It’s About the Content, Stupid

Most people will agree these days that when it comes to ebooks, what’s important isn’t the format, but the content. People don’t buy ebooks because they like ePub files, they buy them because they want to read the book inside it. This is less true for some dead tree books, but it’s certainly true for the majority of disposable paperback reads. I’ve found that the increasingly shrill choir of people telling me they’d never read a book on screen simply haven’t ever tried using an e-ink reading device.

However, despite this, most publishing houses and the editors who work for them still see the page as the smallest unit of the book. The physical representation of that page is what the book is – even before it is typeset. The page is the end point – it is the reason to edit a book and perhaps even the reason to write the book in the first place. But, increasingly, it isn’t really what a book actually is.

That might sound like a whole lot of nonsense words strung together (not particularly unusual for this blog), but what I’m getting at is that while we might philosophically understand that a book is not the pages it is printed on, most of us in the industry don’t behave as if this is true.

Even our language is tainted by the page paradigm. Every time a digital book is created (no matter how it is created) it is a ‘conversion’ (from a ‘proper’ paper book format – even if that proper paper book doesn’t yet exist in real life). Most editors I know still genuinely believe that a proofread that takes place on screen is inherently inferior to one done on paper. They believe this despite any evidence other than anecdotal, and will probably take this belief to their graves, long after the majority of reading is done on-screen.

Having spent the last couple of weeks working at Faber and Faber and seeing a truly ‘media neutral’ workflow in action, I am now beginning to understand what a massive shift needs to take place if the publishing industry really is looking down the barrel of a books market where more than 50% of the books published are digital. That shift isn’t necessarily about learning new technologies or coding languages – though it’s likely that both will be true – it’s about shifting our perspective away from the page and towards the structure of the content we publish.

David Watkins, once the Managing Editor at Faber, and now the ‘Head of Editorial Text Management’, says that there is a kind of ‘occult mysticism’ surrounding the conventions of print. He describes his exposure to the code that underpins Faber’s format neutral workflow as – initially, at least, ‘forbidding.’

It’s what most of us [editors] have spent our entire careers avoiding … But actually it’s very straightforward when you get to grips with it. In a way it’s quite old school. [Old school] editors think in terms of content, not in terms of appearance. If there’s a hierarchy of headings, they aren’t thinking that’s an 18 point or 14 point, they’re thinking that’s an A heading or that’s a B heading. That distinction between content and appearance got lost a little bit [with the introduction of easy-to-use publishing packages like inDesign]. Thinking of work independently of format, once you get over the stumbling block of the language in which you describe the work, you’re just back to first principles really.

Seeing a room full of editors talking about XML and CSS is certainly a novel experience, but I suspect it’s one we’re going to be seeing a lot more of in the next few years. And when you get down to it, it’s not all that more arcane than editorial mark-up or the ins and outs of Microsoft Word’s Find and Replace feature.

I, for one, welcome our new coding and tagging overlords. But what about you? I know a few editors and authors read this blog. What do you think of working on-screen? And what do you think of your future job as code monkey? Does it terrify you? Or is it all a part of the new world? Sound off in the comments.

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.