While the concept of e-publishing (as most people think of the term; in the strictest sense, everything on the Web could qualify as e-publishing) hasn't exactly set the world on fire, it is still the 'early days.' And like so many things on the Web, is still sorting out its proper place and 'mode of delivery.' The following sites reveal four different approaches to e-publishing - and whether through odd coincidence or 'environmental compulsion,' each one parallels a familiar method of software distribution.
First up is Visibooks, (www.visibooks.com) which uses what the company refers to as a "Napster-like strategy" - providing free downloads in hopes of increasing hard-copy sales. Following research which indicated that publishers who put books online could double or triple their hard-copy sales, Visibooks became the first publisher to make all of its titles downloadable for free - and while the titles available are limited and specialized, (Visibooks are computer instructional publications) the site has attracted more than 100,000 visitors to date. Books are downloaded as Acrobat PDF files, chosen as the best format for maintaining the 'look' of the print editions - which is an especially relevant consideration for Visibooks, since titles emphasize screen-shots, illustrations and diagrams --rather than text-- to educate the reader. (Naturally, when a given title becomes sufficiently indispensable, visitors have the option of buying hardcopy editions through the website.)
The best analogy for Canada's Coach House books (http://www.chbooks.com/) would be 'shareware' - that grassroots version of the commercial software industry in which users are invited to try an application with the understanding that they agree --strictly on the honor system-- to pay for said software if it is deemed useful. A small press publisher of Canadian poetry, experimental fiction, artist books and drama, Coach House mirrors this approach almost exactly. Like Visibooks, Coach House makes its entire catalog available online - unlike Visibooks, these aren't PDF facsimiles of the hard copy versions. Books are read in the Web browser, and since some authors choose to enhance the online editions of their titles by adding features not possible in print, (such as RealAudio clips) online and print versions of the same title could be considered fraternal, though not identical twins.
As for payment, while authors are invariably paid royalties for their print work, their online compensation depends on the ethics of strangers. Online readers are encouraged --though not required-- to "tip" the authors at a rate of three dollars per book, and it will be interesting to see if the scruples of website visitors will be sufficient to support this method in the long term.
If Coach House is shareware, then The Spook (http://www.thespook.com/) is freeware - supported entirely by advertising, and having no interest in promoting a retail hard-copy edition. The Spook is a monthly online magazine (content includes short fiction --Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Carroll-- profiles --Mick Fleetwood, Linda Blair-- reviews and cartoons) that actually looks like a magazine. Using PDF format (like Visibooks) Spook delivers content that looks exactly like what you would expect to see on a magazine shelf, and while some might consider this to be 'old wine in a new skin,' there's no denying that the format looks immediately familiar and accessible. (And it's better executed than many of its print counterparts.)
Each edition can be downloaded as a whole, (high or low resolution) or by individual articles - for those with slower connections or specific interests. The advertising, in keeping with the publication's format, is in the form of print-style, column and full-page ads, rather than more web familiar options as banners and pop-up windows. (This can take a bit of getting used to as you navigate an article in Acrobat. While you can click-and-drag text copy to move it, clicking anywhere on an ad links you to the sponsor's website, so you'll have to train yourself to stay off the page, or use scrollbars and Forward/Backward buttons to avoid unwanted excursions.)
Finally, we have the big name, commercial software counterpart. iPublish, (http://www.ipublish.com/) the creation of Time Warner Books, has the mandate of discovering new talent for both print and digital distribution. (The latter in the form of eBooks.) From the writer's point of view, this presents the almost inconceivable opportunity of having a manuscript read by a major publisher, without having to go through a literary agent. (There are other motivational aids for aspiring authors as well.)
For the reader, it offers the chance to see if there's a reason/i> that these writers don't have agents in the first place, or possibly, to witness the very first public appearances of future greats. But you'll have to pay to find out. With few exceptions, payment is mandatory for complete works, though free sample previews are provided. Titles are available through commercial dealers such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon, and are presented in varying formats, including Acrobat, Microsoft Reader and Adobe eBook Reader.
So who wins? Who knows. I can only say that from a personal standpoint, though I can easily imagine using a computer screen to read manuals, poetry and magazine articles, I still can't see myself reading a novel from any medium other than paper.
But that's just me - I still play vinyl records.