The Challenges and Benefits of Digital-only Publishing

Some rights reserved by donjd2

This article was adapted from a speech given at the National Editors’ Conference on 8 September, 2011.

I’m a fan of the dead tree book. Even though I call them dead tree books. Paper books are an amazing technology. There’s a reason they’ve lasted for five hundred years. They’re cheap to produce, durable, beautiful and they smell good. But even the best technology has its limitations. Compared to digital storage, paper is slow and expensive.

And so is traditional print publishing. Think of big publishing companies as massive oceanliners. They haul a tremendous amount of baggage, they have a tremendous amount of power and it can take several crucial hours to turn away from the iceberg. Unlike the Titanic, though, I imagine that the band won’t be playing as the ship goes down – instead, editors will be arguing about whether it’s really a good idea to move the copyright page to the back of the book.

Momentum, on the other hand, has been set up from the beginning to be small, nimble and unencumbered by the traditional way of doing things.

And that, really, is the main reason why we set-up Momentum. To be an advance scout. To experiment and learn the lessons for the mothership before it’s too late to change course. I prefer to think of us as a tugboat rather than a life raft. It isn’t too late. We might take on some water, but we’re not all going to drown. But that isn’t the whole story. The story begins with the iceberg itself.

The iceberg represents the problems that are facing the publishing industry. The book isn’t dying, and it’s certainly not dead. But the printed book as it stands today is under threat. To even consider acquiring a book, a publisher has to think they have a reasonable chance of selling at least three thousand copies at upwards of twenty dollars each. That isn’t impossible, but it’s getting harder. And it’s new and developing authors who suffer. The print book is moving inexorably in two directions – at one end there is the beautifully designed, very expensive gift book. At the other end is a retail environment where it is only economical to sell blockbusters – a Top 40 business.

The problem with that is that it chokes off emerging talent and those authors who have a small but steady readership. New authors need guidance, development, care, attention and just a little bit of money if they’re going to hone their skills and build their audience.

We are in the unique position of helping authors develop. It’s quite a specific skill. Authors want their books to be as good as they can be. Readers want each book to be better than the last. The better books are in general, the more people will read.

Some of the world’s biggest authors were allowed to develop a readership over several books. Ian Rankin, famously, took nine books or more to get to international superstar level. Pan Macmillan’s own Di Morrissey had ten books before she really cracked the bestseller list. Even if we look closer to the midlist now you’ll find authors like Tony Park, who has successfully been building his sales book by book. But Tony started publishing seven books ago. Do publishers have deep enough pockets and enough patience to build that success with an author they sign up today?

Every new author is a potential bestseller, and bestsellers are what keep a traditional publishing company afloat. So that’s the iceberg in the distance. It isn’t in the immediate future, but it’s on the horizon.

At Momentum we are trying to get back to the roots of why most of us got into the book world to begin with – and that’s passion for stories. The biggest pressure on us as publishers and editors is that there are times when we find great stories that we simply can’t publish, and that’s a tragedy. At Momentum we think we’ve found a way of getting past that problem, and we do that by reaching out to a new and rapidly increasing audience of readers.

Momentum has flexibility. In print you can only publish books that are about 60,000 words up to about 200,000 words, and that’s being generous. Digital-only publishing isn’t limited by word length. Short stories, long-form journalism and essays may all find a place in the digital world.

Digital-only publishing is also very fast. We can get books on digital shelves much more quickly than a print publisher. And we’ll never run out of stock when a book goes viral. Digital books are not limited by shelf space – a digital bookseller will never tell you “sorry, there’s no market for that homoerotic science-fiction novel” even though you know it’s totally awesome. Digital books have global reach – a book published by Momentum from Sydney can be read by a Texan stay-at-home mum as easily as it can be read by a German university student.

Of course all of this wonderful accessibility opens up a whole new set of problems for publishers, which can loosely be grouped under “discoverability”. How do digital readers find digital books? Who, in fact, are these digital readers? We think they boil down to three broad categories. There is the rapidly expanding mainstream audience who have always bought paper books but are considering buying an e-reader, and probably will do so in the next 24 months. There are the early adopters, the people who’ve had a Kindle since 2007 or a Palm Pilot since 1997 and no longer buy paper books at all. And then there are the young people – kids and teenagers who have never bought a paper book and probably never will.

Traditional publishers have generally aimed the majority of their marketing efforts at booksellers and journalists. Even though every major publisher is putting a substantial amount of effort into digital marketing, it’s still something that’s seen as an adjunct to traditional publicity and marketing.

I think that to reach these new audiences without the benefit of a print book is going to require a very different kind of marketing. And to be brutally honest, it’s not the kind of marketing anyone is absolutely sure how to do just yet.

My hunch, though, is that it’s going to require a holistic approach. Long before acquisition right through to the end result, publishers will need to have a very good idea of who the audience is, what they want and how to reach them. Publishing will have to become laser-guided. I once heard someone say that the R&D department of a publishing company is the publishing department. In the digital-only world, however, we can be more deliberate. We can’t just throw books out there and hope they stick. Not when the internet gives us the tools to understand the audience for particular books in a way that we’ve never had access to before.

At Momentum we’re tackling this head on by ensuring the ratio between digital publicity and marketing and publishing is 2:1. There is a horde of books out there, but finding the right readers for those books takes time, dedication and skill. Publicity, marketing and publishing need to feed into each other and work together to bring books to publication.

Now this might sound suspiciously like we’re letting the market decide what books should get published. And you know what? That’s exactly what I’m saying. The audience should dictate what gets published. Not booksellers. Not book critics. Not even publishers. If there isn’t an audience for a book, we shouldn’t be publishing it. The publishing industry can no longer stay in an ivory tower. Authors can’t write into a void. The online world is connected, hungry and knows what it wants. The publisher’s role is to facilitate connecting that hungry audience to the author, and to help make the meal as delicious as possible.

That is the essence of curation in a global digital world. It isn’t about gatekeeping. It’s about understanding the community of readers and writers and building relationships between the two.

None of this is to say that good writing won’t find a home. In fact, I think good writing will find a home in the digital world more easily than in print. The audience for every single digital book is potentially global. And that means we can and should publish books that may not have ever been put into print before.

When Angela James came out from Harlequin US recently, she mentioned a title they’re launching this year that can loosely be described as paranormal, gay, erotic horror fiction. People have accused traditional publishers of racing to the bland middle ground to maximise their audience. Publishing digital-only books is all about racing to the edge. There’s an internet meme called Rule 34. Rule 34 states that if you can think of it, there is a fetish for it on the internet.

Of course, by edge I don’t just mean marginal or trivial. I also don’t mean they need to be weird, genre-bending books that only a niche would enjoy reading. However, the internet gives us access to specific readership numbers within niche communities – centred around unique pageviews, Twitter followers, Facebook connections and the like. We can use this information to justify publication of digital books in almost the same way that we use sales data of comparison titles to justify publication in the print world. A niche, in a global market, is not really that niche.

Which brings me to the literary market. The biggest niche of them all. In the print world, “literary” is a short hand word that means “not many people will read this book but it’s damn good”. In the digital world, a literary book that might not even get a print run up in a traditional publishing company can, at the right price, with the right team of people helping out, find an audience big enough to cover costs and earn a little bit extra.

There are lots of challenges facing Momentum and digital-only publishing in general. The selling periods that we’ve relied upon for years may no longer apply in a global sales environment. Fathers Day? Mothers Day? We share Mothers Day with the United States, but not the UK. We share Fathers Day with nobody, but it’s the same day in the UK and the US. Christmas is somewhat universal, but is there a gift market for ebooks anyway? What about summer holiday reading? When does summer holiday even start in the other English speaking territories? Who says books even have to be purchased during business hours? Early research seems to be suggesting that there’s a big spike in ebook sales after 10pm on a Sunday when people are preparing their reading for the commuting week. What else will we discover as we dig deeper into these patterns?

Rather than being the death knell of the book, digital publishing creates opportunities for new books and new audiences. And that inevitably means a new kind of editing. Editors will have to get used to work of drastically varying lengths and completely different idioms and dialects. There will be new skills to learn and new technologies to explore. Some editors are going to have to be as familiar with the quirks of XML and CSS as they are now with widows and orphans and typesetting mark-up. Editors will no longer have the luxury of being the authority on all things. There will be plenty of questions we don’t know the answer to before we ask them. There may well be no entirely accurate style guide.

But in comparison to the rest of the book trade editorial is going to be the calm centre of the storm. Editing is going nowhere. It is just as vital to digital books as it is to print. When the self-publishing phenomenon Amanda Hocking decided to take a multi-million dollar deal with St Martins Press one of the main reasons she did it was for the access to editorial support. She knew that her books were reaching an audience and that people were responding to her characters and stories. But she also knew that she could be a better writer and that she’d gone as far as she could on her own. Good editors are going to be a scarce resource. Well-edited books are going to do better than the cesspool that is the Kindle Direct Publishing program. We’re standing on the edge of a brave new frontier and all that is holding back linguistic oblivion is us.

The Many Faces of the Kindle

So Amazon have finally started officially letting word out about their new tablet. TechCrunch’s MG Siegler has used one himself, and TechCrunch put together the mock-up above to demonstrate how it looks. The tablet will be called a ‘Kindle’ – not a Kindle Pad, or a Kindle Slate or any of the other variations thrown around. I can’t decide if that’s a good move or not – capitalising on the branding/cachet of saying you own a Kindle whilst risking confusion about what a Kindle actually is. Either way, this new Kindle is going to be focused squarely at the book reading market, which is a good thing for all digital readers.

As you can see from the mock-up above the new Kindle will be focused on the content, providing a carousel / CoverFlow like interface that puts the stuff you own on the device, rather than the device itself, at the forefront of the experience. This is quite different to the iPad, and to other Android-based tablets, and I’m sure that’s deliberate. Amazon isn’t shy about owning their own ecosystem through and through, and that’s almost certainly why they’ve been so successful with it. They’ll be using their own Amazon-branded app store, which they launched for Android-based devices at the end of last year. Even the flavour of Android they’re using on the Kindle is completely different to the one used on smartphones and other Android tablets, and apparently there isn’t a Google app to be seen anywhere on the device (Google is responsible for the lion’s share of the development of Android – and releases it for free as open-source to the developer community, which means it can be easily changed by vendors like Amazon to suit their purposes).

So, on to the details. The new Kindle will be 7″ (somewhere between an iPhone and an iPad – and the same size as the original Galaxy Tab by Samsung). It will only have WiFi – no 3G. It looks like it doesn’t include a camera of any sort. But here’s the kicker – it’ll be $250. That’s half the price of the entry-level iPad, and a good hundred bucks cheaper than the cheapest Android tablets. Granted, it’s not going to be as useful as an iPad, but this is going to seriously complicate how I answer the “Should I get an iPad or Kindle?” question.

So what do you think? Will you be tempted to get a new Kindle? Is this something that would lure you away from e-ink? Or is this device just falling between the cracks of usefulness – a big phone without 3G mobile data that isn’t as easy to read on as an e-ink reader? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Would the perceived value of the publishing process be enhanced by a standard acknowledgement? Or should the author get to decide who takes credit?

There’s been a lot of talk on the web lately about the value of the publishing process. Digital self-publishing gurus like JA Konrath claim that publishers no longer have a role in the production of books. The popular belief of readers, bloggers and many self-published authors seems to be that agents and publishers are grasping middlemen, gatekeepers who hold back genius from the public to line their pockets with sales from writers they conned into giving away their intellectual property.

If you take the information available to the average reader in any given book you might even agree. It says so on the tin. In great big embossed letters, which get bigger as each new book comes out. Stephen King. Stephen King. Stephen King. Stephen King. According to tradition, publishers, editors and agents erase themselves from the creative process of book creation to protect the myth of the author-as-genius. It is up to the author, in the pages of the acknowledgements, to credit those who helped them.

I should point out at this point that published authors are mostly a pretty good bunch. Most authors I know have a deep and abiding respect for their publishers, editors, agents and so on. Most of the time authors even credit the people who helped them in their acknowledgements. But my question for today is – why should they have to? Most published books are not the sole creation of the author. The author may have been by far the biggest contributor, but most books are still a collaborative work that could not have come about without the hard work of many dedicated people, many of whom work in publishing because it is a calling – as much a vocation as being an author, and sometimes just as badly paid.

Sure, books are not as collaborative as film – with a list of hundreds of technicians and skilled workers to credit – but there are plenty of people who go in to making a book what it is. Many of whom do so without even the author’s knowledge. Why aren’t they credited? And if they should be credited, how should it be done? Edward Nawotka over at Publishing Perspectives suggests a mention on the copyright page, much as a magazine lists contributors, editors and subeditors. Most copyright pages already credit typesetters, printers and designers. What do you think? Sound off in the comments below.

BookLamp’s Book Genome Project

So this is an awesome little project I’ve only just heard of. Hands up if you’ve heard of Pandora, the music recommendation engine? If you haven’t and you live in Australia, then you probably can’t use it. Unless you decide to spoof your IP address to get access to it. Either way, Pandora’s Music Genome Project has delighted many for the past few years by predicting the kinds of music you will like based on the music you already enjoy. This sounds pretty standard for anyone used to using Apple’s Genius playlists on iTunes or Last.fm (or many other similar services). Where Pandora is different is that it uses computers (and people) to analyse the content of music for themes, pitch, tonality and a long list of other features to compile the ‘genome’ of a particular song, artist or album. Similar music recommendation services use an algorithm based on what other people like to recommend new stuff to you. Pandora uses an algorithm to create an on-the-fly radio station of songs similar to what you’re after based on what they actually contain (and not the ephemeral tastes of other people). If you haven’t tried it, trust me – it’s awesome.

BookLamp and the Book Genome Project are now doing essentially the same thing for books. Perhaps this sounds like a Skynet-style artificial intelligent takeover of our book-recommendation habits. That’s probably because it TOTALLY IS:

The key focus of the Book Genome Project is to use computer intelligence to extract and quantify, on a scene-by-scene basis, useful information about these key elements of books. Consequently, we created a “gene structure” for each of the three primary elements that we analyze.

The genomic analogy is imperfect but useful nevertheless: we defined the three elements of Language, Story, and Character as the literary equivalent of DNA and RNA classifications. Each gene category contains its own subset of measurements specific to its branch of the book genome structure.

Language DNA, for example, is made up of components that we call Pacing, Perspective, Description, Density, Motion, and Dialog, and each of these is an amalgamation of alleles which capture the expressions of different aspects of linguistic style.

They are using alleles. I mean, what is that even? Do you know? I don’t. I dropped science classes in Year 10.

At any rate, BookLamp has launched its consumer facing website and will soon be taking books on from publishers to add to their database. It’s not very big at the moment, and that affects the variety of books it can recommend (and the ultimate usefulness of the service), but when it gets up and running there’s no telling how good this engine will get. The best thing about it, from my perspective, is that it gets us out from under the yoke of customer-based recommendation engines like Amazon’s. Amazon’s service is great, but as I’ve written about before, it isn’t necessarily without bias.

What do you think of BookLamp’s offering? Will you be sticking to good old word-of-mouth, or will you give it a go? Sound off in the comments.

The Revolution Will Be Digitised

Some rights reserved by Todd Berman

 

As Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, has noted in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, ‘software is eating the world’. Hewlett-Packard, a PC maker, is considering dropping its hardware business to invest more heavily in software. Google, a software company, has bought up Motorola’s mobile division. Dominant music, video and book companies are now software companies (or their influence is based on software technology): Amazon, Apple, Google, Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, Pandora and many others. As Andreessen says:

Over two billion people now use the broadband Internet, up from perhaps 50 million a decade ago … In the next 10 years, I expect at least five billion people worldwide to own smartphones, giving every individual with such a phone instant access to the full power of the Internet, every moment of every day.

Try to imagine the ten years after that. There will come a time, not too far away, when almost everyone on the planet has access to the internet from the palm of their hand. Try to imagine how that might influence our cultural consumption. There has never been a more important time to get our literary heritage digitised. Paper book apologists are thick on the ground these days, and I can see why. Paper books are a great technology. But if we want to save books as a mainstream cultural artefact – what’s in them, not the paper they’re printed on – we need to get serious about making them available to future readers. The problem isn’t that paper books might not survive the coming transition – it’s that the content in books of any kind might not be able to compete with social networks, viral videos and whatever media is created in the future to service the needs of audiences. To survive, books need to be just as accessible.

Those of us who care about books need to get passionate about digital books, because the companies that are making books available now are not. Amazon – the world’s biggest bookseller – could have sold anything. Apple uses content to sell devices and perpetuate their platform. Google feeds off information – but it doesn’t have to be book-based. It’s clear that the passion for the book has to come from us – readers, writers, editors, publishers, agents and booksellers. If we don’t make it a priority, if we don’t passionately embrace the future of the book, then it will disappear or be marginalised through sheer disinterest. And none of us want that to happen.

New Direction, New Momentum

Plenty of things have been happening in the world of ebooks over the past few weeks, but for the first time I’ve been too busy working on an exciting project of my own to post about them. That project is Momentum, a new digital-only imprint of Pan Macmillan Australia, which was announced today. As a publisher for Momentum, I’ll be looking for books to publish globally, from writers who are digitally savvy, switched on to the possibilities of electronic publishing and, perhaps most importantly, know how to tell a good story.

Momentum will be launching in February 2012 with a truly amazing stable of frontlist authors. I am honoured to get the chance to work with each of these writers, and I look forward to the opportunity to work with new and established authors alike in the future.

I also want to hear from authors who have older titles that are out of print or yet to be digitised who want to inject new life into their old books. There are potentially thousands of books out there that can no longer be accessed online or off and no longer provide an income for the authors who wrote them. Momentum will give these writers the opportunity to breathe new life into previously published work and make them accessible for a new audience of digital readers.

Accessibility is going to be the name of the game for Momentum. Momentum ebooks will be available globally and at an affordable price. The Smell of Books has provided me with a wonderful excuse to listen to digital readers, and I think there is a lot I can do to make the relationship between readers and publishers as open as possible. This is going to be a tremendously exciting time, so I hope you’ll spread the word and contribute your thoughts, ideas and hopefully your books!

The Smell of Books will continue as before – to analyse, rant at and report the book technology and digital reading news. If there is anything in particular you’d like me to cover, please sound off in the comments below and I’ll do my best to take a look in the coming weeks and months.