ALISKE WEBB


An Exclusive Interview by

Carol Givner


How did bookmice.com come into being?


It started because of my son who is now seven and loves the computer and his gameboy and anything else with buttons and gadgets. It occurred to me that if he could read books on something like a gameboy instead of just playing, we'd both be a lot happier. I began to research the electronic book industry and was completely overwhelmed with it. It just made so much sense to me, for every reason - the accessibility, not cutting down trees, the appeal to kids (and adults). I drove everyone crazy with my "predictions" that this would be the "wave of the future". Some of them just didn't understand, although recently since Stephen King published an e-book and gained all that media attention, suddenly they are coming back to me and saying, "So that's what you were talking about!"


The idea of e-books immediately fascinated and intrigued me so much I had to become involved and started Bookmice.com. I think in everyone's life there comes one or two of those "lightbulb" experiences - an idea so compelling it simply animates your whole existence. Since starting Bookmice I have never worked so hard for so long and enjoyed it so much as I have with this business.


You are a strong supporter of epublishing, which made you a visionary in a new industry. What prompted your interested at the beginning?


A passion for good books and a commitment to literacy. In fact, we have pledged a portion of our annual sales to literacy organizations. I feel as if I am in the "right place at the right time". There is a whole new evolution in publishing taking place, and hopefully I am uniquely situated to be able to make a difference in this process. In fifty years time when I'm 100, I want to be able to tell my grandchildren "I was there when they invented e-books". (laugh) And they will be suitably un-impressed.


I'm an original Star Trek fan and I find it fascinating to think that when the program first aired, their gadgets and computers were basically all empty wooden boxes with flashing lights and bits of plastic but we all believed it would become real. Thirty years later, we now have tiny handheld communicators (cellphones), pocket size computers, computers that talk etc etc. The "empty boxes" are now real. Technology has followed the imagination and made it a reality. E-books are another aspect of that real-ization of possibility and it will have impacts that we can't even begin to predict right now. That's what is so exciting.


What are your long-term goals for bookmice.com?


I want us to continue to expand and grow as the market develops and people become more aware of the power and potential of e-books. I feel a strong responsibility toward the brave authors who have come along with me on this venture, to make it a success for them. I remember what it was like to be a struggling unpublished author and want to do everything I can to bring good books to the reading audience.


Our generation has a "romance" with the printed book and turning pages, but the next generation of readers (such as my son) will think nothing of reading all their material online or from handheld reading devices, both for educational and recreational purposes. It is a small market at the moment but we are planning for the future by building our children's booklist now.


Keeping up with technology will continue to be a challenge over the next couple of years as formats and platforms change and reading devices by various manufacturers come on the market and evolve. The great thing about being a small e-press is that we can remain flexible and adapt quickly to make sure that our e-books continue to provide the quality and accessibility that readers want.


What kind of books did you read as a child? What were your favorites?


I read everything I could get my hands on. I can still remember many of the stories and characters but am at a loss to recall the book title or author - it was the story that was compelling and memorable. I was also read to as a child a great deal and clearly remember my Dad reading Winnie the Pooh in different voices and even as an adult we would still joke about the "woozles". I was shy as a little girl and books gave me an escape into other worlds - they were a totally cathartic experience for me and I could get lost in a book for hours. I guess I still do. When I was eleven I read "To Kill A Mockingbird" and that book seemed to have a tremendous impact on me. It is still a favorite and one of the very few books that I will read over again every few years. I guess I saw myself in "Scout".


Why did you become a writer?


There are two parts to that answer. First of all, I've always had a love affair with books and was forever scribbling away as a kid. For some reason it was one of those things that was put aside in my life until I hit forty and finally decided to do something I had wanted to do all my life but had felt too shy about pursuing - I used to say to myself "nobody will ever pay me to write what I think". At forty, I wasn't so worried and decided I did have something worthwhile to say ! <grin>


Secondly, becoming a writer seemed to be something I had to do. A goal I had to accomplish - I guess to "get it out of my system". I felt that I had things to say and by that point in my life had enough experiences to share. My first book was a purely didactic novel but as I gained more skill, I shifted more to storytelling.


What is your publishing history?


In 1990, I wrote "Twelve Golden Threads" which is the story of a grandmother teaching her granddaughters how to make a quilt and of course in the process teaching them about life and her "threads" for living a successful life. After being rejected by every publishing house inthe business, I self-published it and went on to write "The Fragile Thread", "Murder at the Quilt Show", "The Phoenix Quilt", "Turtle Medicine" and a few others under pen names. I use the quilt as a metaphor for life in many of my books because I think it is a universal and powerful image for women and seems to resonate with many women. Self-publishing in itself was a wonderful experience and the books were successful enough that New York publishers became interested. My books were picked up by HarperCollins and printed in eight countries and became a best-seller in Japan.


As a publisher, Bookmice began in June 1999 with six books. We now have over one hundred. They are formatted as PDF, HTML and also on CD-ROMs sold through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other ebook sellers. Our books have recently been converted for Rocket eBooks and we are now making them into Palm Pilot editions.


What is the ideal role of the reviewer in the literary marketplace? The editor?


Reviewers provide a very valuable screening system for the public. If reviewers are experienced, professional and unbiased in their appraisal of a book, they give people a chance to vet what they decide to buy. There are so many books published every year that people have a hard time knowing where to start. Unfortunately, too often, reviewers use reviews to grind their own personal axes and that is not fair to the book and does a disservice to the public who rely on their opinion.


There are different philosophies at play here. Some reviewers feel that to give a negative review isn't helpful at all and if they don't like a book they simply don't review it rather than give it a critical review. And that is a valid position. Others feel that they owe it to the public to point out a bad book. Also valid. Some authors cringe at bad reviews, other relish them because bad reviews/controversy can often sell more books than a good review. I think the point here is that people need to look to the source and understand the position of the reviewers in order to understand what spin is being put on the critique.


Now editing is something else entirely and this strikes right at the heart of the whole e-book phenomena. Editors at traditional publishing houses have the dual purpose of ensuring the quality of the manuscript before it is printed and also of acquiring manuscripts in the first place. As acquisition editors, they are the keepers of the narrow gateway through which a book must pass in order to be published - both for content/subject matter and presentation.


It's an old argument about the kinds of books that NYC hypes every year versus the kinds of books that consumers are actually wanting to read. Authors can sometimes rightfully gripe that they aren't allowed to access their market; and consumers can sometimes rightfully gripe that they aren't being presented with the books they want. And the "fault" lies with the editing "machinery" and commercial interests of publishers. In support of the publishers' position, they are in business and have to keep producing the kind of (perhaps poor quality) content books that the public continues to snap up every year - it's sort of, we get what we deserve because as a society we don't support literary works.


E-books allow almost anyone with a computer, an internet connection, some technical savvy and determination, to publish a book and thereby circumvent the "editing" gateway. The fear is that as a consequence we will begin to be inundated with poor quality, poorly edited e-books, and this is a possibility. Someone recently lamented that this would be the end of the e-book revolution. Well, poor quality, typo-laden books so far haven't brought down the NYC publishing houses... When I've read a poorly edited book I rarely blame the author, but rather the editing of the publishing house, and, I rarely remember that it came from such-and-such a publisher and therefore didn't buy any more books from that publisher again. As readers I think we all have an immediate irritability about typos (for example) but a long term forgetfulness and tolerance for the same flaws.


The point is there will always be a need for professional editing. Someone might produce one book and sell it, but if it is a terrible book, they won't sell a second or third. Quality will ultimately survive in the marketplace and drive the mediocre books/publishers out. The difference will always be in the editing, whether it is done in-house by a publisher or by independent editors working directly with an author. I find that any professional writer or anyone serious about writing understands and appreciates the importance of good editing to improving the quality of the work.


How will agents fit into epubbing? Will they at all?


My experience shows that for the most part agents have been reluctant to bother with e-publishing. I have contacted many agents who have shown absolutely no interest at all. In fact, one agent did send their current list of books, several of which I specifically asked to see, and have never heard from her.


Although e-royalties are considerably higher than traditional paper royalties, because the market is still so small, I suspect they feel it is not worth their effort. I think they are missing the point, and the boat. E-pubbing can provide some exposure, develop a readership and an albeit small revenue stream for clients who otherwise cannot get in the door of traditional paper pubbers.


A more longterm answer unfortunately, is that agents will be less important in e-pubbing simply because they are middlemen between authors and publishers. As a general trend, the internet is quickly eliminating many middleman roles in many businesses as producers directly access buyers. And again with the ease of electronic submission authors can approach e-publishers directly. I can see that in the future, agents may well switch over and become vetting agents, essentially the acquisition editors, for e-publishers (like Bookmice) who are inundated with manuscripts and need help wading through the "slush pile". In essence that is what agents do now, vet the books that they think are sell-able.


What makes a good manuscript? A poor one?


Ether. (laugh) Some vague ephemeral quality that makes the writing compelling. Almost impossible to define and goes beyond the mere techniques of good grammar, plot etc. You could take every English Lit course on every classic and pull every book apart as far as style and structure is concerned and still not find one common ingredient that makes a book great. In fact, I think the more we try to define it, the further we move from actually seeing the quality. When I reread "To kill A Mockingbird", I can tell you why is is technically a good book, but I can't tell you why it is a great one - unless I start to wax lyrical about univerality of theme, etc.


A poor book is one that annoys editors. It is sloppily put together, not spell or grammar checked, unprofessionally presented (for which there is no excuse given the plethora of excellent "how to present your mss" books out there); it is narrow in its view, exclusionary in its scope and inconsistent in its detail. If the author doesn't care enough about the book, then why would an editor.


What is the worst mistake a writer can make?


1. Giving up too soon. 2. Taking the business too seriously (or not seriously enough!) 3. Not having any fun along the way - remember you write because you love to write, not just because you want to be read - otherwise you should be selling shoes.


Bookmice has an excellent selection of children's and young adult novels. What led to your decision to give a much needed forum to this market?


Because the next generation will be so used to this electronic medium that their reading habits now will follow through as adults tomorrow and I take a long term view of this business even though it is short-term in every aspect of its development right now eg the daily changes in technology and strategic alliances and so forth.


What advice would you give a new writer? A new editor?


Fortunately and unfortunately, the same old chestnuts apply. Write what you love because you love writing and forget the "finish line" of being published. Hone your writing skills, edit edit edit and submit submit submit. And as I always say, have some fun along the way - otherwise the business will grind you down

Take advantage of the new e-possibilities out there. Don't expect great returns at the beginning; this is a patience game but those who venture into it now, have the opportunity to establish themselves in a small but growing market. E-publishing is an interesting partnership between publishers and authors - because it is new and growing it takes effort on both parties to promote an e-book. Authors need to recognize that more and more these days, even in traditional paper publishing, there is a heavy expectation that the author will also bear a great deal of the responsibility to promote a book and make it successful. The idea some writers have that once they hand their baby over to the publisher all they have to do is sit back and wait for royalty checks to come in, is hugely mistaken and will lead them to the greatest disappointments.


How can writers use the net most efficiently?


Many ways. When authors join Bookmice among other things we send them a welcome email with lots of promotional information in it, places to list their books, how to promote, etc. Some use the information and some don't; some authors are more intimidated by the internet than others. If they are not technically savvy I suggest they find a local fifteen year old boy and enlist his help - because they know all the ins and outs of the net.


The net is a very powerful networking tool. Authors should use it to develop their own support groups (other than friends and family who often don't have any idea what the writer is going through) and to develop contacts to special interest groups where their book is of interest and can potentially sell to. Get on mailing lists, vet your interest/industry/subject, use the net to learn more about e-pubbing.


It's interesting to note that I have yet to have an author approach me with an already developed list of their potential sources for sales - this is something that almost every traditional publishing house asks an author for - who is your target market and how can we access them? I recall filling out a 19 page marketing questionnaire from one publisher.


What do you believe the millennium will bring to publishing? How will the intellect be best served by the century before us?


This is a great question. If we really move on into the Star Trek model, many things will change - if you follow the later ST spin-offs such as the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, there are some subtlely embedded ideas about social structures, job functions and how we (they) value the various contributions that individuals make to the whole - some very clever alternate, lateral thinking going on there.


In a practical sense, we could ultimately eliminate publishers completely. Not only could Stephen King (for example) buy his own publishing company but he could now sell his books directly to his market through his own website and keep all the royalties - this is definitely an idea many authors are contemplating. This is one reason NYC publishers have been nervous about and reluctant to develop e-book strategies. And even us small e-pubbers have to look at that longterm scenario.


Of course, what then happens to editors - do they all become independent contractors who work directly with authors. And even further down the road, what about authors? When anyone can write and publish a book on the internet, do we all in essence become authors, writing about our jobs, our hobbies, our families, etc. Writing may simply become another category of function that we all have such as car-driver, home-owner, dinner-maker, child-tender, etc. Maybe there won't actually be a definable job of "writer". That's an interesting and yet somehow scary thought. There has always been a "vanity press" which has allowed a certain number of people to publish whatever they want and it's been relatively limited because it is expensive, but now with the internet, it has suddenly become feasible for almost anyone.


What then becomes of literature? I hope that it is a sign of the continuing evolution of human culture that we will at some point begin to truly value literature and that writnig becomes a much more prized and validated true profession (and therefore of course even harder to become). We may have to differentiate between the every-man-is-a-writer of his own life, and the literary-professionals. I believe the marketplace is a self-cleaning process and that we will continue to produce even more great writers who create great literature which is more widely accessible than at any point in the past.


In the shorter term, I hope that e-books means a greater global literacy as our technologies of the first world continue to trickle down into the third world countries. It is only through education that women will become free and equal partners and free of abuse; that sexual exploitation will end; that we will eliminate over-population, starvation and pollution, and that we will elminate the tyranny of politics and war. That sounds like a terribly lofty ambition for a few pixil-ated words on a computer screen, but look what Gutenberg did in simply producing one little Bible. It is interesting to note that almost as soon as e-book technology developed, The Project Gutenberg began, with its avowed intention of putting every single book in the public domain on the internet, free of charge for anyone to access. Isn't that amazing.


If Gold Coast paid for a radio spot for Bookmice on Studio E, what would you want your audience to know?


I think I would like listeners to know that electronic publishing is an exciting new medium much like the advent of radio and even television, and ultimately we will all be responsible for the direction it takes, the quality that it encompasses and the impact that it has on our lives. It's a tool like every other tool that mankind has invented and we can use it constructively. I have a bunch of post-its that say "Life is like a quilt - it will always be to a large extent exactly what we ourselves make it". I think that is true of e-books - they are us and will reflect what we put into them.


Thank you, Aliske.


We'll be looking for you at www.bookmice.com