are available through leading shareware distributors, but if you are an author don't expect this method of distribution to generate many royalties directly. Few readers will pay more than the charge imposed by the disk distributor, unless the work has a strong incentive to purchase an update or more comprehensive
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version. But using shareware distribution channels provides valuable publicity for the club, and the prospect of making second and subsequent direct sales from which its authors can derive royalties.
Club membership costs readers a one-time charge of $24.95. For this, they get the latest version of the Advantage Reader software, plus the ROL (Read Out Loud) version of the Reader, and their choice of four from a list of popular classic titles, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and other works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Unlike most conventional book clubs, members have no obligation to buy additional books. By using their credit cards, they can go on-line to download additional titles at any time. Members are allowed to use the BBS without charge for 40 minutes per day, with the price of club publications that they successfully download being charged to their Visa or MasterCard. Also, floppy disk copies can be ordered on-line or by mail and paid for by check or money order as well as by credit cards for an additional $1 per title.
The Read Out Loud version of the Advantage Reader supplied to members is a boon for the visually handicapped, and could be used also for children or to create audio tapes for those who like to listen to books while traveling or exercising. This software should prove compatible with most speech synthesizers. Of course, you should not create audio versions or make copies for other than your own personal use without written permission from the publishers.
If you have a manuscript that you want to submit for release by Advantage International and The PaperLess Book Club, you must do so in the normal way. Write a preliminary query letter; they will not evaluate unsolicited manuscripts unless submitted through an established literary agent. Nor are they electronic vanity or subsidy publishers. Your manuscript must be viable and to a high standard.
The ability to create virtual book clubs on bulletin boards extends the tradition in the print business for book lovers to open outlets as second careers or retirement enterprises. This development in
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electronic publishing might, in the long-term, help to compensate for the fact that conventional book retailing is becoming ever more dominated by a few major chains, thereby reducing opportunities for authors and small imprints with works not suited to mass merchandising.
Independent owner-operated bookstores are often labors of love. The publishing world really needs those with a genuine interest in literature for its own sake, as well as the potential profits, to get into electronic book retailing. There are many attractions, not the least that all the problems associated with geographically constrained retailing are resolved. Make a good job of setting up and stocking your bookstore electronically as a on-line bulletin board service, and it can sell to the world with comparatively low overhead and few of the inventory and staffing problems that plague conventional independent bookstores.
One of the first such virtual bookstores not to be spun off from an existing shareware enterprise was established early in 1994 by two California book lovers, Grant Hoel and Michael Todd of Capistrano Beach. It is interesting how much of their effort to establish their Author's Showcase electronic bookstore has been focused, like any good traditional bookstore, on making it a welcoming place for browsers.
They even preserve the visual metaphor of a typical book store. When you enter it electronically via your modem, you see titles stacked up on shelves, fiction on one side, nonfiction on the other. You can browse, select a volume that looks interesting, and click with your mouse button to open up a 100-word synopsis that helps you decide whether to make a purchase.
"Michael and I love books, and are fascinated by the opportunities that the new technology is providing," Grant explains. At 72, he came out of retirement to launch his bookstore, and his passion for the project is motivated more by a love of books than by the new technologies.
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"I became very frustrated when doing volunteer work for my local library, and trying to build my own collection, to discover how many worthy books are just going out of print because of the economic forces operating in commercial book publishing," Grant recalls. "So I want Author's Showcase particularly to help authors keep their titles in print and available to readers, even if the market for them is relatively small. We want to offer authors opportunities also to publish manuscripts that deserve publishing, but for various reasons could not get into print. We hope to encourage authors to open their filing cabinets and give new opportunities for such manuscripts."
Grant's partner, Michael Todd, is particularly interested in servicing the business traveler market.
"So often I used to find myself in a hotel wanting a book when the hotel gift shop was closed, the weather outside was awful, and I had no idea where the nearest bookstore was located, or if it would be open," Michael says. "With the increased popularity of portable computers, there is an obvious demand among business travelers for a bookstore that they can buy from at any time, wherever they are."
These are both experienced businessmen. Grant spent most of his working life in banking and insurance, while Michael was a contractor and consultant who has been involved in establishing shopping malls around the U.S. It is illuminating to see how, with the hard business background that so many self-publishing writers lack, they modified their business plan and bookstore concept for good business reasons as they got deeper into the project. There are many lessons to be learned here for those going into similar ventures, including self-publishing enterprises.
"We soon found that it was impractical to have an 800 toll-free number by which potential readers could access Author's Showcase, browse through our titles, and make their selection," Grant reports. "We could have incurred telephone charges of $5 or $6 before a potential customer even decided on a purchase, and in the case of those just browsing and not buying, this would be a straight loss. Even if the decision was made to purchase, downloading a large work on our dime, using a slow modem, could quickly eliminate any returns that we or our authors could expect.
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"So we had no choice but to move away from a toll-free service, and to encourage readers to become subscribers at a monthly fee," he continues. "We found that, like any bookstore, we need to be very selective in the books that we carry. We must make it attractive for authors to supply us with good titles, so now we treat each submission individually on its merits, and our costings are geared more towards higher royalties for works by published writers with titles that are viable for us to carry with little or no initial cost for the author."
Author's Showcase is doing most of its promotional work by using bulletin board services to reach a significant proportion of the estimated ten million customers that Grant and Michael believe are available on-line. Authors receive regular detailed reports on how often the synopsis of their title is being read, and the numbers of actual purchases being made. The Showcase also downloads, without charge to the author, any work that a commercial book publisher browsing the shelves finds interesting.
For further information on Author's Showcase, write or call Grant or Michael at
26866 Calle Hermosa Capistrano Beach, CA 92624 800-503-3434
Unless you are knowledgeable about running both a small business and a bulletin board, read as much as you can about both before setting up a bulletin board as a business enterprise. You must be prepared to invest a lot of time, and possibly money, into the venture, and market it aggressively just to get the number across, let alone attract customers.
There are several shareware programs as well as commercial software that lets you run a bulletin board from your PC. Some include helpful documentation on generating revenue, as well. For an overview, consider How to Successfully Run a BBS for Profit, by S. Carol
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Allen and Carcy C. Harwin from InfoLink. It is expensive at $49.95, but includes a disk of software to help you reach the right decisions.
Many academics and researchers are creating their own bulletin boards that focus on very specific subject areas and professional specialties. Theoretical physicist Paul Ginsparg's board for physicists is but one example of this development. If you are establishing a scientific or academic bulletin board or on-line publishing service, it could be worth adapting the concept developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for its annual meetings.
Delegates are invited to submit proposals for Poster Papers, which the Association describes as "an informal, visually oriented way for you to present contributed papers to a multidisciplinary assembly of your peers." Those submitting abstracts that are accepted are assigned a physical bulletin board measuring four feet square on which they present their poster paper in their chosen montage of hardcopy texts and graphics.
This is an enterprising way for students and first-time authors to get their work published--if only in the form of one hardcopy available for a short time to a limited audience. It is easy to extend the concept to an electronic bulletin board or on-line service, with that four-foot square board replaced by a limited number of screens, or a file of a particular size. Authors would be given the opportunity to communicate to a much wider audience internationally over a longer period than could gather for any physical scientific conference. Of course, the files should be presented in a universal format, either incorporating a run-time module or able to be used in most popular computing platforms. This kind of application is well-suited to the Multimedia Workshop on the enclosed disk, or the new Lotus ScreenCam multimedia authoring tool, which does not require any special software other than Windows 3.1 to play back publications.
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If you have several titles or a range of related products and services, you can create your own e-book catalog, and distribute it on-line or on disk. If you do not have the resources to do it yourself, you can try to get listed in a commercial catalog created by a direct-selling operation or compiled as a cooperative venture.
Catalogs as e-books are becoming popular because there is no easier or more cost-effective way to create, distribute, and update a list of products or services for sale than to put the details on a disk or upload them to an on-line service patronized by your target market.
As multimedia files become smaller, electronic catalogs with illustrations of the products will play an important role. No glossy still picture in a printed catalog can compete for impact with an animated, full-color presentation showing the product's main features and how it is used. You can produce catalogs with virtually any text or multimedia authoring program, and there is also specialist software designed just for the task.
For example, the Electronic Catalog Construction Kit creates a catalog similar to a simple spreadsheet of items, and is suitable for distribution on floppies. Customers press a single key to get more information about items that interest them, then make their choices by completing the spreadsheet on their computers. The catalog builds the order and invoice, automatically generating a subtotal and calculating any tax due.
The Catalog Construction Kit creates catalogs with up to 12 categories of products or services, which form the basic structure. You list the individual items under their relevant categories, and also build customized order forms and invoices. The program was written
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by Mark A. Garber of Cerebral Software and is distributed as shareware. The address is
1815 Wynfair Way Marietta, GA 30062 CIS 71571,2006 MCI Mail: Cerebral Software
The enthusiasm with which some scientists are adopting the electronic media was illustrated by the speed with which the American Chemical Society seized the opportunity provided by The Internet Catalog to list the Society's titles (Fig. 5-4). The Internet Catalog illustrates how to build a sales and distribution bridge between the hardcopy and on-line environments, offering publishers an opportunity to upload into an electronic "shop window" more comprehensive sales catalogs than the physical and cost limitations of print permit. The speed with which a listing can be updated is a major advantage, enabling publishers' catalogs to become truly dynamic.
For example, a pre-publication listing can be updated as reviews start to come in, and sales figures, awards, bestseller listings, and other relevant information can be added easily and quickly. If this concept develops, it could transform the way that a significant proportion of librarians and booksellers evaluate and order titles, especially as more of them start using on-line services.
Already, about 20,000 librarians are believed to be using Internet and so could be exposed to these catalogs. There are other areas of Internet and other on-line services where publishers and authors are posting details of their works. For information about the Internet Catalog itself, call or write
Inforonics, Inc. 550 Newton Road, P.O. Box 458 Littleton, MA 01460 508-486-8976
Their e-mail contact is Gopher.infor.com.
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