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Competition heats up for lauding e-books by
nature, literary awards are lightning rods for controversy. The Nobel Prize has long been dogged by charges of Euro-centrism, the Pulitzer criticized for a purported penchant for white males, the Booker taken to task for transgressions too numerous to list.
But even considering that contentious history, the recent uproar surrounding the inaugural Frankfurt eBook Awards (presented in late October at the Frankfurt Book Fair) is unusual, in particular because the dispute at its core is not about artistic merit but about the future balance of power within the publishing business itself. Itís a dispute that, according to some, could wind up determining whether the e-book sparks a democratic renaissance in book writing, making and selling, or becomes yet another sales tool in the arsenal of an increasingly insular and monolithic industry.
But on October 2, the day the IeBAF announced its list of finalists, optimism turned to anger. As one disgruntled e-publisher put it, the Frankfurt shortlist resembled little more than "the e-Pulitzers," crowded with big-name print authors from the largest and most established publishing housesamong them Stephen Ambrose, Colleen McCullough, Zadie Smith and Myla Goldberg. Among the winners (see sidebar) were titles from Simon & Schuster, Random House and iPublish.com/Time-Warner Books; only the grand prize went to a relative unknown, and it was split between E.M. Schorbís Paradise Square, published by Denlingerís Publishers Ltd., and David Maranissí Vince Lombardi biography, When Pride Still Mattered, published by Simon & Schuster.
"I feel sold down the river," lamented that same publisher. "Not to take anything away from Stephen Ambrose or Zadie Smiththeyíre fine writersbut they havenít spent the last five years out here on the front lines [of e-book publishing] with us."
And just days after the Frankfurt eBook Awards were handed out, pioneering e-author and journalist M.J. Rose announced the establishment of a grassroots rival, the Independent E-Book Awards (IEBA).
The IEBA isnít the first grassroots competition for electronic literatureit join the Eppies and ZDNetís just-announced Electronic Literature Awards for Fiction and Poetry. But it does boast a cache of name-brand judges, among them former Random House editorial director and the New York Review of Books co-founder Jason Epstein, Publishers Weekly editor Charlotte Abbott and former NuvoMedia co-founder and CEO Martin Eberhard.
To many e-publishing observers, the position staked out by Rose and the IEBA stands in stark contrast to that taken by the IeBAF with its Frankfurt awards. While the IEBA aims to promote and encourage the e-bookís artistic possibilities, some argue, the IeBAF and its sponsors appear intent on enlisting the star power of well-known authors and the marketing muscle of established publishers to help speed the adoption of e-book technology.
Assuming that assessment is accurate, it couldironicallyprove a boon for all concerned. In the end, the opposing objectives of each award might wind up complementing and bolstering the goals of the other. For example, itís possible that readers wonít fully embrace e-books unless, as M.J. Rose hopes, they evolve into something more intriguing than listless digital clones of their print relatives. At the same time, even the most laudable work of e-lit genius wonít find a large audience unless Microsoft, Gemstar and other advocates for e-book technology convert a large number of consumers to their cause.
If the rivalry between the IEBA and the IeBAF ultimately does help turn the e-book into a medium thatís both artistically significant and commercially successful, perhaps no one should be surprised. After all, isn't that what competition is all about? © 1999, 2000 West Egg Communications LLC