A Brief History of E-publishing, Pt. 2: The Rise and Fall of the Rocket Ebook

Nuvomedia’s Rocket Ebook

Sometimes the difference between success and failure can be merely a matter of timing.

Back in 1998, many electronically published authors (me included) were saying that print books would soon go the way of the dinosaur. As far as we were concerned, it was only a matter of time.

E-books were the wave of the future.

The reason for our optimism? A hot new product called the Rocket Ebook.

When e-books first came on the scene, the only place you could read them was on a computer screen. Not many people had laptops back then, so if you wanted to read an e-book, you had to use your desktop computer.

Unfortunately, most people’s idea of curling up with a good book didn’t involve sitting in an uncomfortable chair and squinting at a monitor.

I was an e-published author, and even I didn’t want to do that.

But when Nuvomedia introduced the Rocket Ebook in 1998, electronically published authors around the world danced in the streets. Okay, maybe we weren’t quite that ecstatic, but many of us did feel that this was the beginning of a revolution in publishing.

The Rocket Ebook was the very first dedicated e-reader to hit the market.

At a price point of about $250, the Rocket came with a whopping 4 megabytes of memory (expandable to 16 megabytes!), and (Are you ready for this?) it could hold up to 10 regular books and up to 4,000 pages of text! It was about the size and thickness of a Stephen King paperback (although a little heavier). As icing on the cake, it had a back lit screen.

I just knew that as soon as the reading public got wind of the Rocket’s existence, people would rush to their local electronics store to buy them, and a tsunami of e-book sales would follow. In the long term, print books would gradually fade from the scene.

As you might have guessed by now, it didn’t quite work out that way.

So what went wrong?

There were many factors, but I think mainly the Rocket was a great idea whose time hadn’t come.

The Rocket Ebook hit the market at a time when Palm Pilots and PDAs were the hot, new technology. These little devices put the Rocket at a disadvantage. PDAs could multitask. They could keep your appointments, contacts, notes, and so on.

They could also read e-books.

So why should I invest big bucks in a bulky, heavy, dedicated e-reader, when my trusty Palm Pilot can do that and more?

There were other issues.

Putting books on the Rocket wasn’t particularly convenient. You had to connect it to your computer via serial port to be able to download, add, or remove books.

And finding content wasn’t a picnic, either. Big publishers were just beginning to get on the e-publishing bandwagon. Thus, there weren’t as many books by “name” authors available as e-books, and those that were available were often priced the same as the print version.

The reading public definitely wasn’t ready for a non-physical product that cost as much as its hardcover counterpart.

And looking back, I don’t believe the reading public was ready for the idea of e-books in general. For most people, they were more of a novelty than anything else. And while some people might read one out of curiosity, most still preferred to curl up with a “real book.”

And so the Rocket limped along for a couple of years, but never found a market. In 2000, it was sold to RCA/Gemstar, and they made some modifications—including adding an internal modem that would connect to a cyber-bookstore—in hopes of gaining a market share.

Sadly, it was too little, too late, and the Rocket Ebook faded into obscurity.

When it did, I began to wonder if all the optimism about e-publishing had been a pipe dream. With the Rocket’s demise, would e-books also go the way of the dinosaur? After all, now we were back to reading at our computer screens.

Thanks to advances in technology, and an up-and-coming seo consultant company called Amazon, the answer to that question would be a resounding no. But there would be a long bumpy ride before the Kindle arrived on the scene.

I still have my Rocket, but now I use it for “show and tell” at writers conferences when I’m speaking on e-publishing.

It also serves as a reminder of how fickle the marketplace can be.

It reminds me that sometimes the difference between success and failure can be little more than a matter of timing.

*****

Next month: E-books:The Era of Optimism

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From Stone Tablet to E-book

     

“There’s always room at the top,” said Daniel Webster. But who exactly he was addressing in his famous quote is up for discussion, seeing that he was a thorough-going elitist and excelled at being at the top.

However, it is true that there is always room at the top for those who set their sights on lofty peaks even if they come from lowly beginnings. For example, just look at the history of the Presidents of the USA including the present incumbent in the White House.

And there’s always a demand for talented, gifted writers, with relevant things to say.

These are challenging times for publishers, even perhaps the hardest times ever for traditional publishers. Remarkably it is only one generation ago that books and publishing had not really undergone significant change since the time of Caxton.

We, however, are already living in future-shock!

Nowadays it is fair to ask who or what is a publisher.

In times gone by, the publishing world was dominated by the big boys. The likes of Oxford University Press, Doubleday, Hodder Stoughton, Penguin Books, Faber and Faber, and Thomas Nelson to name but a few.

Now it is more likely to be ‘johndoepublishing.com’.

In the 19th century a whole new era in publishing began. A series of technical developments, in the book trade as in other industries, dramatically raised output and lowered costs. Stereotyping, the iron press, the application of steam power, mechanical typecasting and typesetting, new methods of reproducing illustrations—these inventions, developed through the century and often resisted by the printer, amounted to a revolution in book production.

Today a brave new world technological revolution has transformed the industry. We are on the verge of such dramatic and irreversible change that could effectively mean the demise of the printed, hold-in-your-hand, paper book.

Ray Bradbury’s book, Fahrenheit 451, depicted a society where books were systematically burned. In our society we simply don’t need them (printed books that is) anymore. We may see the end of the printed book in our own lifetime. Like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984 we may need to search furtively in the backstreets and alleys of proletariat towns to find copies of old decaying books.

Publishing is about to take a leap into the future. The word out on the streets is change or die. Those who are always looking into the past are often blind to the present.

We can now read books on our laptops, iPads, and cell phones. It is so convenient. I can sit on train and carry a thousand books on my Kindle and access, read, interrogate, highlight, or listen to any of them within seconds.

Public libraries will one day no longer have books on shelves; instead, there will be terminals where we can ‘plug’ in and download any and every book ever written into our own personal private mini-chip. No matter what your point of view is, such a prospect is mind-blowingly amazing.

But where does all that leave publishing?

We have gone from the stone tablet to wax impressions, from papyrus to parchment, from paper to the e-book. It is difficult to predict the future of the printed book, but publishing and publishers will remain. They will, I am sure, change to meet the demands and the fashions of the times we live in. The ability to adapt is, after all, the difference between commercial success and bankruptcy.

To end my blog here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

“Although electronic books, or e-books, had limited success in the early years, and readers were resistant at the outset, the demand for books in this format has grown dramatically, primarily because of the popularity of e-reader devices and as the number of available titles in this format has increased. Another important factor in the increasing popularity of the e-reader is its continuous diversification. Many e-readers now support basic operating systems, which facilitate email and other simple functions. The  i-pad is the most obvious example of this trend, but even mobile phones can host e-reading software now.” 

I love the touch, the smell, the sound of turning a page in the candlelight when I am reading a real book in bed, but the future is at hand.

In the not too distant future, our children’s children may well ask, “Grandma what was a book?”

But writers will always be needed…

Won’t they?

And of course there will always be room at the e-Top.

What is your view of the changing publishing industry?

Ebooks: To Create or Not Create

A lot of WordServe authors have asked me about ebooks lately. In fact, with the digital age continuing to progress with new technologies, many who don’t have an agent or a publisher or a book wonder whether they should take that leap. While you (and your agent if you have one) ultimately get to decide whether or not to self-publish, I thought I would offer a few tips that might help you during your decision-making process.

  1. Spend Money on the Cover. If you have decided to publish an ebook, congratulations! Now, make sure that you do it right. Don’t try to design the cover yourself if you have limited or no experience in graphic design. Go on Craigslist or post a flyer on your local college’s graphic design program bulletin board. A starving student would love to design the cover of your book for probably half to a third of the cost that you would spend on a traditional graphic artist. Of course, if you have the money and decide to spend it, then hire a professional. Either way, make sure that the cover of your ebook looks as well-designed as a traditionally published book.
  2. You’re Hired! When you create an ebook, you may not just sit back and watch your rankings grow every day. Instead, you just became your own boss at your new sales company. You need to call several people a day to ask if they will review and like your book. Chances are about half (or less) of the people that you reach out to will actually follow through with their commitment, so the more people with whom you connect, the better. Your contact list should also include local celebrities, well-known bloggers, local radio hosts—anyone you can think of who has a strong sphere of influence (sorry, your Mom and Grandma don’t cut it). Those people can reach out to even more people without you even trying.
  3. Invest in InDesign. Numerous software programs create ebooks. However, most people recognize the high quality of InDesign. It does take a bit of a learning curve, though, so if you have the gumption, watch as many tutorial videos as you need and start learning yourself. I did this, and I moved along pretty quickly once I understood the basic premise of ebook creating in InDesign. If you need a more hands-on learning approach, then check into classes at your local library (usually free!). Or, again, you can always stop by your local community college and ask for directions to the graphic design school. For only a couple hundred bucks, you will receive a nice tutorial in InDesign, and your starving college student will receive more than a few nights of entertainment at Buffalo Wild Wings.
  4. Don’t Do Anything Stupid. Often writers get so excited about the prospect of self-publishing that they sell their soul to the self-publishing devil. You have all heard about “publishing” companies that offer to publish your book for a fee. At the completely awful soul-sucking companies, you get a worse cover design than if you would have created it yourself. However, legitimate self-publishing companies do exist. You still have to pay, but they offer valid services. One of my favorite, Dog Ear Publishing, offers several great self-publishing options. They also offer editorial services with comparable prices. Of course, you still have to do your research before you invest in any self-publishing company to make sure it fits well with you and your book.
  5. Read the Well-Fed Self-Publisher by Peter Bowerman. It has a ton of great resources. Seriously, even if you completely ignore all of my advice above, please go read Peter’s book. You will not be disappointed.

Whatever you decide, enjoy the publishing process. Become involved in marketing. Continue blogging. Work on enhancing your Facebook fan page. Write for magazines. Book speaking engagements. Oh, that sounds a lot like traditional publishing? Well, yeah. Whether you traditionally publish or self-publish, you need to make sure that you market yourself.

So, are you looking into the possibility of self-publishing a book or a promotional device for your book? What steps have you taken in that direction? What fears hold you back from moving forward with self-publishing?