Phil Rance: Logging on to a good book

Big-name authors are now queuing up to publish their work online, but how easy will it be for e-publishers to convert the readers?
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When Phil Rance left his job in consultancy to found a new-style venture development company, he wasn't looking to become a publisher or for bestselling authors such as Frederick Forsyth to beat a path to his door.

When Phil Rance left his job in consultancy to found a new-style venture development company, he wasn't looking to become a publisher or for bestselling authors such as Frederick Forsyth to beat a path to his door.

But Rance can now make the proud boast of having taken one of the world's most popular authors online, in a deal that sees Forsyth publishing the first in a series of five short stories on the internet.

"The Veteran" will be available to read on a PC, or to be downloaded onto a palmtop device, this Wednesday, priced at £1.99. On Tuesday 7 November, the author will be answering questions through a Yahoo!-hosted webchat. "I'm really a techno-peasant at heart," confessed Forsyth this week, "but I like the idea that - for just the price of a sandwich - anyone, anywhere, could sit down and read a story that I might have only just completed."

Meanwhile, Rance is toasting his own good fortune. In a stroke of luck combined with a dash of savvy, he won the rights to Forsyth's Quintet and has now struck deals with key e-book retailers such as Barnes & Noble, BOL, WHSmith and Streets Online. Back in March 1999, when he glimpsed the opportunity to get involved in the fledgling e-publishing business Online Originals, he knew it was too good to miss. He is now the firm's managing director, under an operational umbrella provided by the development company he co-founded, Credo Group.

"I was very enthused by the idea of Online Originals," he says. "It was already a well-established brand with a good reputation. I thought we could use it as a platform in the e-books market. The challenge was to get it funded until the market had some material, but pre-crash (in spring 2000) we were very confident about doing that."

Rance, who is 27, studied English and Russian at Oxford and reveals that he once fancied himself as a bit of a scribbler. Later on, working as a consultant at an offshoot of the consultancy group Bain taught him financial acumen, and more importantly, how the internet was affecting media and information paths. There, he also met Credo's co-founders.

At around the same time Online Originals' founder David Gettman, a Californian entrepreneur based in London, was beginning to develop a site for writers to publish their work online. Two years after he started it, the literature critic John Sutherland offered to review Gettman's e-publications in the Times Literary Supplement and suggested he nominate a book for the Booker Prize, leading to Patricia le Roy's Angels of Russia being picked and eventually accepted as a valid contender.

By the next year, in March 1999, Gettman was looking to expand, and agreed to sign over 50 per cent of his company to Credo and stay on as a consultant. "We had a look at it and decided that if we could be in control, it was something we'd be interested in," says Rance.

"It had a strong community of authors and there was a product for sale. We looked at what had happened in the music industry with MP3 and with Peoplesound and we thought, well, this is Peoplesound for books. If that's going to work, this is going to work. That's what we were excited about."

Eighteen months ago the world of e-publishing was a different place, but last year the horror writer Stephen King began to push at the bounds of possibility. His first online story, Riding the Bullet, was devised in partnership with his publisher Simon & Schuster and the US book chain Barnes & Noble, but he subsequently published Plant alone, which by unrolling a chapter per month if enough readers pay, takes the idea of an e-book to another level.

King's initiative, and the market meltdown earlier this year, combined to put the frighteners on Rance. "We'd first met David in January and in March the internet bubble was still growing merrily when we took over. We thought we had a window of opportunity but King woke up the traditional publishers and suddenly we thought: 'We've got a fight on here'. That demonstrated there was something worth going for, but we thought we would have a bit more breathing space."

Rance's response was to go straight for the jugular. "One way we could really raise our profile and sales was by doing a similar thing - converting a well-known author to write for us online." He went to Ed Victor, doyen of literary agents, and asked him to come up with the goods. Originally, Rance wanted Douglas Adams. "I thought he would be perfect, but I think Douglas is something like eight years late with even his most recent book. The idea must have lodged in Ed's mind because he came back to me in June and said Frederick Forsyth had a series of short stories, and would I like to publish it? Naturally, I said yes." It was a lucky break. Apparently Bill Gates had been given first dibs, but turned down the offer.

Rance has all sorts of plans to develop pricing and subscription models, but readers presently pay £4 to download a proof and £6 for an edited version of the text. The firm employs reviewers to vet manuscripts and accepts 10 per cent of work submitted. "This gives us an economic way to distribute stuff by lesser-known authors because we don't have to take the risk of printing copies," says Rance. "Writers love the site because it's another shot at getting their work into the public domain and may be a route into bigger things. But what the author earns depends entirely on their sales, which I have to say are pretty low at the moment. No one can yet make a living, though Frederick will probably do okay".

Today's e-book devices are mostly too clunky to provide a comfortable reading experience, but several companies, including Casio and HP, are hard at work on developing the killer e-back. Converting the reader might be a harder task than converting the writer right now, but Rance, who says he regularly reads fiction via palmtop on the Tube, is confident that a burgeoning of new devices will swiftly help the e-book take off. The aggregation of content that's both exclusive and appropriate, such as travel guides and short stories, will be a key driver.

In the short term, he is focused on persuading other literary stars to jump on the bandwagon, and on raising funding to grow the company and expand its US offering. "What I hope is that other authors will see what we're doing and come on board," says Rance. "Traditional publishers are experimenting, taking some of their backlist and seeing what happens. Online Originals is obviously totally focused on the e-book market, which may sound obvious, but no one else is doing that."