The latest J.R.R. Tolkien project lasted six years, more than half as long as the author needed to complete his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
Getting permission to release a book in electronic form can be as hard — or harder — than writing it.
"The Tolkien estate wanted to be absolutely confident that e-books were not something ephemeral," says David Brawn, publishing operations director at HarperCollins UK, which announced last week that the late British author's work — among the world's most popular — would be available for downloads.
"We were finally able to convince the Tolkien estate that the e-book is a legitimate, widespread format."
Tolkien's addition to the e-club fills a major gap, and, with e-books the fastest (and virtually only) growing sector of publishing, other authors and their estates have softened. Former holdouts Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel have allowed their books to be digitized and John Grisham will reportedly do the same. Grove/Atlantic Inc., which has published William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett and Malcolm X, expects many of its older works to become available.
"We're getting less resistance every day," says Grove associate publisher Eric Price.
But you could still build a brilliant collection with the books that remain off-line. They include, most notably, the "Harry Potter" series, and countless other favorites: "Catcher in the Rye" and "Catch-22"; "Lolita" and "To Kill a Mockingbird"; "Atlas Shrugged" and "Things Fall Apart"; "The Outsiders" and "Fahrenheit 451."
No e-books are available from such living authors as Thomas Pynchon, Guenter Grass and Cynthia Ozick, or from the late Studs Terkel, Roberto Bolano and Saul Bellow. Only a handful, or less, have come out from Paul Bowles, Hunter S. Thompson and James Baldwin.
The reasons are legal, financial, technical and philosophical.
_The author or author's estate simply refuses, like J.K. Rowling, who has expressed a preference for books on paper and a wariness of technology. And don't expect to see "A Streetcar Named Desire" or any other Tennessee Williams play on your e-reader.
"Right now, his estate is totally opposed to any kind of electronic licensing," said literary agent Georges Borchardt, who represents Williams' estate. "They just don't trust the technology."
_The book doesn't fit the e-book format. Because e-technology has had limited capacity to handle illustrations, paper — recycled paper — was needed to read Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," the companion to the Academy-Award winning environmental documentary. Rodale Books hopes to release Gore's follow up, "Our Choice," as an electronic text when the traditional book comes out this fall.
_The author, or the author's representative, is holding out for more money. Agents complain that e-book royalty rates, commonly 25% of net receipts, are far too low and should be doubled, saying that digital texts cost virtually nothing to produce and distribute.
"Publishers get a huge profit, more on e-books than on anything else," says Timothy Knowlton, CEO of Curtis Brown Ltd., where authors include business writer Jim Collins (whose "Good to Great" is unavailable as an e-book) and religious scholar Karen Armstrong (whose recent work can be downloaded).
"From my perspective, that's patently unfair and it's going to backfire on the publishers who insist upon it."