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Plays Finally Become eBooks Two services push the theatre into online publishing

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

And then suddenly, the theatre entered the world of online publishing.

Until this year, scripts were largely absent from the booming field of ebooks, stranding readers who wanted to add their favorite dramas to their Kindle or Nook. In recent months, however, two services have emerged to fill the void.

In November, prominent play publisher Samuel French launched its eBook program. Customers can visit Apple's iBookstore to download plays and musical by writers like Charles Busch and Israel Horovitz, with new titles being added regularly. Most scripts retail for $8.99, and soon, Samuel French will make them available at all digital retailers

"We see this as addressing a need for instant access," says Kenneth Dingledine, Samuel French's director of publications and operations. "People are conditioned for it to be two in the morning, and if there's a book they want to read, they get it at 2:05. It's very much speaking to that market: Like, the play selection committee's tomorrow, and I'm in Omaha, and if I order a script, it's not going to get here for at least two days. Or the audition's tomorrow and I need this. Or my acting teacher says I need to look at this."

For now, Dingledine doubts that electronic scripts will entirely replace paper copies, since professionals still need something to scribble notes on in rehearsal. In fact, he says that's one reason plays have been slow to enter the online market. Additionally, some plays are tricky to format online, since text is laid out chaotically on the page to suggest, say, overlapping dialogue or lines that are delivered to the audience.

Of course, some plays never get published anywhere, let alone online. Even if it's fantastic, an off-Off Broadway show might evaporate after it closes, simply because it wasn't splashy enough to catch the attention of major publishers. This troubles Martin Denton, the founder and editor of NYTheatre.com. Since 2000, he's been publishing annual collections of downtown plays, but a physical book costs so much money to produce that he was only able to "rescue" a limited number of worthy scripts per year.

"There was so much good work that was sort of disappearing, and it shouldn't," Denton says. "And it's not just because it might get produced again. Someone might read it and be inspired to do other kinds of work or commission the playwright to do something else. Who knows what?"

With that in mind, Denton launched Indie Theater Now, a nonprofit website that lets readers buy online copies of scripts by downtown stalwarts like Caridad Svich, Chad Beckim, and the Vampire Cowboy Theatre Company. More obscure writers are also represented, and since launching in August, the site has quickly developed an extensive catalogue.

Every full-length play on Indie Theater Now costs $1.29---the writer gets thirty cents per purchase---and users can also buy package deals to get, say, ten plays for $10.99. Whenever possible, scripts come with a playwright bio, a plot synopsis, links to reviews, a cast breakdown, a production history, and contact info for the writer or the writer's agent.

The low prices and extra information are geared to get more people interested in writers on the fringe. Daniel Talbott---who is a playwright, a literary manager for Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and artistic director of Rising Phoenix Rep---says that the service has already expanded his horizons: "I love that there are plays from established writers and plays from writers I've never heard of. Those were the first plays I bought because you go, 'Who are these people?'"

Two of Talbott's plays are also for sale on Indie Theater Now, and he enjoys  tracking his own fortunes. "You can log on as a playwright and say, 'Oh my God, eight people bought my play,'" he explains. "If you're having a crappy day, that can be amazing."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor