Judging E-Books by Their Printers

Sure, the books are all available in digital format. But the majority of titles first gained attention as print books, and are most easily obtained by walking into a bookstore. The insignias on their spines indicate conglomerates best-known for releasing print books; only three of the 10 titles come from publishers outside the traditional print world.

Simon & Schuster boasts four of the nominees, including bestsellers from thriller writer Ed McBain, historian Stephen Ambrose, and a Vince Lombardi biography. Random House wound up with a nominee for first-time novel White Teeth by Zadie Smith.

The award's sponsors say the literati's recognition of the digital format shows how far e-publishing has come. "Six months ago, digital conversion of titles from large publishers was extremely rare in [the US] and was even slower in Europe. Now it's really picked up," says former Random House chief and longtime insider Alberto Vitale, whose involvement as chairman of the international Frankfurt eBook Awards Foundation proves his own point.

But the list's traditional bent has drawn a bitter reaction from the e-publishing community, a shaggy group whose offerings consist mostly of books rejected by traditional houses. The e-publishers say a self-interested Microsoft, one of the main sponsors of the $US100,000 prizes, played them for fools.

In the two days since the Frankfurt eBook Awards Foundation made the list public, the bulletin boards that serve as the communal backbone of these cottage businesses have lighted up.

"Microsoft paid for these awards, and it's pretty obvious they rely on big publishers to provide content for MS Reader," says Connie Foster, who runs the e-publisher Ebooksonthe.net. "There was never any intention of awarding the independent publishers. This was just one big marketing ploy."

Dick Brass, Microsoft's VP of technology development, laughs at any suggestion of a conspiracy. "I'm not surprised that major publishers wound up with a major percentage of the awards. They're professional publishers, and some of them have been doing it for 50 or 100 years," he says, adding that the "fiercely independent" judges - many of whom are successful authors themselves, like Henry Louis Gates Jr. - did not confer with Microsoft about their decisions. The only stipulation for the two "original" categories, said Brass, was that the books had to come out simultaneously with, or prior to, print editions.

It is this point that rankles some e-publishers. They note that according to Simon & Schuster's Web site, the electronic version of Ed McBain's The Last Dance came out in May, four months after the print edition. S&S explains the ambiguity by saying the Web listing was a mistake. In an e-mail to Awards Foundation President Roxanna Frost, S&S spokesman Adam Rothberg included a press release announcing the e-book release in November 1999.

Also ambiguous were the exact criteria for the prizes. If the books were selected on the basis of literary merit, with merely the technical requirement that they have a digital counterpart, what exactly makes the e-book awards different from any other prize? "It was a way of shining a spotlight on those who make the effort," Vitale explains.

The issue might come down to definitions. The term "e-book" has been slippery from the beginning. To hardware manufacturers, it means a device, whereas most Web publishers use it to refer to digital editions.

Vitale says the panel viewed the word "e-books" as just another way titles are presented, which means the term had a business significance, nothing more. But Foster says these awards offered a chance to "get the kiss of respectability."

Neither side, however, mentions a third definition, that of an e-book as a fundamentally different entity - say, of an interactive novel or an audio-enhanced package - instead of simply as a more efficient business tool. That, said Brass, will have to wait.

"People are beginning to realise that there are a lot of books in e-book format, and a lot more coming," Brass says. "But e-books would never get off the ground for a decade if all the content was highly experimental. No one wants that."

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