E-publishing, circa 1974

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A Step Farther Out by Jerry Pournelle is a wonderfully optimistic, thought-provoking book. This is not a review of that book, but commentary on a small section of one essay that makes up one part of the book.

Electronic Publishing has been around for a while now, but I first read about it in Jerry Pournelle’s book, which was a collection of the science columns he did for Galaxy magazine.┬áMy copy was published in 1979, but the essay in question, Here Come the Brains, first appeared in the November 1974 issue of Galaxy.

In it, among other things, Dr. Pournelle suggests a first iteration of what we would recognize today as electronic publishing.
1) An author types and edits a manuscript to his satisfaction
2) He uploads it to ‘central information utility data banks’ (think Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, etc.)
3) Those who want to read it call it up and a payment is automatically sent to the author’s account

Does this sound familiar? The only thing different is that he suggested the author would pay a small fee to have their book uploaded. I have not yet jumped into e-pubing, but the way I understand it, there is no fee to upload your book, but the service takes a percentage of the purchase price as a royalty. I understand Amazon takes 30% as their cut, still, that leaves 70% for the author. Trad publishing leaves much less for the author.

Dr. Pournelle quotes John R. McCarthy as this being the end of traditional publishing, for where would be the need for publishers or printers? Well, we can see that this hasn’t happened (yet). Indeed, there will always be a need for printers for those people who prefer a physical book in their hands (I do myself sometimes), but will we need publishers? Maybe, maybe not. And for the printing part of the equation, there is Print on Demand services like the Espresso Book Machine that will print a physical book from a properly formatted PDF file.

The good doctor claims that what publishers provide is editorial services and distribution (and publicity and marketing and cover design, etc). He claims that distribution will no longer be needed (true with e-books), so what is left? Editorial services. He foresaw that critics and editors would become more important.

“Recommended and edited by Jim Baen,” or “A Frederick Pohl Selection” would take on new significance, and one assumes that these editors would continue to work with authors since they’d hardly recommend a book they didn’t like (and some authors might even admit that a good editor can help a book).

For years, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch and others have been saying much the same thing as Dr. Pournelle. Now, traditional publishing has not gone away, and I doubt it will ever vanish totally, but it isn’t the only game in town. E-books and POD services are available for the author willing to jump in and test the waters.

A Step Farther Out is available on Amazon in various formats, including Kindle. Subsequent editions have been released since my 1979 version, but I have not seen them, so I don’t know what, if any, differences exist. Read it.

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