Goodreads Facebook Twitter RSS Feed

An Interview With Maureen Scott of Ether Books

Thursday, 18 November 2010

As promised, here is my interview with Maureen Scott, co-founder of eReader short story publisher Ether Books. It's a fairly long post, but contains some fascinating insights. If your intrigued by the possibilities of eReaders - or worried or confused - what she has to say will be of great interest.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the idea behind Ether?

A. I've spent the past 10 years of my career in the mobile industry. I am an early adopter of new technology and my background is in IT and new product development. My business partner Mike Jones and I have strong track records of providing new products when industries "go digital," which is happening now in the publishing industry due to the creation of eReader hardware devices, software and platforms.

We are in the very early stages of mobile apps adoption and development. Ten years ago I was at Psion's mobile internet start-up Trivanti, where I was recruiting mobile content for the world's first smartphone, the Ericsson R380. The history lesson in mobile content is important; we could not have the Apple app store and smartphones today without the blood sweat and tears that have taken place in the mobile industry over the past decade.

Q. The commute-length short story would seem to be well-suited to eReader devices like the iPhone. Almost the literary equivalent of the casual game. Does it surprise you there aren't more available?

A. We are not surprised that there are not more apps like ours; Mike and I have a track record of recognising new technology trends early and building products to leverage the new market dynamics.

There have been a lot of apps released that have "classic" short story content. We believe we are the only company licensing short form content from living writers to place in our app. We operate a distribution platform using Apple's in-app purchase functionality. The functionality was designed by Apple to enable games apps to charge for "levels" of their games. Our innovation is using the functionality to sell discreet stories, essays, poetry, etc at a micro-payment cost level. We believe we are very early to this market; the publishing industry is focused on hardware eReaders like the Kindle and the iPad. We have our own eReader software which we have launched initially via our iPhone app. We have spoken to other companies who have had the same idea but have not delivered any apps. We have a huge advantage due to our previous experience when compared to these more traditional companies.

Q. Do you see yourselves as a software house, writing apps to deliver fiction to readers, or as a publisher, exercising editorial control etc., but one that just happens to use electronic devices? Are you more a bookshop or a book publisher?

A. We view ourselves as a hybrid. We certainly provide a channel to market and monetisation for writers via our app. We curate content now, and are not providing editoral except for the occasional correcting of typos, etc. Our starting point is writers. We want to be the digital destination for writers to showcase their content, and for consumers to source a great digital read. We are like Amazon in that we are a distribution platform. We are unlike Amazon because we curate content and are not a "self-publishing" platform.

We are positioning ourselves as a digital content technical platform and destination for consumers. We will be providing our community of Ether writers with tools to help them promote their content via our app. It is a new market and we want to constantly innovate and help our writers earn a living by writing great content. We have social networking functionality built into our app to enable consumers to engage directly with our writers as well as "tell a friend" functionality to spread the word about our app but more importantly our great new writers.

Q. What genres do you plan to publish? Most novels are "mainstream", of course, but there are strong traditions of short-story telling in SF, fantasy etc. Do you see those markets working differently?

A. We can offer any number of genres and are increasing the genres all the time. We always ask our writers to think of new and fun names for genres. We are actively seeking SciFi and Fantasy writers. We can't predict if the markets will work differently; we have architected our infrastructure so we can launch "genre" apps when the demand is there.

Q. Do you plan to ever publish other forms - novels for instance?

A. We are soon launching serialisations of a novels, in the Charles Dickens model. We are innovators and have the technology platform and mindset to deliver content in "byte sized" reads. We know that serialisations have worked previously for mobile content. Mobisodes have been popular mobile content for short video-type content. We think the same thing will be popular with the digital word.

Q. Devices such as the Kindle and iPad have come a long way but they still seem rather crude at times : drab, clunky, expensive and they break if you drop them. Do you think they'll ever supplant the paperback?

A. My experience of industries moving into the digital arena has taught me that technology does not replace, it adds channels to market and changes commercial models. The airline industry thought they could save the commissions they paid to travel agents by creating technology to facilitate consumers booking their own flights. What the airline industry did not see coming was the new "direct booking" technology enabling new airlines to enter the market with a much lower cost base. Travel agents did not disappear. The direct booking technology enabled pricing transparency and gave consumers real time price information that was not previously available. We at Ether love the Internet and the power it places in the hands of consumers! Will eReader hardware devices replace the paperback? For some people, yes, for other consumers, no. But it does create the environment to enable writers to get published without ever working with a literary agent or a traditional book publisher.

My gut instincts tell me that people are reading more than they ever have, but they don't "think" of surfing the web and reading text messages as "reading." This is where context and technology come into play. When technology is developed to enable people to read in a different "format" ie, via a digital reader or on their phone the technology acts to "enable" consumption in a different context. I have downloaded books onto my Kindle and then bought the paperback since I wanted a hard copy. The analogy that I use is a simple one. Every day I receive documents in my email inbox. I certainly don't print them all! I read most straight from my screen. But sometimes I do want a hardcopy, so I print it. I believe that this is how digital publishing will evolve over time. On demand printing will faciliate this; and the publishing industry will be forced to be a lot more efficient.

If I were a traditional publisher right now I would be publishing as many extracts of books that are "in the pipeline" as possible. If these books aren't adopted, or downloaded by digital readers I would kill the publication of the physical book. Publishers should be welcoming the new technology with open arms! They can now test the market before committing huge sums to the "hope" that a book will be a best-seller. They will have factual data on which to make their "physical" book publishing decisions. So maybe the question to ask is "will publishers only print paperbacks of books that are proven to be read in the digital space?" I have never been good at predicting the future but it does pose some interesting questions. I would also add that the Kindle and iPad are first releases. We non-engineers cannot even hope to imagine the future technical capabilities of the hardware devices. Combine that with the innovation of software developers and the future looks very exciting indeed. Maybe the commercial change will be that fewer pens and pencils are sold :). And sales of eye glasses will increase as we all require glasses at an earlier age from spending so much time reading from a screen. Who knows?

Q. What's your advice to writers who are wary about embracing new technology? Should they be afraid or enthusiastic?

A. Enthusiatic. The world is your oyster! The biggest challenge will be finding your audience; but when you do you will get to keep more of your well-earned money! You can forget about those horrible rejection letters and the months and months of waiting. I haven't even mentioned how fast writers can be published via digital platforms.

Q. New technology invariably has implications for the sort of art that is produced. The mechanized printing press, for example, allowed the mass-market novel to exist. How do you think literature on eReaders will evolve?

A. We are already testing this at Ether. We are running our "Ether Best Mobile Writer" competition from mid-December 2010. The initital competition is open to writers in the 18-24 year old age group, and will focus on fiction of less than 2500 words. The context of mobile content consumption is that readers have time to kill and are bored. Our mobile writers need to quickly grab the attention of the reader and hold it, since the reader can so easily play a game on their smartphone instead! Some of our writers have already stopped working on their novels and are instead writing more short stories. Consumer behaviour is notoriously difficult to predict and we are really excited to identify the type of stories that are likely to win the eyeballs of our readers.

Q. Finally, can readers of this blog submit short stories to you? If so, what sort of thing are you after and how do they go about it?

A. Absolutely. We are going to be launching an on-line submission process soon, details will be announced via the Ether web site.

So there we are : fascinating stuff, I think you'll agree. Many thanks to Maureen for taking the time to answer these questions.

So will we see a resurgence in short story reading because of eReaders? Or will things stay pretty much as they are? How will traditional publishers adapt to the possibilities of the new technology? How will agents? No-one really knows, of course, but personally I do concur with Maureen's view that writers at least should regard new technology with enthusiasm rather than dread. Because, whatever happens, however people do read fiction in the future, we're always going to need writers to create the fiction in the first place aren't we?

Meanwhile, Ether Books are here and their iPhone app is here.


  1. This is a fascinating interview, Simon, but my blood actually ran cold at the thought of publishers testing the waters with digital releases and then killing publication if the take up is low. I mean, it sounds logical, but it would only work if the target audience is massively into reading on mobile apps already, and those of us writing for children might not fare so well. After all, what is a 12-year-old going to do with his iPhone on the school bus? Read? Or text his mates and play games?

    Well, I suppose he might read, but...

    I'm guardedly optimistic about the future, but it's hard to keep smiling all the time. My editor summed up how I feel perfectly: "we have no choice but to be excited by the future."

  2. Thomas,

    Yes, it does sound brutal I'll admit. Although maybe youngsters will be more comfortable with reading on mobile devices than the general population? I actually wouldn't be surprised.

  3. Interesting interview. I read novels on my phone when I'm on the tube, and I'd love to read short stories, too. It's good to see publishers looking at alternate ways to bring reading the people!

  4. Talli,

    Absolutely. It seems to me technology gives us more outlets, more possibilities, to read and to write.

  5. Like the others, I found this extremely interesting. I don't have a portable ereader. I have downloaded short stories to my computer, though. I don't think I would ever totally convert, but I love the idea of having one to take on a trip-it would save room for one thing. And, for those short stories I don't want to pay a lot of money for in a book form, it would still generate money for the authors when I purchased them as an eBook.

    As for the writers, I still think having an editor is a good idea. There's already a lot of crap out there in book form. Imagine what might show up digitally!

    Very provocative post....

  6. Words Crafter,

    Absolutely agree about editors - although the mistakes made in properly edited, traditionaly-published books can be surprising. I read short storie sdownloaded to my 'phone and it works really well.


I'd love to know what you think.