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E-publishing: Trendy or Timeless?

By Aimee Whitenack

Email, e-commerce, eBay . We are a culture transformed by today's technology, but are we prepared to surrender every tradition to the e-revolution?

Are we ready to trade in our timeworn copies of Curious George and Northanger Abbey? The latest scoop on electronic publishing.

Somewhere in the midst of all the buzz lie eBooks, and more than a few readers are wondering if we're ready to trade in our timeworn copies of Curious George and Northanger Abbey. If e-publishing does catch on, what will it mean for the editors and authors among us?

"The most compelling advantage of eBooks is the ability to instantly deliver electronic material. Even Amazon takes a couple of days," says Paul Knight, an e-publisher expert. "It's also one less tree cut down." An eBook is a book (either previously published or a new work) that can be downloaded from the Internet to be read on a variety of gadgets including desktop computers, laptops, palm-sized computers, and dedicated eBook devices. With eBooks, readers can connect to other online sources, from dictionaries and encyclopedias to reader chat rooms or online discussions with authors. In theory, reading could become a much richer experience, and publishers could sell titles without paying for printing, paper, or postage.

Traditional publishers, however, have been hesitant to embrace this new technology. "The printed publishing industry is 500 years old, essentially born at the time of Gutenberg's printing press," says Knight. Some publishers worry that online content can be ripped off. If a book is purchased by one reader, can it be copied and distributed to a slew of other readers without the publisher receiving additional payment? Only time will tell. Also, like the MP3 music format, some publishers fear that eBooks will cut out the middleman (i.e., them!) altogether.

But Knight does not foresee a disappearance of the publisher. Instead, he says, there has been a surge in small- to medium-sized publishers, and large publishing houses simply need to define their role in e-publishing. "The thing publishers do very well is screen and package material. That's something they could continue to do well even if things shift to the electronic world." According to Knight, the "Big 15" publishers are currently experimenting with e-publishing and are in the process of converting their files to formats that will lend themselves to digital distribution. In fact, he predicts that five years from now, publishers will be as consumed by the Internet as every other business.

If you're looking to get published, many more eBook authors are needed, primarily because so many small-press publishers (which are looking to capitalize on eBooks) are emerging. "Ninety-nine percent of manuscripts that are submitted today [to traditional publishers] are summarily rejected," says Knight. While the content of many of these works may not be up to a par, a good portion of high-quality manuscripts are rejected simply because someone believes they are not marketable. Knight calls e-publishing a "more democratic process" than has been available in the past.

If you're looking to make a handsome profit, however, don't hold your breath quite yet. Many e-publishers are charging authors to publish their books online. And even if you do get paid for your eloquent and witty words, a number of problems can arise. When books on paper take up valuable inventory space, publishers have an incentive to get the books out to the readers. But when publishers retain the rights of digital texts "in perpetuity" with only trivial disc-storage overhead, there's little hurry to market and distribute your book.

Some industry watchers believe that the standard six to 15 percent royalties that authors receive for their print books are way too low for books sold as bits, when publishers and booksellers are spared the costs of printing and distribution. To defend the rights of authors whose texts are ported into electronic form, an agency called E-Rights has been created. You can find them (and read more about your rights as an e-author) at

Knight believes that it's going to be difficult for anyone to make a lot of money through digital distribution right now, but the future holds promise. "You have sales opportunities that are running 24-7, and you're opening up material to audiences that would have never even had a clue that it existed before. While the per book price may be a little smaller, the royalty rates for authors will be considerably larger."

So what about the readers? Will we miss the intimacy we now feel when curling up to a print book? Will we endure the headaches, disorientation, and eye pain caused from staring at a computer screen?

Technologically, our worries will be resolved. Portable reading devices with high-resolution screens and extended battery lives are rapidly coming onto the market. To some extent, they are already here, in the form of laptops and Palm Pilots, but appropriate handhelds will really take off in the next few years. Also, e-publishers try to format digital books to look like scanned versions of their print counterparts and remember the advantages of hypertext, searching, and built-in dictionaries. Entire libraries will be accessible anytime, anywhere, and from any device. And you can still read in bed, on the hammock, or in an airplane.

Even with all of these incentives, will readers make the conversion to eBooks? Perhaps it's just a matter of us getting used to the idea. "I used to work at the Seattle Times and the old timers there always used to say no one will ever get their news from a computer because you can't take it into the bathroom with you," says Knight, "but I get my news from a computer every day."

Many believe that the success of e-publishing depends on quality control, because readers may lack confidence in the quality of available works (i.e., anyone can be published).

At the very least, it is likely that e-publishing will take off in a number of set venues. E-publishing is an ideal way for academics, for example, to publish their collections of papers. Businesses, too, could use eBooks for training manuals and other important products to save on printing costs. Perhaps e-publishing will accomplish even greater things too. As the prices of computers and dedicated reading devices declines, the cost of educating a child also drops considerably. In the most remote villages of Africa and India, people could have access to an electronic library with tens of thousands of books. Now that would be an e-revolution.

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