- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Speed is increasingly of the essence among today's book-reading public. The two biggest developing trends are print-your-own books also known as print on demand and e-books, which are books on mini-computers, like the Palm Pilot. Both are part of a "digital era" in book publishing. By 2005, an estimated 28 million people are expected to have bought the kind of minicomputers needed to read e-books.

Recently, Ed Marino, president and CEO of Lightning Source, a digital publisher from La Vergne, Tenn., that handles both e-books and POD books, was interviewed by culture page editor Julia Duin. Here are some excerpts.

Q: Say I'm an author and send my out-of-print manuscript to a publishing service such as Xlibris and they print it through your company. What happens next?

A: If you've got a manuscript, they'll take that and work with you to put in sort of the form of a master, finished form. Then they will give that digital file to us, and we'll feed it through our system, which goes through a conversion process to make it printable, and we'll hold it there. We don't print anything. We're like the Dell [Computers] of the book business. When someone orders one of these books, we print it and literally one. And our cost for doing it would probably be about $4.50.

Q: That sounds simple and easy.

A: And there's another part to this. So now you've gotten the book published, we then take it and we put it in a larger database of books that go out to all the retailers, including the Amazons of this world. So, if someone is specifically looking for books on cats or poetry or whatever, their search engines on the Internet will turn up that book with all the annotations and all the graphic information and everything else. So your book would be in Amazon's catalog.

Q: There are a lot of people living in this area who have book manuscripts they'd love to publish. Are you saying this is a cheap way to get esoteric information in print?

A: People will be able to get content out there into the hands of consumers that just never would have seen the light of day. The kind of author you would find in our library works in the academic press or produces fairly esoteric titles that might have application for, say, Civil War buffs.

The second thing is eventually, because we've got the book in a digital library, there are a number of things that you could do with that book that you couldn't do if it were just in physical form. Once you get this book in digital form, we are actually able to allow the publisher to reorganize the content [and] conceivably have different endings for books… .

Q: As far as e-books, which ones do you think are selling the best?

A: Categories. Science fiction. Business, self help. Their readership naturally gravitates to the technology. There are lots of books you don't usually read cover to cover. But to have them available, to have them accessible to you is really an advantage.

Q: Isn't it hard to gaze at a tiny screen for a long time? Are people going to want to read more than a chapter of these at one sitting?

A: There's no question, it's awkward. Like anything else, it will get better. If you don't want to lug around the three books that you're reading or the new John Grisham novel, this is something you can load on to your computer and you can take it with you.

But for entertainment reading, there are some technological hurdles. Companies like Microsoft and Adobe are making the display of the material much better on the screen. But the devices have to get better because people aren't going to just sit behind a computer.

Q: How will these changing technologies impact our culture and reading habits?

A: Book selection will get significantly better. In the U.K., they publish about 100,000 titles a year and they have about one-fifth the population of the United States. In the United States, we publish about 67,000 books a year and about 90,000 a year go out of print. If left to the current process, the base or supply or selection of books would end. This process lets you keep books in print and, secondly, lowers the threshold of publishing costs so that more books can come into the process and you don't have to take up real estate or kill trees to do it.

Q: So it's like the Internet, where anybody's ideas not only get on line but actually get into books?

A: It's a democratizing process, no question about it.

Q: How is this changing the publishing industry?

A: You also have, on average, 30 percent returns in the publishing industry. So 30 percent of all books that get shipped to bookstores get shipped back, which is where those little discount tables in the bookstores come from.

The conventional wisdom out there has always been, "Print more than you think you'll need, just in case." Ours is "just in time." Let's estimate that your new book might sell 7,500 copies. They print 5,000 and they give us the digital file and the minute it crosses the 5,000 point in a traditionally printed book, we start shipping [POD versions] out.

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