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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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?