Just a few years ago, if you wanted to buy stock you called your broker.
If you wanted to buy an airline ticket, you called your travel agent.
And if you wanted to buy a new outfit, you went to the mall.
For many, the Internet has changed all that. Now, a group of Web sites is not only taking the bookstore out of book buying, but is transforming the way books are published.
Companies, led by iUniverse, www.iuniverse.com, are printing books on demand for customers, rather than using the traditional method where hundreds or thousands of books are printed at once. E-publishers aim to give consumers access to out-of-print and lesser-known authors, as well as custom publications.
These companies have also changed the rules for writers.
For as little as $99, an author can submit a book to be published by iUniverse or a similar company. The publisher formats the text, creates a cover and makes the book available for sale in both paperback and electronic versions.
It's how Richmonder Susan Mantlo had her first novel published in July by 1st Books Library. Mantlo's "Crossing the Line" can be found at the 1st Books Library site, www.1stlibrary.com, and on the sites of large chain bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.
Mantlo, who works at insurance brokerage Marsh Inc. in Richmond, says getting published online was fast and inexpensive. Some of her friends and family downloaded the book to read it on their computers, while others, like her, waited a few days for printed copies to arrive, "so a lot of people had read the book before I ever saw it in its final form," Mantlo says.
Betting that on-demand publishing will continue to grow, Barnes & Noble Booksellers bought a 49 percent stake in iUniverse last November. "Investing with iUniverse offers us the opportunity to have the infrastructure when, in the years to come, all books will be available in a digitized format," says Michael Fragnito, vice president at www.bn.com.
Partnerships have also been formed with other booksellers such as Amazon.com and Borders. Richard Tam, CEO and founder of iUniverse, says relationships with major retailers are essential because, even though the company sells books on its Web site, it doesn't see itself as a bookseller. Selling books through major book retailers is an integral part of iUniverse's business model.
"We don't try and make money off of our authors, we see them as partners," Tam says. "The only way we'll make money is if the book sells."
While iUniverse hopes to publish books that sell well, it expects to make a profit by offering lots of titles that aren't best sellers. iUniverse says it has published more than 5,000 titles.
Tam says that getting the books to market quickly, and for a lower cost than traditional publishers, is the key to that plan. iUniverse books cost between $8 and $25, and authors get a royalty ranging from 20 percent to 60 percent, depending on whether the book is new or out-of-print, or in paperback or electronic form. iUniverse keeps the rest.
That setup is luring authors to the company. Virginia Beach resident Malcom Massey was put off when he researched publishing his book, "Holiday in Havana," and found that some companies wanted as much as $7,000. Besides the cost, Massey liked iUniverse's connection to the Web.
"It seemed cool to do everything, including the contract, over the Internet," he says.
Another way iUniverse plans to sell books is to offer customized content. It recently inked a deal with IDG Books Worldwide, publisher of the "For Dummies" books.
The deal will allow consumers to mix and match content from the IDG books, buying as much or as little as they like.
Tam says the infrastructure his company has built makes customized and on-demand publishing a reality.
"There was no integrated solution before we developed ours," he says. "We have the mechanism to produce a very high volume of titles."
The infrastructure includes the iUniverse Web site, where authors can submit books and consumers can buy them. The company also has a network of printers across the country that are automated to receive orders to print books.
Perhaps the most important part of the system is iUniverse's link to major online booksellers.
If you look up Virginia Beach resident Brenda Lee Jennings' book, "Guilty By Birth," at www.amazon.com, the results look like any other book you'll find at the site. There's a picture of the cover, the price ($8.95), a description of the book, an author's bio, and customer reviews.
"I just went online to look for a place that would help new authors," Jennings says. "They were very easy to contact when I had questions. They were very patient and responded to my phone calls and e-mails.
"Of course I'd love to be a best-selling author, but really I didn't set out to do that. I just enjoy writing, and my family urged me to get published."
Richmond's Mantlo says the same: "I did it because I love to write and I love to read."
She won't know exactly how many books she's sold until she receives her quarterly royalty report in September, but she's not expecting to make the best-seller list. "I wasn't doing this to get rich and famous," she says. "Of course, wouldn't it be great if I could stay home with my child and do this full-time? That would be a dream."
In addition to discovering lesser-known authors, consumers can also find formerly out-of-print titles from well-known writers such as William F. Buckley Jr. and Tom Martinez, who have been published by iUniverse.
Unlike a traditional publisher, iUniverse leaves publicity to the authors but provides a tool kit at its Web site. There, authors can find information about marketing, agents, and writing and editing. Virginia Beach's Massey, for example, set up his own book signing at the Virginia Beach Barnes & Noble. He sold about 30 books at the signing. Mantlo, too, has held book signings for her book, including impromptu sales on family trips and a planned Dec. 13 signing at Riverfront Plaza where she works.
Barnes & Noble bookstores will host writer workshops Oct. 14 that will provide information on online publishing, says June Stephenson, a Richmond spokeswoman for the company. "I think it gives every author an opportunity to have a book published," she says, "but as with any new venture, the author should do some homework."
Charlie Finley, coordinator of the Virginia Writers Club, agrees. "Printing on demand is not the same thing to all people," he says. "I would just caution writers to be aware
of what they are getting into. They may be good writers, but they generally don't know too much about marketing."
Tam at iUniverse says new partnerships on the horizon will give customers access to even more written material, whether they want a full paperback book or just a single chapter to download to a hand-held organizer.
"What we intend to do is become the digital backbone for the publishing industry," he says. "The backbone of what I call the new publishing industry, where there is a lot more user customization, more selection. And the product is delivered in whatever form the customer wants." Rob Morano contributed to this story.