Enhanced eBooks: Why They Haven’t Taken Off, How They Could, and Whether They Should

If you buy an ebook today, odds are you won’t find much that you couldn’t find in the print copy. During my current eBook internship with an academic publisher, while creating eBooks for publication, I primarily work on creating working hyperlinks and footnotes/endnotes; incorporating figures, tables, and boxes; fixing the CSS (styles) template; and creating separate guides for Epub and Mobi formats. With a trade fiction publisher, I have no doubt that my job would be less complicated.

If you know about the cool capabilities of ePub3, you might be surprised that publishers aren’t doing more to enhance eBooks to make them distinct from their print products; you might even attribute this dearth of experimentation with conservative thinking or lazy complacency. But the true reason stems from the same problem that most publishing issues come from these days: Amazon. Specifically, its use of the Mobi (.prc), AZW, and KF8 formats for ebooks.

What can these formats do with ebooks? Reflowable content, fixed width layout, indexing, and some reader-interactive features like annotations and bookmarks (see here for more). Most important for Amazon’s purposes, these formats can only be read on Kindles, Kindle Fire, or Kindle Previewer, and they can be compressed better than regular epubs—something probably very important for saving on server space when you’re selling millions upon millions of eBooks.

Yet they can’t support embedded audio such as music or narration, video, animation, and interactive elements. Apple’s ePub3 format supports all of these features, and as such many books, particularly children’s books, have enhanced ebook features or are even sold as interactive apps on Apple’s App Store. But because the majority of publishers’ ebooks sell on Amazon while a small minority buy iBooks—I’m having trouble tracking down the specific statistics, but my e-publishing professor at Emerson estimated Amazon’s portion at 75–85% and Apple at less than 10%—it does not make much monetary sense to develop enhanced features when so many of your readers are on gen-1 Kindles, Paperwhites, or other e-ink devices.

The Potential for Change?

According to one TechRadar author, the Kindle Fire Phone could spell the beginning of changes to Amazon’s low-tech policy. The majority of 18-34 year olds own an ereader, but 32% of young adults feel that reading digital books on a tablet is just as good as reading on dedicated ereaders. For this author, the next step seems to be moving from tablets to the large (4.7 inch) screens of smartphones, where it makes sense to add exciting new enhancements to books, such that they compete with the other interactive apps on your phone.

But can ebooks still do just fine on phones without these enhancements, so long as they’re easy to access?

One of the first companies to jump on the smartphone-as-reader idea was Oyster, the “Netflix for Books,” which received a ton of attention and accolades from the beginning. This Wired piece goes into loving detail about the thoughtfully designed Oyster interface, which “is a distinctly digital experience, and yet, it doesn’t feel soulless or straining in the way reading on a screen often can be.” Now the company has moved on to desktop apps, where their goal is reportedly to make books appear more like “reading a blog post, or an article from the New York Times or Medium,” according to Oyster’s CEO.

On the one hand, blog posts and articles rely on features like interactivity, hyperlinks, embedded videos, etc., so the comparison might leave an opening for enhanced ebooks to make a splash just as they might fit in with smartphones. On the other hand, regular ebooks seem to also be doing just fine on desktops, as readers probably don’t expect bells and whistles with their ebooks at this point. Instead, Oyster relies on a cool, understated presentation to make it easier for the reader to immerse himself or herself into the text.

Should Publishers Try to Improve On What A Book Is?

The ultimate question is, should publishers do more to make ebooks better, now that ebooks are plateauing in sales after years of explosive growth? Or would adding this interactivity undermine the principle of immersing oneself into a fictional world or a famous person’s life story, turning books from a unique experience into just another app competing for one’s time? Has that transition already happened?

I personally love to immerse myself in literature, and I can’t express the negative effects and limited returns on enhancements better than this blog post does, as the author notes that books should not be treated as movies with DVD extras when all that matters is the narrative. And ereader devices are actually enabling positive reading habits, according to the above Techradar article: “those who read both physical and ebooks get through about 50% more than those who only use one format rather than both – about 27 books a year on average versus 18.” So by this logic, we should not rock the boat by making ebooks into something they’re not.

Furthermore, it’s unclear whether enhanced ebooks would create enough of a return on their investment. For better or worse, readers have become used to a lower price point with ebooks than with print books, with the argument being made that they should be cheaper do the lack of overhead costs that come from print books. If publishers begin to create enhanced ebooks and charge higher prices for them, there is a very real possibility that sales would drop due to readers being uninterested in paying for extra features. Just as DVD sales for movies are dropping as viewers move to subscription services, publishers need to be careful that they don’t drive all of their readers to renting books with Oyster and Amazon instead of purchasing them.

When Enhancements Might Be Relevant or Exciting to Readers: Pros and Cons

Despite the many problems with the enhanced ebook model and the comforting notion that staying the course is best for the industry, I believe that publishers should be constantly searching for new avenues of innovation. For this reason, I’m going to spitball some candidates for enhanced ebooks and weigh the pros and cons of my terrible ideas. 

Public domain and classic titles: When you buy (in print) The Complete Works of William Shakespeare or the Norton Critical Edition of Alice in Wonderland, you buy them with the assumption that you’ll be getting detailed footnotes, biographical information, analytical essays, and other supplementary materials: the original enhanced books. Still, most students today turn to Sparknotes or equivalent sites instead, when publishers could try to keep readers in-book with supplementary material embedded into their ebooks: explanations and analysis of key/confusing scenes, author interviews if available or relevant, hyperlinks to online essays, and so forth.

  • Pros: Public domain titles means no author advance or royalties. A large demand for these titles from students/schools guarantees a return on investment. A wealth of academic material from which to choose. Academic material like this doesn’t usually allow for much immersion anyway, so the enhancements don’t hurt the reading experience for most.
  • Cons: Plenty of competitors who could release an ebook without enhancements for a cheaper price. Teachers who want their kids to only buy print limiting the cost-effectiveness of this effort.

New editions of major bestsellers: When publishers reprint successful titles, it’s a no-brainer. They slap a new cover design on top, maybe make one or two editorial tweaks at the author’s behest, and add a new introduction to the front explaining why the book is so amazing/ a cultural phenomenon. And maybe that’s all they need to do to consistently sell the book on their backlist. But maybe some readers will be interested in “DVD Extras” after all for major titles like Harry Potter or Hunger Games. Add embedded author interviews or old drafts showing the different fates of characters or original plot points (i.e. Did you know that Arthur Weasley was supposed to die in the snake scene of Order of the Pheonix?). Take those book club questions you find at the end of some books and intersperse them throughout the text, while inviting readers to use the Amazon Public Note function to express their views on key scenes. Make it more of a text for diehard community fans to revisit the franchise and get a behind-the-scenes look of the author’s writing process. Or, with nonfiction bestsellers, add real-life interviews and videos of relevant events.

  • Pros: Getting passionate readers to re-invest in the book (series) and encouraging fandom. Creates interesting tidbits for would-be authors and fan fiction writers to explore. Again, guaranteed sales due to the book’s proven popularity, and no fears of ruining the immersion for those who have already experienced the narrative.
  • Cons: People don’t buy books twice; the people buying the enhanced edition won’t want this information as they are reading it for the first time. Fandoms have their own sites for discussing the book (Tumblr, etc.). As Mr. Bjarnason mention above, people don’t want book extras in their books; they want them on author websites, and dedicated fans will find these tidbits there on their own.

Choose Your Own Adventure Books: Why should some of the coolest enhancements like interactivity, embedded videos, and Easter Eggs be reserved for children’s books, where enhanced ebooks have made the most headway? I would love to see CYOA books make a resurgence by taking advantage of ebook capabilities to augment the experience of stepping into dangerous worlds. Imagine making a terrible choice and watching your own grisly death to accompany the text? Or, when the text shows you coming to a fork in the road, you choose based on an illustration of the landscape and tap your finger on the picture of your path rather than on a hyperlink? If you don’t want to invest in writing a bunch of new CYOA books, simply acquire the hundreds of books written in the last few decades and find artists and programmers to supplement the old material.

  • Pros: Avoiding editorial costs with a wealth of material to choose from to market to new readers. A subgenre that lends itself to visualization as a means of immersing oneself in strange new worlds or terrifying scenarios.
  • Cons: Books are about visualizing the world for yourself, not about having it drawn or shown to you; you can always go watch a sci-fi/horror movie for that. The potential that these enhancements would be very expensive to implement or troubleshoot.

Cookbooks: Why buy a cookbook, especially an e-cookbook, when you can just go on Allrecipes.com or some equivalent for instant access? What if these ebooks come with audio, where the famous chef/author of the cookbook reads the recipe to you as you make your preparations? A lot of children’s books have audio to help kids read along with the text, while cookbooks could benefit from a hands-free experience. Perhaps the e-cookbook could also come with embedded videos of the recipes being prepared.

  • Pros: A way of revitalizing cookbooks and taking advantage of the talented cook you have representing the book to improve the experience.
  • Cons: It would be very expensive to videotape and narrate the cookbook along with all the other fact-checking and testing recipes that has to happen, so I don’t know if this is feasible. It could also make the cookbook too much like other websites where people don’t have to pay in the first place, inviting unflattering comparisons.

Conclusions

I don’t know if some of these ideas have already been implemented, or if some have been tested and proven to be too difficult or costly, or if these ideas show innovative thinking or just ignorance. But I do think it’s both enjoyable and important to test out new ideas that can draw more people into the reading community, while also remaining wary of diluting the immersive reading experience.

Do you think books need to evolve to survive, or just the platforms we read them on? Do you think publishers should be experimenting or sticking with profitable, easy-to-make ebooks? Feel free to throw your two cents into the comments, and thanks for reading!

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Are Publishers “The Good Guys” or “The Bad Guys”? (Part 1)

Depends on who you ask.

As an editor, I obviously want publishers to succeed for the sake of my future employment and good literature, but I also want to feel like the people I work for are on the right side of things. What’s more, I believe that this reaction isn’t unique or surprising: almost all book lovers have passionate reactions to the book-making process once they get a glimpse behind the curtain, myself included. So when it comes to Amazon, libraries, self-publishing, indie bookstores, and so many other controversial issues, most people tend to come out passionately on one side or the other, oftentimes lambasting my future colleagues.

In the face of criticism from the people who buy our products, publishers should not be afraid to question their business decisions; do we truly know best in terms of our business model, or are we limited by conservative thinking that hurts our authors, distributors, partners, and readers? This post will attempt to lay out and flesh out the controversial issues that the publishing industry faces today, why these issues matter, what the general public thinks about publishing houses under this specific lens, and whether or not we as publishers should feel righteous, defensive, worried, ashamed, or any other feelings about the issue.

This series has a lot to cover, so this post will focus mainly on issues surrounding Amazon and self-publishing.

Amazon vs Hachette

If the continued feud between Hachette and Amazon has taught us anything, it’s that publishing houses’ PR departments will have a major impact on the profitability of publishing in the coming years. As both parties haggle over future pricing of eBooks, Hachette has harnessed the power of bestselling authors like James Patterson and Stephen Colbert to protest Amazon’s purported shady business practices and gain public support for its books. The power of this practice can best be seen in the success of Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California: Stephen Colbert announced on his show that the first-time author would be destroyed by Amazon’s undermining of Hachette titles during negotiations, and suddenly her book became a surprise bestseller.

Meanwhile, Amazon has released a couple of open letters to authors and readers that attempt to show the distributor as looking out for writers and buyers more than the publishers themselves by emphasizing their superior e-royalties for Kindle Select authors. The distributor then argued that everyone wins if Amazon can just price eBooks at bargain prices, since the increased number of sales leads to more money on average for all parties—all of which plays to the idea beloved by self-publishing enthusiasts and unpublished writers that publishers are greedy, uncreative misers who don’t deserve anyone’s support.

Economically, Amazon’s argument isn’t as sound as they’d have you believe. An illuminating New Yorker article quotes literary agent Brian DeFiore, who has in fact criticized publishers for low ebook royalties in the past, as being highly skeptical of Amazon’s plan to lower prices:

Amazon doesn’t quantify what lower e-book prices would mean for sales of physical copies of the same books. Authors who work with traditional publishers like Hachette tend to make more, per copy, from hardcover sales than from e-books. If cheaper e-books draw people away from hardcovers, that could hurt these authors financially…If lower e-book prices were to eventually destroy the market for physical books entirely—or even shrink it enough so that it wouldn’t make financial sense for traditional booksellers to publish them—that would help Amazon consolidate its power, which would ultimately be dangerous for authors.

The article does go on to mention that authors don’t care as much about financial gains if they can increase their readership, and that lowering book prices has been proven to lead to this eventuality. That’s part of the appeal of the self-publishing model—that authors ignored by traditional publishers have garnered huge followings through their own marketing efforts and more reasonable prices for readers. And yet, connected to the earlier point, these authors would have to place all of their hopes on one digital sales channel, whereas traditional publishers offer print sales to many channels (including Amazon) but provide reduced royalties due to costs like overhead.

Verdict: Publishers are always going to put print first in the climate Amazon has created, where its tantalizing digital business model and loss-leader pricing would give them an eventual monopoly that makes print books hard to sell for a profit. Issues like author advances, the advanced marketing and respectability that traditionally published books hold over self-published works, and the need to keep their own ebooks from undermining print sales are valid concerns that Amazon and its supporters ignore too readily.

At the same time, I do find the idea of paying authors more than 25% for ebooks compelling. Various factors have contributed to most authors making less and less on print sales, so it would be a sign of good faith to authors to increase royalties for e-sales after they have resisted the temptation of Amazon’s attempted bribery to stand behind them. But my area of expertise is not economics, so I don’t know if that is viable or naive thinking. Overall, though, my “good guy” award goes to the publishers in this category, and the “bad guy” award goes to Amazon.

Amazon’s Wild West vs. Publishers’ Literary Canon

Should publishers decide what literature should reach the bookshelves of everyday readers, or should readers’ average score out of 5 stars and bestseller lists decide? In a triumphant critique of traditional publishers in the face of rising self-publishing sales, Smashwords founder Mark Coker mocks the old idea that, “publishers alone possessed the wisdom to determine if a writer deserved passage through the pearly gates of author heaven. Writers were taught that publishers had an inalienable right to this power, and that this power was for the common good of readers.”

Coker’s argument could be that self-published novels are chosen solely on the merit of the storytelling, whereas with publishing houses readers are at the mercy of the tastes and prejudices of their editors. Of course, the most successful self-published novels don’t just succeed due to quality, but also due to skillful marketing, SEO optimization, and Amazon promotions, done either by the author herself or by her hired team. Still, he would likely argue that authors can allow readers to directly validate the enjoyability and skill of their manuscripts, rather than need a stodgy editor or literary agent to act as the solitary judge and gatekeeper.

So should traditional publishers have this power? As I said at the beginning, depends on who you ask. Many might argue that editors have more authority than regular readers to judge which stories have merit and which do not, as it’s their job, and hopefully their passion, to think critically about what people will like in their stories. And the success of certain imprints, specifically ones that generate texts in one genre or format (i.e. poetry), shows that readers have grown to trust the discerning eye of certain editors and the authors they’ve chosen to represent the publishing house. This is essentially the argument for literary canon—that publishers have discovered and nurtured the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds of the past and that they protect posterity by raising books like The Goldfinch over popular bestsellers like Fifty Shades of Gray.

Yet with each self-published bestseller that achieves acclaim after being rejected by publishers, these authors prove that the judgment of publishers and agents aren’t infallible. And the recent controversy at the Book Expo America, where publishers revealed a startling lack of diversity in their acquired children’s books, is a problem that extends far beyond one genre. Literary canon has always been homogenous, primarily dominated by white men and more recently white women, and the publishing scene similarly demonstrates a disparity of representation beyond a token few. Some argue that self-publishing offers the solution to the whitewashed literary sphere that publishing houses have engendered. Others argue that publishers simply need to get past the perception that multicultural books won’t sell or that POC characters can only fit within a certain mold. The fact is, publishing houses lack diversity in hiring and executives, and that engenders a culture that ignores diversity and pretends that narratives with diverse characters are inaccessible to everyday readers.

Verdict: Amazon is an incredible resource for authors, and publishers have to try to offer services and rates to compete with Amazon. I would argue that they do, especially because Amazon has thus far failed to make a major impact in their own attempts to get print books into bookstores and homes. And publishers, teamed with the literary agent barrier, do have a system in place of finding quality literature from the masses of manuscripts published every year. But the lack of diversity is a serious issue that we cannot continue to brush under the rug or place on the shoulders of a few authors of color. I personally love reading about people of different cultures, races, species, and worlds (I’m sure you can guess sci-fi is my favorite genre) and don’t understand why those narratives should ever be excluded for reasons of supposed “inaccessibility.”  So yes, this is one area that will give me no small amount of guilt if my future publishing house perpetuates this problem rather than rectifies it, and publishers will start to lose readers and money to self-publishing if they do not rectify their small-minded acquisition strategy. I unfortunately have to give the good guy rating to Amazon here, though if big publishers get their act together diversity-wise they can easily stop being the bad guy and be a force for good in literature.

Monopoly: Amazon v Apple/Big 5 Edition

I won’t go too far into the details of this case, as there are several articles that describe them for us. But the dilemma of the case is straightforward: Amazon buys books for wholesale prices from publishers and sells them for less than they paid so that no one can possibly compete with their prices, creating a monopoly supposedly in the name of consumer rights. Thus, consumers buy major publishers’ books for cheap and then stay to buy Kindle Select books that make up the profits for Amazon. Apple and the publishers colluded to create an agency model where they determine the price of books and Amazon has no say in changing it, which would drive prices up and allow other distributors like Apple to actually compete in the ebook market, but hurt consumers.

Now, the big publishers and Apple have all settled, essentially admitting guilt for their crimes, and public opinion is falling into two predictable lines: slimy Apple and stupid old publishers finally got what they deserve for sticking it to consumers, and self-publishing will take big publishing’s place; or evil Amazon is sitting laughing on the corpses of its competitors while books lose all cultural value and the industry collapses in the spirit of “competition.”

Verdict: It’s difficult to find a proper answer, despite how biased I am toward publishers. First off, it’s perfectly reasonable to ridicule the “it’s not a monopoly because Amazon did it first” defense as elementary school level, and what they did was illegal, even if Amazon has created a climate where only a united front could win against it. Still, Amazon’s current removal of pre-orders and speedy delivery for Hachette titles, and its more drastic action of removing all of Macmillan’s titles in 2010 for switching to the agency model, shows just how terrible Amazon can be to anyone who dares to ask for fair rates.

 I’m of the personal belief that companies like Wal-Mart and Amazon that destroy all small business competition, terrorize its suppliers, treat their employees like shit, and then offer insanely low prices to boost its popularity are horrible; still, what the publishers did was illegal, and gave moral high ground to the company when they should have colluded to have the DOJ go after Amazon instead. I’m giving the “Bad Guy” rating to both parties here, though the worse one clearly goes to Amazon.

Conclusion

It’s difficult to paint Amazon as the “bad guys” when they are the number one buyer of both print and electronic books for most publishers and universalize the accessibility of titles throughout the U.S. and the world to increase sales, and they have ended the stigma of “vanity publishing” in favor of empowering any entrepreneurial author to pursue his or her dreams. Major publishers are rightfully appealing to the public to make Amazon maintain the value of books and curtail its predatory pricing, but they are also completely dependent upon the distributor at this point and could not abandon it without putting their entire business at risk. In some ways, Amazon’s ruthlessness has forced publishing as an industry to adapt more quickly than it might have to the digital age, while in other ways those adaptations have hurt the publishing industry and the authors it represents by turning books a cheap business commodity. Thus, publishers have abandoned any risk-taking in favor of guaranteed money-makers from celebrity biographies to big name (white) authors’ sequel novels. So the question becomes whether publishers and Amazon will continue to fight or manage to reach an accord, since right now neither side can safely say they are entirely in the right.

Final Score: 1 Good Guy and 2 Bad Guys Each

I threw out a lot of controversial stuff and possibly criticized my future bosses while roasting the “enemy,” so hopefully I succeeded in being fair. But if you think I was too hard or soft on either side, feel free to speak your mind in the comments for some spirited debate!

For the next post on my publishing conscience I’ll talk about publishers’ relationship with independent bookstores and libraries. Spoiler alert: like today, there’s some good and some bad.

Thanks for reading!

HarperCollins’s Direct Sales Plan: Necessary or Futile?

If you can’t negotiate with Amazon, beat them at their own game of sales, or remove them from the equation entirely. Many industry experts and would-be experts like me have bandied this solution about, one where publishers will sell directly to consumers on their website. Now, HarperCollins is trying this strategy on a revamped website that sells both print and e-books directly to consumers, according to Publisher’s Weekly. While there will be some sales, most books will be sold at full price. The website does provide links to major retailers like Amazon and B&N, however.

I discussed this solution in a previous article, where I noted that publishers could improve their social media and marketing by having greater circulation on their websites, particularly considering most visitors to their sites are job-seekers. I also questioned whether publishers would be able to provide appealing prices to consumers when confronted with Amazon’s predatory loss-leader pricing. If consumers are going into bookstores only to buy the books they find on Amazon, you can bet that they will find it even easier to search for books on the publishers’ sites and then open Amazon in a second tab from the comfort of one’s home.

HarperCollins is clearly wary of the latter problem, which is why they are providing links to the Amazon page; it knows that it currently cannot compete with Amazon on pricing and that consumers may not end up buying their books on the site, but they want readers to at least start their search on the HarperCollins website.

The comments on the Pub Weekly article provide an apt summary of some of the problems of HarperCollins’s strategy:

  • Multiple readers are treating this strategy as the final nail in the coffin for indie bookstores, since publishers are trying to cut out the middle man distributors through direct sales. Frankly, I don’t believe that the website in its fledgling state will have that significant of an effect–people who shop at indie bookstores aren’t going to abandon them to use this website, and people who buy books online do not bring their business to physical retailers anymore anyway. What does matter is the abrupt shift in the public image of publishers, from the bullied, struggling victims of Amazon to callous, bottom-line businesses abandoning their indie partners to fend for themselves.
  • Some argue that publishers don’t know a single thing about retail and should leave this area to their long-time partners (an argument that ties into the idea that they are abandoning indie booksellers rather than exploring or expanding their options). I would argue that this argument also connects to the arguments made by self-published authors and their fans, who usually lambast publishers for being out of touch when it comes to marketing their books properly. People are losing trust in publishers to market non-major titles or properly exploit social media, and this website provides an opportunity for them to redeem their stodgy image by marketing smaller or backlist titles; or, conversely, to focus on major titles and reinforce that reputation.
  • Finally, some commenters mock the very idea that consumers care about publishers and will buy books based on something other than authors, genres, or staff/Amazon recommendations. To be honest, this assessment is fair to apply to most major publishers. Small publishers and imprints can create a focused website surrounding a certain genre or subgenre of literature, but a major house with dozens of imprints lacks a focused theme to bring in consistent readership. I would personally argue that HarperCollins would do better to focus first on revamping its imprints’ websites, then bringing readers from these disparate sites to one hub retail site for HarperCollins. These publishers are making themselves “too big to fail” but in doing so they are possibly diluting their brands from having much focus or meaning.

I think print-on-demand, direct sales from exciting publisher websites are a necessary part of publishers’ futures if they want to shake off their dependance upon Amazon; moreover, I believe this strategy does not in any way signal the death of bookstores, because publishers love having as many sales options as possible and would bend over backwards to keep these channels open. By creating backup sales options, they give themselves more negotiating power and increase profitability for books in general, which could in turn mean the return of more risky midlist and experimental titles.

I still believe that publishers have a long way to go before reaching that stage, however. I have to admit that I like some of the features on HarperCollins’s site, like search categories for series of books or award winners (i.e. Hugo, Nebula, ALA, etc. for sci-fi/fantasy). Still, I think publishers need to do more to get other people on their site, not just publishing nerds like me. Maybe publishers that do self-publishing services could make some of the best-rated self-published titles available through direct retail to boost circulation from authors. Or perhaps make a greater effort to support interactive author websites that link back to the publisher. Or some other strategies I haven’t thought of; anyone have any marketing ideas to get regular people interested in publishing websites?

Thanks for reading!

What the Hachette-Perseus Merger Means for the Publishing Industry and You

The Hachette-Perseus Books Group merger is generating more buzz than it might normally—considering the 18-year-old Perseus is not as familiar a household name as Penguin or Random House—because journalists are connecting the merger to Hachette’s contract fight with Amazon. The New York Times article about the deal is titled “Hachette Adds Heft to Battle Amazon,” for instance.

But this deal marks a continued trend in the publishing industry that anyone interested in a publishing or writing career should watch closely, and maybe warily.

The trend I’m speaking of is one of consolidation, the most famous example being the Penguin Random House partnership last summer. Up until that point, most consolidation occurred when big publishers bought smaller pub houses and incorporated them as imprints: examples of this include Hachette buying Little, Brown in 2006 or HarperCollins’s recent purchase of Harlequin. But now the major publishers are reaching the size of giants, with PRH controlling 250 separate imprints and the other Big 4 trying to catch up. For instance, there are long-standing rumors since late 2012 that Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins were considering a similar merger to match PRH, and early this year Forbes reported that the talks may still be ongoing.

Now Hachette has purchased Perseus, which itself is the largest distributor of books in the nation, especially for small and medium-sized publishers. How did it become the largest? Through consolidation. In this interesting piece by the co-founder of indie publisher Melville House, Dennis Johnson describes Perseus’s purchase of Consortium and Publishers Group West, which gave Perseus control over 80% of indie publishers’ book distribution. Johnson describes a period of turmoil where books got lost while transferred between warehouses and many staff and warehouse members were laid off. Some publishers like Melville House ended up taking their business elsewhere, the Johnson claims that those that remained only stayed because they couldn’t afford to leave.

You cannot necessarily trust Johnson’s impartiality on the subject without hearing Perseus’s side of the story, and maybe those who stayed with Perseus would deny any dissatisfaction with their distributor. But you can’t deny that big mergers are a tumultuous time where jobs and livelihoods are put on the line, and things could easily go wrong.

Now Perseus’s warehouses belong to Hachette’s distributor, Ingram. Does this mean another period of turmoil for the indie publishers? Ingram’s CEO denies this—this Publisher’s Weekly article states that Ingram has “no plans to make major changes to the Perseus distribution operations.” It could be that the name on the door is changing, but that the business will remain the same. It could also be that Ingram will bring new policies that will change how these warehouses operate. But I don’t know enough about warehousing to make an informed comment on the likelihood or repercussions of this eventuality.

The small publishers who used Perseus as a client do know, however, and they’re worried. In a Publishing Perspectives article, one publisher at a conference expressed shock at the news, stating, “Well, looks like we just became [a] smaller [priority].” Another worried about having to learn to use a new computer system.

The consensus?

Each of the publishers expressed their concerns about their list and whether or not they would get the attention they deserve within a bigger organization. Some lamented the loss of yet another independent publishing institution to the deep pockets of a conglomerate. Most grieved the likely layoffs.

Doom and gloom from small publishers who simply don’t like their massive counterparts controlling their distribution, or legitimate fears about the compression of the industry and its jobs into a few “too big to fail” entities? It certainly appears from the article that the publishers like both Perseus and Ingram individually, but dislike them as a merged business, simply because it makes it less likely that individual clients will see their needs addressed.

That same principle may apply to the Perseus imprints that Hachette now controls. When a publishing group controls dozens or even hundreds of imprints, it makes any individual imprint more expendable should it become unprofitable. However, this system also allows the most successful imprints to provide financial insurance for the other imprints in the group; thus, arms of a publishing house that are temporarily struggling can have a few years of unprofitability without being forced to close shop. Thus, it is unclear whether the consolidation of major publishers will keep imprints and jobs afloat or make those jobs expendable in a crisis.

Conclusions

What does the consolidation of publishing houses mean for writers? Less traditional publishing options. In a New York Times piece describing the Penguin Random House merger, the author noted that “the persistent gripe of writers and agents” is that “companies either forbid (as at Penguin) or restrict (at Random House) their constituent imprints from bidding against one another for a manuscript.” Literary agents used to have dozens more options to sell their author’s manuscripts, but now have the five (maybe four soon) major publishing houses and some smaller competitors. That means less competition and fewer chances to demand higher advances for manuscripts. Self-publishing and freelance publishing services are becoming highly visible and profitable around the same time that publishers are continuing to grow and coalesce into a few massive entities. Publishers need to make clear that their services will not suffer and that each author matters when they are trying to service thousands of authors at a time, a tough sell to make.

What does this mean for readers? Ostensibly nothing, since Perseus’s imprints should continue to operate as they did before the buyout, which means the same quality of manuscripts and editing. But the above NY Times piece asserts that merged imprints lose their originality and focus and take on the acquisition strategies and mentality of their parent company. That could mean an overall reduction in the breadth and diversity of titles available for readers through traditional publishing avenues. It also means that, for readers, publishing imprints become more interchangeable or indistinguishable from one another. Publishers with 250 imprints may end up diluting their brands, which would hurt readers and publishers alike. With publishers becoming so massive, they need to focus on strengthening their individual imprints’ brands so that they still mean something to readers.

What does this mean for you, the current and future editors, eBook production experts, publicists, etc.? As I stated above, I really can’t be certain if this will lead to greater or fewer jobs in the long run. Nor is it certain if publishers will begin to lose their originality in the face of the overwhelming size and power of the companies they work for. Personally, I believe that the dedicated publishing professionals in these organizations would not let anything happen to sabotage their efforts in creating great books. But these concerns remain valid, and I hope that the publishers who are merging take these concerns seriously, for the sake of their employees, authors, and readers.

Do you think these super-conglomerates are bad for the industry, or just the natural progression in the face of Amazon and self-publishing competition? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments, and thanks for reading!

As a disclaimer, I have an upcoming fall internship with Perseus(/Hachette, I guess?), but I tried to remain as objective and analytical as possible without prejudice toward my future employer.

With ALA approaching, how will libraries compete in the ebook market?

A recent PW article outlined a recent breakfast meeting between librarians and publishers at Random House, where speakers discussed the next step for libraries now that all major trade publishers have begun “participating in the library e-book market.”

Yet librarians know they need to do more to make their services competitive, whether with subscription services like Oyster, regular retailers like Amazon and B&N, self-publishing, and even pirating. At the upcoming ALA meeting, they will discuss whether the solution falls with a better user interface or with improved publisher cooperation.

The above PW article summarizes best the positions of the parties involved, but for those who don’t want to tear themselves away, here’s a quick summary:

  • Many librarians say that the largest demands of patrons is for recent frontlist titles, and publishers have notoriously put limits on the number of times books can be lent or the number allowed to be checked out at once without paying for another e-copy; thus, they want publishers to provide better terms for these books so that patrons don’t see the long wait for new books and decide to immediately go elsewhere. In other words, they want to improve on the current system.
  • Biblioboard founder Mitchell Davis argued that, “Instead of spending money on a limited number of frontlist e-book titles, generating long waits in hold queues and patron dissatisfaction, why not concentrate limited resources on building a better user experience, based on the library’s ‘long tail’ collections?” He feels that librarians should adopt a model for users that have gotten used to Netflix-style systems: one with “unlimited, multiuser access to backlist works” that would in turn lead to more frontlist sales of the latest sequels.

Libraries are one of the last guaranteed avenues for print book sales, and publishers know this, which is ostensibly why they have begun to engage more with libraries to sustain their success. But librarians can easily make the case that their support is too conservative, and that their partnership must expand for both sides to truly benefit. Libraries need to go digital in order to maintain its legitimacy and its funding, and eBook support from publishers is a vital cornerstone of the future of libraries. But opinions are divided on where that support should go.

In terms of the above arguments, I would first note that there is already a “Netflix for books” in Oyster,  a monthly subscription service that has partnerships with HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Perseus Books Group, Wiley, Chronicle, and others for a total of over 500,000 titles, according to PW. The service has attained the cooperation of publishers by promising them what they need most, and what most distributors like Amazon keep tightly secret: data. Oyster can tell publishers about the likes, dislikes, and reading habits of their consumers, including reading speed, when, where, and how often they read, and what type of device they prefer to read on.

Libraries can provide that same information. Or more specifically, the third party applications like Axis 360, Blio, and BiblioBoard that libraries rely on to distribute eBooks and audiobooks to their patrons. Major publishers will likely make more of their backlist titles freely available to libraries if they had assurances from these providers that user data would be made available to them, just as Oyster provides it. I am uncertain whether it would be publishers or librarians who would pay for this enhanced access, or if the digital providers would be willing to disclose the information at all.

But do library users go to public libraries for an Oyster experience, or for recent titles? Jeff Jankowski, VP of Midwest Tape, argued at the BEA that libraries can only provide better services if they discard the outdated “’video store’ model of one user, one copy” that publishers demand with eBooks. Publishers would likely counter with the simple economic truth that eBook sales for frontlist books would drop significantly if readers discovered that all eBooks were available without any delay at libraries. Librarians might counter-argue that these free books will increase sales down the line, and readers could easily pirate eBooks rather than buy them if they can’t be found for free legitimately.

I for one hope that the ALA expands upon the Random House breakfast by discussing experimental plans to keep libraries as a legitimate, profitable sales channel for publishers, ways to improve library UI for eBooks, and the possibility of reader data collection with third party library platforms. Whether or not conservatism or boldness will prevail depends in my mind on whether one of the Big 5 publishers is willing to take the first step of making backlist eBooks freely available, setting an example for others to follow, or at least to watch closely for the economic results.

Do you think any hope for further cooperation is possible, or naive? Do you think publishers are right to be wary, or too conservative to take the necessary course of action? Feel free to comment below, and thanks for reading!

How Simon & Schuster’s New Imprint Saga Demonstrates How Exactly to Plan Your Own Publishing Business

One of the major questions sometimes asked in an editorial internship interview concerns your long term goals: are you someone interested in working your way up the chain of a publishing house within an established framework until you earn a leadership role, or do you intend to use your experience to start something of your own making? If your goal is the latter, then you should be prepared to explain such a goal with businesslike language and concrete details during the interview, as a way of showing your initiative and seriousness for the book pub profession. No one would expect you to have an innovative new model that redefines publishing or discovers an untapped market as a twenty-something college student, but it does benefit you to know the necessary rhetoric in terms of what it takes to start your own venture.

What is your starting list of titles? Will you rely more on acquiring new novels or purchasing backlist titles to start? How will you manage to pull authors away from the publishers they’re currently with to join an unproven venture? What thematic differences or production strategies would you employ to distinguish your publishing house or new imprint from those currently out there?

In an age when publishers are merging with one another, buying competitors, and dropping unprofitable imprints with rapidity, it’s rare to see too many new imprints created today. But Simon & Schuster has recognized the continued profitability of the sci-fi/fantasy market, and has likely observed how dedicated speculative fiction imprints like Ace Books for Penguin and Orbit for Hachette have achieved huge successes of late. S&S already has impressive science fiction writers on their list—Ursula Le Guin and Stephen King, for example—but they have chosen to progress beyond relying on big bestsellers in the genre. We’ll discuss here why their business model looks promising before it even begins, and the business lessons we can take out of their initial strategy for our own entrepreneurial plans in future.

Step 1: Find young, up-and-coming, award-winning authors: Of Saga’s first four original titles being released, three were written by nominees or winners of the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award. Two of the books are the authors’ debut titles. A third was written under the pseudonym of an award-winning speculative author, so in some ways the book is “his debut” as well. But the most important point in my mind is that these authors have won awards primarily for their short stories and novellas, not their books.

If you pay attention to major science fiction awards or speculative short stories, you know who Ken Liu is in particular. He has won two Hugos and one Nebula in the past four years, and has been nominated for several other pieces. Simon & Schuster acquiring his first novel is a major win for the imprint’s credibility, but for many readers his undoubtedly excellent first book will come as a pleasant surprise.

Pardon the upcoming baseball metaphor for non-sports fans, but think of yourself as Billy Beane and literary magazines and short story websites as the minor leagues when it comes to building a roster of authors. Certain authors will show the qualities you’re looking for in small doses, and they will be hungry for the chance to prove themselves with your assistance. Give them that chance, and you will have acquired new talent, and likely their loyalty when it comes to selling their sequels.

Step 2: Acquire these young authors: Other imprints are eying the same young authors as you, and they have the funds and established reputation to steal away these authors before your fledgling imprint can hope to reach them. One of my major duties as an intern for Heyday Books in California was updating an Excel document of “writers to watch,” from which the editors could search for new talent for the annual New California Writing anthology. Publishers are more proactive in finding authors than you’d expect from their huge slush piles, and it’s somewhat difficult to stake a claim on a new author without someone else having discovered her first.

But somehow, Saga found a way to not only claim Ken Liu’s rising star, but also steal Genevieve Valentine away from Prime Books. This publisher released her debut novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, which won or was nominated for several prominent awards. But Valentine has chosen to move on to S&S for her next book. Did S&S offer more money, or did the prestige of a Big Five publisher do enough to woo her away?

I have no insider knowledge to answer this question, but it remains an important issue nonetheless. You can’t simply decide that you want to kickstart a new fantasy or romance or mystery imprint without determining how independent you want your operation to be. Will you sell your business plan to a major publisher in order to have a monetary cushion and a name that draws authors? If so, you have to determine which publisher has a gap that your imprint can fill. If you plan to strike out alone for the sake of autonomy, then you need a stronger incentive to attract good authors to your new house, such as higher author revenue. Some independent publishers like Greywolf Press have achieved enormous success acquiring authors simply by paying them more money than the industry standard, but you have to determine if you can afford such a plan.

Step 3: Establish a distinctive style from the outset: Saga will not succeed on the strength of its authors alone, but must also create a brand of literature that will be familiar to readers, and to the booksellers who choose whether or not to place the books on store shelves. In a previous post, I discussed the clever business strategies that has allowed Orbit Books to succeed, including eye-catching covers and an emphasis on new paperback releases. They don’t focus on a single area of speculative fiction, however; their “About Us” page mentions their dedication to publishing “across the spectrum of Science Fiction and Fantasy – from action-packed urban fantasy to widescreen space opera; from sweeping epic adventures to near-future thrillers.” Saga also will not likely restrict its acquired novels to one area, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to make your proposed imprint overly specialized or limited.

But Saga’s first four books already have an interestingly ominous aesthetic: two ruined cities—one burning and another occupied by evil forces—a cracked helm, and a red snake as a symbol of the future. Orbit’s books, even its darkest dystopias like Feed, always seem to have a humorous, gleeful detachment from reality, but Saga’s initial list seems to be targeting the Game of Thrones crowd that craves solemn realism in its escapism. This choice isn’t just motivated by a trend, though; when I visited S&S’s offices in February and spoke with a couple of the editors there, they argued that the publisher has made its name on serious literature, and on seeking quality titles that establish trends rather than acquiring derivative copycats of the Harry Potters and Twilights that other publishers create. Thus, even S&S’s fantasy epics may be required to attain literary greatness. You have to determine whether your hypothetical house will have a similar culture that defines its acquisition or design choices.

Step 4: Don’t be afraid to break your own rules with the backlist:

Saga’s frontlist is deadly serious, yet its backlist mixes gothic horror and optimistic fantasy, with creatures ranging from dragons to vampires. The horror titles somewhat match with the contemporary titles’ aesthetic, but the Dragonsong titles by Hugo award winner Anne McCaffery don’t belong except for the fact that they are great fantasy novels. It doesn’t matter. The books have already sold very well, and don’t need to be matched up with new titles to keep selling well.

Conclusions: When trying to come up with an idea for your own future publishing house, the pressure is on to come up with some impressive niche subgenre, and that may be the necessary approach for founding a new literary magazine. However, your prospective employer should be just as impressed by a well-researched business plan that shows you thinking like they do.

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m an avid fan of speculative fiction novels, and would love the chance to found or run my own sci-fi/fantasy imprint in the future. I will be following Saga’s initial months very closely as a perfect case study for my own future goals. If you have an interest in a particular genre, be sure to follow PW and genre-specific publishing blogs closely for comparable news about new houses and imprints, because they may also provide invaluable information for your career.

Thanks for reading!

Source article: http://io9.com/take-an-exclusive-peek-at-the-most-anticipated-scifi-im-1591612349