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

The History of E-Publishing, Pt. 1

Hand holding an e-bookE-publishing and e-books are hot now, but there was a time when some of us wondered if they would ever catch on.

I know.

I was e-published before e-publishing was cool.

In 1997, I finished my first novel, a 35,000 word YA novel titled Friendly Revenge. I had decided to write for the young adult market because in my youthful naïveté I felt that it would be the easiest market to break into.

Silly me.

Friendly Revenge received excellent feedback and many glowing rejection letters, informing me that the YA houses were stocked up three years in advance. So after it finished making the rounds of the Christian houses, I consigned Friendly Revenge to my closet and began to work on another novel.

But one afternoon, when I was reading Writer’s Digest, I noticed a fascinating sidebar. It said something like: “Savvy authors are checking out e-publishers.” The sidebar went on to list about five royalty-paying e-publishers. I was a little skeptical. After all, weren’t these guys just the electronic equivalent of vanity publishers? Didn’t they mostly sell junk? And even if I allowed someone to put my stuff on the Internet, what was to prevent people from stealing it?

On the other hand, my manuscript wasn’t doing any good sitting in my closet.

I decided to check out the e-publishers, and I was surprised at what I found.

Two stood out to me. One was a site called Online Originals. It was based in Europe and sold mostly literary fiction. Online Originals held their authors to very high standards, and it showed. One of their books had even been nominated for a Booker Prize (a British literary award comparable to the Pulitzer).

Another site had the unusual name, Hard Shell Word Factory and, yes, their logo was a turtle. This site sold mostly genre fiction, and it seemed a better fit for the suspense/thriller novel I had written. And besides, Hard Shell sold their books as 3 ¼ inch floppy disks; Online Originals did downloads only.

I was willing to e-publish, but I still wanted some kind of physical product.

And so I submitted Friendly Revenge to Hard Shell Word Factory.

It went through a manuscript review process, just as I would have expected with a conventional publisher. And after it was accepted, they assigned an editor to me to help me improve my story.

I even received royalties—sort of.

Whenever royalty time came around, my wife and I would wonder if we’d receive enough for a cup of coffee and a bagel, or if it would just be enough for coffee.

The checks were rarely enough to even buy coffee.

But it didn’t matter.

I was published by a real, royalty-paying publisher.

Of course, I couldn’t do book signings; I did disc signings.

There was only one problem. Who was actually going to bother to sit down at a desktop computer to read a novel? Laptops weren’t all that common back then, and tablets, iPhones, Kindles, and Nooks hadn’t been invented.

If there wasn’t a way people could read e-books, this bold new concept might never get off the ground. In 1998, it looked like the problem was solved. Someone introduced a dedicated e-book reader to the marketplace.

But it wasn’t the Kindle. It was the Rocket E-Book.

E-authors were thrilled, believing now that our books would start flying off the “shelves.”

It didn’t quite work out that way, but that story’s for next month, when I tell you the gripping tale of The Rise and Fall of the Rocket E-Book.

Photo Credit:
“Holding E-book Reader in Hands,” © Tombaky | Dreamstime.com

Do you have any early e-book stories that you would like to share?

How I Learned to Beat Writer’s Block

Image Credit: Studio-Annika / http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=773765My first year as a soon-to-be-published author was nothing less than a baptism of fire.

When I received my contract to write How To Do Everything with HTML, I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into.

Oh, I knew I was going to write a computer book.

What I didn’t know was that the whole process would be done at a pace that bordered on insane.

Because technology changes so quickly, computer books are produced on a much faster timetable than other books. Otherwise, they can be obsolete before they ever hit bookstore shelves. The ink on my contract had barely dried when my editor e-mailed me and asked me to develop a chapter delivery schedule.

I had 20 weeks to write a 600+ page book.

If that weren’t stressful enough, I discovered that the entire writing, editing, rewrite, and proofing process would take place simultaneously.

It went something like this: For week number one, I had to write my first chapter. That included more than just writing the text. I also had to develop the HTML code. And I had to design and create all my own illustrations. After I turned in chapter one, the next week I turned my attention to the second chapter.

Like chapter one, I had to write the text, code, and illustrations. But I also had an additional task.

I had to incorporate tech edits for chapter one.

The publisher had graciously hired a technical editor who went through my HTML code and found all the bugs. Then he kicked the file back to me so that I could fix it. Thus, in the second week I had to write a 20-30 page chapter, create the computer code, design and produce my own illustrations, and incorporate the tech edits from chapter one.

Then things got even more challenging.

By about the fifth week I began to receive copy edits. So now my weekly workload involved writing a new chapter, developing the HTML code, designing and creating my own illustrations, incorporating tech edits from previous chapters, and reviewing copy edits from previous chapters.

I didn’t think it could get any worse.

It did.

About three quarters of the way through the project, page proofs began to come in, chapter by chapter. So in the last month or so, every week I had to write a new chapter, develop code, design illustrations, fix bugs, review copy edits, and correct page proofs.

It was like running down a railroad track with a mountain on one side, a cliff on the other and a locomotive breathing down my neck.

By the time I reviewed my last page proof, I felt like I’d just finished the writer’s version of the Ironman triathlon. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I sent off that final file.

A sinking feeling followed that sigh of relief.

I was ready for a long rest, but that would have to wait. About halfway through the project I’d suggested an idea for a follow-up book on Cascading Style Sheets (a related language that works hand-in-hand with HTML). The publisher liked the idea, gave me a new contract, and told me to get started right away.

For another 20 weeks, I kept running down that railroad track.

It was an exhausting process, but I’m thankful that my first books were produced this way. The schedule was brutal, particularly for a brand new writer. But I learned a valuable lesson.

I learned that I never need to let writer’s block defeat me and that I can produce consistently every week. There were many days when I didn’t feel like writing. However, because of the breakneck pace and tight production schedule, I didn’t have time to wallow in self-pity or give in to writer’s block.

I had to produce.

If I gave in to writer’s block, then the next week I would have twice as much work.

And so I wrote.

For me, writing two computer books in the space of nine months was like boot camp. The publisher put me through the wringer.

But in the process, I learned how to deal with writer’s block.

I sit down and write.

Do you struggle with writer’s block? Or have you developed a way to deal with it?

Trying to Break In? Think Out of the Box!

Photo Credit: © Winterberg | Dreamstime.com

Trying to break into publishing can be daunting, to say the least. For me, it was something akin to scaling the wall of a fortified castle, surrounded by a mote filled with hungry crocodiles.

I tried to break in as a fiction writer for years, first with a young-adult novel, then with a suspense-thriller. Both were well-written and polished. Both received good reviews from published authors. And both had received wonderful, glowing rejection letters, complete with encouraging notes from editors.

“This is great writing. Sorry, it’s not for us.”

“We love this, but we’re stocked up on YA material for the next three years.”

“The entire publishing committee wants to encourage you to keep writing. We feel you have what it takes.”

The first few times you get notes such as these, it is indeed encouraging.

After you get about 30, you begin to wish someone would say, “Hey, pal, don’t quit your day job.”

By May of 2000, I’d been trying to scale the wall of Castle Publishing for six years and had little to show for my effort aside from a stack of rejections and a seriously-bruised ego. For all intents and purposes, I had given up on the idea of ever breaking through and winning that coveted publishing contract. This was especially disappointing, as I had recently resigned my position as a pastor in order to devote my time and attention to prison ministry.

I’d hoped to have a publishing contract in hand by that time because I planned to support my prison outreach by royalties from my books. (Yes, I know that was a pipe-dream, but that story is for another post.)

Now that I was officially unemployed, I had to turn my attention to generating some sort of income. My brother-in-law, who teaches computer languages, offered to help by asking me to develop a course in HTML (the language in which Web pages are written). He told me that if I developed the course, he could hire me to teach it. The idea sounded good to me, so I started to research HTML.

During my research I discovered two things. One, HTML was very easy to learn. And, two, most of the books out there were much harder to understand than they needed to be. They were written by “techies” who could communicate well to like-minded people. However, for readers who didn’t grasp the technical aspects of web authoring, these books might as well have been written in Chinese. The more I considered it, the more I saw a need for a book on web authoring written in easy-to-understand language.

I looked at the class outline that I’d just developed, and it looked remarkably like a book outline. I knew that it wouldn’t take much work to further craft it into a book proposal. Over the next few days I wrote a query letter for a book on HTML written “for non-techies by a non-techie.” I sent the letter out to thirteen computer-book publishers.

Out of the thirteen, I received two positive responses.

One was from Osborne/McGraw-Hill.

They liked the idea and asked if I would modify the book to fit a series called “How to Do Everything With…”

Writing a computer book was completely "out of the box" for this non-techie!

I agreed, and within a few months I had my first book contract.

I never intended to be a computer-book author. That wasn’t even on my radar. My plans were to be a novelist. But when I allowed myself to think out of the box and consider a different type of writing, the walls of Castle Publishing came crashing down.

If you’re frustrated with trying to break in to publishing, in what ways could you think “out of the box”?

Nuke the Slush Pile

Photo Credit: 02-11-04 © Maartje van Caspel / istockphoto.com

What is a slush pile?

Have you ever read a market listing for a book publisher that reads something like, “Receives 2,000 submissions a year; publishes 20?”

The 1,980 manuscripts that didn’t get published are the slush pile. They are the mountain of unsolicited—and largely unpublishable—manuscripts that land on editors’ desks every day.

The slush pile also represents your competition.

I’ve spoken to more than a few writers who became discouraged at the sheer numbers of manuscripts out there and gave up on ever getting published. That’s unfortunate because it’s possible to move that slush pile out of the way.

Here are three simple practices that will help you stand out from the competition.

1. Learn Your Craft.

Believe it or not, most wannabe writers never take the time to learn how to write well. If you will take the time to study, learn, and develop your craft, you will stand head and shoulders over 90% of the people out there who say they want to be writers. Thus, when you submit a query or manuscript, your writing will stand out as superior.

Trust me. Good writing gets noticed.

2. Be Professional.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to make a living at writing or if you just see writing as something to do on the side. If you want to be taken seriously, then you have to approach your craft as a professional. That means properly formatting your manuscript, proofreading it carefully, and following the publisher’s guidelines to the letter. It also means being courteous, not missing deadlines, accepting editing and critique. It means committing yourself to turning out the best product you can–every time you sit down at the keyboard.

If you adopt a professional approach, you will distinguish yourself from many writers who do not take the time to learn (or practice) the etiquette of the publishing industry.

Do this and you will move more of that slush pile out of the way.

3. Network, Network, Network!

Over the years, I’ve learned that personal networking with editors, agents, and other writers can greatly accelerate your journey to publication (assuming you’ve learned your craft and are acting like a professional). And the best place to network is at a writers conference.  Consider this: If you had the choice between sending a query to an agent or editor (who will probably have a stack of them piled on her desk) or sitting down with her for fifteen minutes and pitching your idea in person, which would you prefer? At a writers conference you can meet that agent or editor face to face. You might not be able to attend a conference every year, but try to make at least one. It’s an investment, but it’s one you won’t regret making.

Learn your craft. Adopt a professional approach. And network, network, network. Keep these three principles in focus—and persevere—and sooner or later you’ll find yourself in print.

Because you’ll not only move the slush pile out of the way, you’ll nuke it.

Lessons from a Lonely Book Signing

Photo of a Man Sleeping on Books

© Vitaly Raduntsev | Dreamstime.com

When I began writing I embraced a fantasy.

It went something like this:

I was going to write a knock-em-dead suspense novel that would rocket to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Once my novel topped the charts, I would then be besieged by a host of publishers wanting to sign me and offering outrageously large advances. After this, I would ride a huge wave of popularity, turn out a bestseller every few years, and have book signings where people lined up around the block just to have the privilege of meeting me.

As you probably already have figured out, none of that happened.

Oh, I wrote my novel. And a publisher picked it up. But the book signing?

That was another matter.

I arranged with my local Hastings to have a table and display and plenty of books. I didn’t want someone to walk away disappointed because I’d sold out.

When the day arrived, I positioned myself behind my author’s table, a stack of books at my right hand, ready for the hordes of eager readers who would soon rush through the door. Unfortunately, the reality didn’t match my expectations.

A few friends stopped by, but they didn’t buy books. And although some people stopped by my table, most of the other customers went out of their way to avoid me. I was positioned near the front door, and as people came in, they took a circular path away from my table. I began to wonder if they thought I had an infectious disease.

As I recall, I didn’t sell a single book that night. But I did begin to learn an important lesson.

It’s not about me.

Writing isn’t about fame and fortune. It’s not about big advances, awesome reviews, or people lining up at midnight to buy my book. It’s not about feeding my ego or bolstering my pride. It’s not about living at the top of the bestseller lists.

I’ve been writing professionally since 2000. I’ve had nine books published. I’ve never had a big seller. My name’s not on any bookstore marquis.

But over the years, I’ve gotten notes and e-mails from people who have read, and been touched, by my words. I’ve heard from people who were struggling with God’s goodness in personal tragedy. They’ve thanked me for telling a story that helped them in their trials.

Last week, a lady told me that my book, More God (about a young man who overcame a traumatic brain injury) helped her understand what her sister, who has brain cancer, is going through.

A writer’s success cannot be measured in bestseller lists, outrageous advances, and standing-room-only book signings.

There’s nothing wrong with those things.

But true success is measured by how your words impact your readers for good.

I began learning that lesson at a lonely book signing. Ten years and nine books later, I’m still learning it.

And every day I thank God that He’s letting me live my dream. And then I pray that somehow, somewhere, He’ll use my words in someone’s life.

What dreams of yours have been realized through a kind e-mail or note from someone who read your writing? What is your “book signing” desire–has it come to fruition, or have you realized that dream through another avenue? 

Have you ever worn the same outfit on your book jacket that you wore to your first book signing?

The Accidental Collaborator

I never intended to be a collaborator.

For the record, my plan was to be a wildly successful, insanely rich novelist. People were going to mention me in hushed, awestruck tones along with other “last name only” fiction writers. You know: Peretti, Dekker, Grisham, Koontz, King, Pence.

I broke into book publishing in 2001 by writing computer books. In 2003, my dream was fulfilled. I was a published—and soon to be famous—novelist. By 2005, (despite excellent reviews) my “career” had pretty much ground to a halt. In fact, in May of that year I hung up my keyboard and joined the prison ministry staff of a large Dallas mega-church, feeling that my grand experiment in full-time freelance writing was a failure.

God had other plans.

James H. Pence and Terry CaffeyJames H. Pence and Terry Caffey, ministering together in Moss Bluff, Louisiana.

In my last post, (Oct. 1, “You Never Know”), I told the story of how God took a single page from my out-of-print novel Blind Sight and used it to change the life of Terry Caffey, a man whose family was brutally murdered. God not only used that page to change Terry’s life; He also used it to change the entire direction of my writing.

In January of 2009, Terry asked me to help him write a book that would tell his story.

I hadn’t written or published in four years and, as I already mentioned, collaboration was not in my long-term plans. However, because I wanted to encourage Terry, I agreed to help him write a book proposal.

Because of the intense media interest in Terry’s story, Tyndale snapped up the proposal and put the book on an accelerated publication schedule. We signed a contract in March of ’09 and the book was set for a September release.

I had to write it in twelve weeks.

The accelerated writing schedule was probably a good thing because I didn’t have the time to give in to sheer panic. I’d never collaborated before, and I had no earthly idea how to go about it. But it was a door that God had opened, and so I trusted Him for the wisdom.

I dusted off my little digital voice recorder and began interviewing Terry. Then I worked at outlining the book, selecting the stories that would go into it, even using my fiction-writing skills to lay out a plot-line.

As I worked with Terry and wrote what would become Terror by Night, I began to notice something unexpected.

I was enjoying myself immensely.

I love telling stories, but I had no idea how much I would enjoy helping other people tell their stories.

And so now I happily call myself a collaborator. I spent most of 2011 writing a book about Nate Lytle, a young surfer who made a miraculous recovery from a massive traumatic brain injury. I also collaborated on a novella with bestselling author Stephen Arterburn. And I’ve got proposals in the works for two more collaborations, one fiction and the other nonfiction.

I never intended to be a collaborator.

But God led me through an unexpected door and down an unplanned path. And in doing so, He changed the direction of my writing ministry.

Has God placed some unexpected doors or unplanned paths before you? I hope that in 2012 you’ll take a chance and go through them.

You never know what God might do.

“A person plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps,” (Proverbs 16:9, NET Bible).