Novel concept

E-book author hopes to catch readers on the Web

Tuesday, October 13, 1998

By Sean Callahan
Staff Writer


In the future, to paraphrase Andy Warhol, everyone will have a book published.

Since Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press in the 15th century, authors have needed a press of their own or the go-ahead of someone who owned one to get their books before the public's eyeballs.

But now the Internet makes it possible to bypass the printing press and to take books straight to readers. These cyberspace tomes are called virtual books, digital books or electronic books (e-books).

"Virtual books are not physical objects made of paper and ink," explains Dan Snow, director of communications for the 1stBooks Library, a distributor of virtual books located on the World Wide Web at http://www.1stbooks.com. "Rather, they are books that can be downloaded from the Web as data files."

This is not Amazon.com, the online bookseller that offers mail-order books made of atoms and molecules via the Internet. What the 1stBook Library offers are books made of bits and bytes.

That means no printing presses, no paper, no ink and no shipping costs. It also means fewer middlemen in an industry cluttered by agents, editors and booksellers.

Some say virtual books are bound to revolutionize the publishing business. When you recall that the Starr Report was, in essence, a virtual book, it's hard to doubt the medium's potential.

Dr. Teddy Brodie Osantowski isn't looking to equal the worldwide commotion caused by the Starr Report. She just hopes that virtual publishing will get a few people to read her book.

For Osantowski, who lives in Monee, writing the books was the easy part.

Finding somebody to print the things, that was hard.

"I've got so many rejections," Osantowski proclaims, "I could paper the walls with them."

Now her latest book, "The Little Survivor," is available on the 1stBooks Library Web site. Just a keystroke and a credit card transaction of $5.95, and readers can download the full text of Osantowski's novel about child abuse.

Before online publishing existed, unproven authors like Osantowski had no choice but to run the gauntlet of agents, publishers and vanity presses to get their books in print. Writers also have to contend with scam artists, who prey on literary dreamers.

Osantowski wrote her first novel in the early 1980s. Called "Year of the Unicorn," it chronicled a German foreign exchange student's experiences in the United States.

After consulting "The Writers' Market," a reference book that lists literary agents and publishers, Osantowski sent out dozens of query letters. If the agents and publishers answered her query at all, it was to reject it.

In the meantime, she copyrighted her novel at the Library of Congress. That attracted the attention of a publisher, who arranged a meeting with an excited Osantowski and her husband at the Palmer House in Chicago.

Her enthusiasm faded when the publisher, who operated what is known as a "vanity press," said he would charge $10,000 to publish her novel.

"My husband and I laughed all the way home," recalls Osantowski, who planned to make money with her book, not spend it.

Undaunted, she wrote another book in the late 1980s. Called "Hands-on Phonics and Reading," it outlined the reading program she developed as a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools.

Again, she found no takers, so she published it herself. She made photocopies of the manuscript and bound them in soft covers. Over the years, she estimates she sold about 400 copies to other schoolteachers.

About three years ago, Osantowski began work on yet another book, "The Little Survivor." This deeply personal work draws upon her own experience as an abused child.

"It's very important to me that I brought this story out," she says, "so that I could act as a spokesperson for the children that do suffer in this way."

This material is important to Osantowski, who works with a domestic violence and substance abuse advisory council at the Cook County Courthouse in Markham.

Getting the book to an audience meant a lot to her, so once again Osantowski endured the rigamarole of peddling the manuscript to agents and publishers. Again, she found little interest.

But then she received a call from a woman who identified herself as a literary agent. The agent, who found Osantowski's book under its Library of Congress copyright, said that "The Little Survivor" might be publishable with some changes.

The agent referred her to an editor. Osantowski paid "hundreds of dollars" to this editor, who returned "a rather sophomoric attempt at editing," she says.

"I called the literary agent to complain," Osantowski says, "but her number was disconnected."

She then complained to the police. She discovered that the editing company was under investigation by the New York state's attorney's office.

Osantowski is convinced she was swindled.

So when a letter from Bloomington, Ind., arrived in her mailbox this summer from the 1stBooks Library, she harbored no high hopes.

"Here's another scam," she told herself.

Nevertheless, Osantowski was intrigued. But first she called the Indiana state's attorney's office. There were no complaints about the 1stBooks Library, which now offers more than 1,200 virtual books at its Web site.

So she paid her $299, and 1stBooks Library digitized her book, making the full text of "The Little Survivor" available on its Web site.

A virtual book jacket describes Osantowski's work to the Web site's visitors, who can also view the book's initial pages at no charge.

Downloading the entire book (into Adobe Acrobat or Word Perfect) costs just $5.95, which is charged to a buyer's credit card.

The book's first $299 in sales go right into Osantowski's pocket. For all subsequent sales, she receives a 40 percent royalty, which is astonishingly generous by publishing industry standards.

In addition to the 1stBooks Library, other Web sites offering virtual books include the Virtual Publishing Company at www.virtualbookpublishing.com, Enchanted E-Books at www.e-books.com, Xlibris Corp. at www.xlibris.com, and Universal Publishers www.upublish.com.

These virtual book publishers trumpet similar advantages over traditional publishing.

For the world at large, virtual books require that no tree be cut down, no ink be spilled and no gasoline be used trucking books from publisher to bookseller.

For the reader, virtual books are cheaper. Virtual books also offer the convenience of a Web site that never closes. And virtual books can be downloaded in the time it takes a reader on her way to Barnes & Noble to back out of the driveway.

For the author, virtual books offer an end-run around agents and publishers. Now books go straight to the public. It's an egalitarian and market-driven system that eliminates layers and layers of middlemen.

"That's not always a good thing," contends John Millot of Publishers Weekly.

He argues that agents, editors and other middlemen in the publishing industry perform a valuable service, wading through loads of ill-conceived and poorly written books so the public doesn't have to.

The 1stBooks Library, on the other hand, accepts virtually any book written by someone with a few hundred dollars to spend.

Do you turn anything down, Snow of 1stBooks Library was asked.

"Only in very rare instances," he replied.

"They're a vanity press," Millot says dismissively. "Nothing more, nothing less."

Snow insists that the 1stBooks Library is not a vanity press. The company does not print books or buy the legal rights to the book. It merely charges authors to distribute their books in cyberspace.

But Millot says that because 1stBooks and other distributors of virtual books charge their authors an up-front fee instead of giving them advances, they are the cyberspace equivalent of vanity presses. Disputing that is semantic piffle.

Millot surmises that if distributing books via the Internet proves profitable, the publishing apparatus will merely move from its current printing press-based business to a World Wide Web-based endeavor.

A network of agents, editors and reviewers will migrate to the Internet and help readers determine which books are worth reading. The best virtual books will appear on Web sites that pay writers upfront for their words.

A hierarchy among authors is already apparent on the 1stBooks Library site. Not every book is advertised on the homepage to random web surfers. There are promos for books by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), a Hollywood screenwriter and a political cartoonist who was a Pulitzer Prize-finalist.

Nowhere on the homepage is Osantowski's book promoted, althought press releases were sent to Chicago-area newspapers. At press time, she had yet to sell a copy of "The Little Survivor" through The 1stBooks Library. But she remains optimistic.

"It's better than nowhere at all," she observes. "And I certainly was going nowhere with the publishers."

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