Random House Joins E-Book Fray

Random House, the largest English language publishing house in the world, announced Monday that it plans to jump on the e-publishing bandwagon with two e-book initiatives. The first, a new imprint called AtRandom, will publish new nonfiction and fiction as e-books. The second will offer digitized versions of the company’s Modern Library backlist through online retailers.

Random House is the second major publishing house to announce an e-publishing initiative. In May, Time Warner announced the launch of iPublish.com, a digital venture that has not yet opened its virtual doors.

The traditional publishing world was also shaken up recently by best-selling horror author Stephen King’s decision to offer his e-book directly to consumers as a digital download. King is selling installments of his new book “The Plant” online for a dollar per download. King made history in March when demand for his e-book “Riding the Bullet” overloaded servers at several major e-tailers.

The Color of E-Money

Jonathan Karp, Vice President and Senior Editor at the Random House Trade Group, told the E-Commerce Times that Random House is joining the e-publishing world to “establish a beachhead” in order to send a clear signal that it is “the place to come” for all types of books.

Karp describes King’s achievement with “Riding the Bullet” as a ‘novelty,’ but believes that the right book and the right subject could be a recipe for considerable success. He said that no one knows what the future of e-publishing holds, but the outlook is “quite good” if Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) become as popular as Sony’s Walkman radio. Even if PDAs do not boom in popularity, Karp added, there will be a market for digital books.

A recent study by Andersen Consulting predicted that e-book sales will soar to $2.3 billion (US$) by 2005 and that about one-third, or $700 million of those sales, will come directly at the expense of paper book sales.

An Eclectic Collection

AtRandom’s first offering of 20 books will reflect an eclectic mix that includes advice to the young and perplexed, the memoirs of a sexual adventurer, and a look at the troubles involved in recreating the television program Sesame Street in Moscow. Notably, the new imprint will also offer a new collection of short stories about online relationships.

Karp said, “We have named this imprint AtRandom because in the tradition of our founder, Bennett Cerf, we will publish at random. The books we publish electronically and digitally will be as diverse and as eclectic as the books we publish on paper.”

He added, “All they will have in common is their creative quality and our passion for them.”

Two Formats Available

All of AtRandom’s books will be available beginning in January 2001 both as digital downloads through existing e-tailers, including Amazon and Fatbrain, and as print-on-demand trade paperback editions available from e-tailers and traditional brick-and-mortar stores.

The print-on-demand option allows publishers and consumers to take advantage of the best of both the traditional and digital publishing industries. Books are stored on a publisher’s hard drive and printed out only when customers request them. This process allows the publishers to save warehousing and shipping costs and allows consumers to read their favorite books on paper instead of their computer monitor.

Printing Takes Too Long

E-publishing is one way that traditional publishers can keep pace with the demand for instant gratification that the Internet has created. Said Po Bronson, the author of a story included in AtRandom’s upcoming book Men Seeking Women, “Someday we will barely remember how it took us 12 months to convert a manuscript into a book, and it will seem insane that publishers had no idea who their readers were and couldn’t get in touch with them.”

Echoed Karp, “We hope the AtRandom imprint will afford these and future authors new creative opportunities to write at greater length than magazine nonfiction and fiction editorial space permits and with more immediacy and flexibility than traditional bound book publishing manufacturing schedules usually allow.”

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