AN IBPA ROUNDTABLE
E-book Reality Show (and Tell)
What’s really happening with e-books? The best answer may surface if we picture the book-industry world of digital products as a mosaic (or maybe a tapestry) with innumerable pieces (or maybe threads).
With that image in mind, we asked IBPA members to report on what they’ve actually been doing with e-books, and on how what they’ve been doing is working out.
Together with reports that will appear in next month’s Independent and resources such as the LinkedIn group Ebooks, Ebook Readers, Digital Books and Digital Content Publishing, and the new BISG/AAP report “BookStats,” what follows should help create a big-picture e-book composite that will serve us better than statistics based on numbers from a handful of huge houses.
And speaking of those statistics, it’s well worth noting a point Mike Shatzkin made in a recent installment of The Shatzkin Files (idealog.com/blog): “When PW or the AAP or even the publishers themselves talk about how the industry is doing selling ebooks in relation to print books, they are usually comparing apples to oranges. They are comparing what actual consumers bought from retailers in digital form with what retailers and wholesalers bought from publishers in print form for any period of time. So they are comparing ebooks that consumers actually bought now with print books that consumers might, or might not, buy later.”
If you’d like to add your experiences with e-books to the picture that’s developing, please send an email to email@example.com describing what you’ve done, what you’re doing, and what’s happening as a result with both unit sales and dollar sales.—Judith Appelbaum
Sales and Revenues on the Rise
We have been publishing e-books since 2004, first as PDFs, then as multiformat digital versions to accommodate the new e-readers. Our sales have gone from double digits per month to thousands per month, with the largest increases paralleling the improvement in e-reader technology and increased selling via selected third-party retailers (in addition to via our own publisher’s Web store).
We keep our e-formatting in-house, using an independent e-tech who converts all our titles as we release them in print. So far, we have 300-plus titles in both print and e-book formats, and we release 8 to 12 new e-books every month (all our backlist titles are converted and available as e-books) . I also contract independently—not via a portal service—with each major e-book retailer.
Today, e-books generate 50 percent of our unit sales, and total revenues are up by a healthy margin.
Bold Strokes Books, Inc
Attracting Assorted Buyers
We just sold 500 e-books into Taiwan, in the English language. The buyers included two mobile companies, two device companies, and a library e-book supplier.
We’ve done 400-plus of our 3,000 POD titles as e-books. We “hand”-craft them to make sure that they’re professionally produced in EPUB, PDF, and Kindle formats.
Although it’s too early to tell what works and what doesn’t (at this juncture, we don’t even know the right questions to ask), our e-book sales are picking up steam, and I’d say don’t quit the day job, but get on the train.
Strategic Book Publishing
From Two Points of View
Dogwise Publishing is a subdivision of Direct Book Service and sibling to Dogwise.com. We’ve been retailing books published by hundreds of different publishers to dog fanciers for more than 25 years through mail order, special events, and the Internet at Dogwise.com. Twelve years ago we started publishing dog books, and this part of our business has grown to generate 40 percent of our revenue; we expect that to increase every year. As a longtime member of IBPA, I always look to our association for information and leadership in all areas of publishing. I hope to continue the dialogue about the future of publishing by discussing how our company is working in the e-book world.
Two years ago we started selling our published titles as e-books and met with success both on our Web site and via other e-book retailers. After working out our systems for converting and retailing our own e-books, we approached other dog-book publishers, asking them to allow us to sell their books as e-books. We didn’t want our successful mail order bookselling business to go the way of buggy whips and record stores. We wanted to do for dog-related e-books what we had done for dog-related print books, and that is, have the best selection of titles in our niche available anywhere. This is where our 25 years of relationships with publishers and customers really paid off. Publishers trusted us and were eager to participate in e-book sales. Here is an outline of the evolution of our experience as an e-book publisher and e-book retailer:
We wanted to make Dogwise Publishing titles as easily available for purchase as e-books as they are as print books. We started by retailing our own titles as e-books on our own site and wholesaling to as many e-book retailers as possible. Selling our books on other retailers’ sites was relatively easy. Converting our books to e-books in the popular formats and revamping our site to handle e-book downloads required that we develop a new set of skills. Fortunately we have a resourceful tech-guy who developed our in-house expertise to handle this process, and we have been selling e-books successfully ever since.
Pricing e-books to compete with discounters like Amazon has helped sales. With e-book production savings—no printing, warehousing, shipping—we can meet or underprice other retailers. This pricing strategy differs from our print book pricing strategy; with print, we often find ourselves undercut by discounters.
Approaching other publishers to retail their books as e-books has been a successful way to build our e-book selection. Once we had our e-book conversion and distribution systems in place, we approached other publishers and found that while they were “thinking about getting into e-books,” they didn’t know how to do it. They seemed relieved to have a trusted source make it easy for them. We handle the conversion into the major e-book formats for them and simply pass through the cost—usually $50 to $100—deducting it from their sales.
Placing other publishers’ e-books on e-book retail sites has generated another source of revenue. Initially we thought there would be little interest in this service; however, we found many publishers were quick to agree to allow us to place their books with e-book retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) and share the revenue. Busy publishers liked our revenue sharing plan that gives them 85 percent of the revenue and none of the setup or oversight.
Splitting e-book sales revenue with other publishers has been one of the most interesting aspects of selling e-books. With our published titles, the percentage they receive on digital sales is set by contract. When selling other publishers’ e-books, there were no industry standards for us to fall back on, so we developed our own policies. We have FAQs that explain the e-book revenue sharing.
How to handle digital rights management (DRM) for both our own e-books and those of other publishers was something we had to address. We could not find cost-effective or reasonably trouble-free ways to provide DRM, so we followed the lead of iTunes and O’Reilly Publishing, as well as some others, and don’t have DRM with our e-books. Since these deterrents are easily circumvented (just Google it), and when in place can cause customer service nightmares—“How do I get this thing to work?”—we opted to forego DRM. When talking to publishers, we explain our position, and while a few have said they wouldn’t let us sell their books on our site without DRM, others have been willing to accept our approach.
Currently Dogwise Publishing is testing some “e-book first” publishing projects. There has been a great deal of talk in the media and industry about publishers foregoing print entirely. At first we thought this might speed up the publishing process. Just think, we don’t have to print it! But we find that we aren’t satisfied to just throw something out there without going through our usual editing, design, and layout work. We don’t want to be one of “those publishers” who puts something out there without adding value. It’s possible that we will use the “e-book first” approach to reverse the usual order of publishing. The e-book will be available weeks or months sooner than the print version—so maybe that will be advantage enough.
We look to IBPA and its members to help us navigate the changing times to keep our business healthy.
What Are the Odds?
My latest weekly newsletter radically illustrates that the tipping point toward e-books has occurred big-time. At the end of this week’s article, I promoted my book, Spirituality Made Simple, which is available in paperback from Amazon.com and as a downloadable PDF e-book from my Web site.
I sold 11 e-books, but only one paperback. And some of the e-book customers ordered other e-book titles as well while they were at it. I’ve never seen anything like 11:1 before.
The reasons? I’d say people are getting used to the idea of e-books; they want to read the book now, not wait for days (that’s the big reason), and the price is better ($9.97 versus $14 plus shipping for a paperback).
First Reluctance, Then Rewards
E-book sales for my author Patricia Bremmer are doing well. Her adult mystery novels sell steadily; fans are reading all eight titles in her Elusive Clue series, and sales have expanded to several countries. Her newest release, a thriller titled Cornstalked, is now picking up momentum. And sales of her middle-grade series, Secret of Dragonfly Island, written under the name P.A. Bremmer, jumped from 60,000-plus to become number 42 in the Amazon Kindle bestseller list, selling approximately 100 books in 48 hours. That title continues to sell well.
We were reluctant to join the ranks of e-book publishers, but this author’s work carries the other titles, and we consider her a success story. She also co-authored a short story, “A Breath of Hot Air,” with Alex Kava, a New York Times bestselling author, that is selling extremely well as an e-book priced at $2.99.
We’ve played with pricing from $2.99 to $9.99 for new releases, and we feel now that $2.99 is a good price for backlist titles and that $3.99 and up for new releases works nicely. Occasionally, we have a one-month sale and reduce a selected title to 99 cents, which causes a small increase in its sales and also leads its readers to read the rest of the books in that book’s series.
And the availability of e-books does not seem to affect the number of people who show up at Patricia Bremmer’s book talks and signings to purchase printed books.
We also offer titles by other authors as e-books, but without an established reader base, the sales are flat. Marketing and exposure and a successful print-book sales history seem to affect e-book sales for us.
Based on a Longer Book
I’ve published only one Kindle book, Learn to Drive Like a Pro Mini Guide by Anthony J. Scotti. It corresponds to a new, longer print book titled Learn to Drive Like a Pro—hot off the POD press today. I haven’t yet done anything to promote it, but it sells about 10 copies a month on Amazon, priced at $4. I’m now creating a new Web site that will feature the Kindle book, which should increase sales.
In my mind, I likened the book to the chewing gum at the checkout counter—inexpensive enough for an impulse buy. And I thought potential buyers who knew about Professional Driving Techniques—a 330-page long-term seller by the same author—might jump for the cheaper e-book to check out the basics.
Since I’m getting mixed messages about B&N’s Nook and Baker & Taylor’s Blio, I’ve decided to put off converting for them and just focus on the new Web site for now.
Meanwhile, pieces of books I’ve written with Hunter Publishing are showing up in segments on Apple’s site. No one knows how they got there. One thing’s for sure, this new technology has gotten ahead of me.
PDFs Plus Print
When we see the need for an e-book, and can identify a market for the book that’s easy to reach, we sell small numbers of titles formatted as PDFs. The best example is a text by Harriet Heath, Plan: How to Get Where You Want to Go, which is required for a course she teaches. We did not plan to make this book available in printed form, but many of Dr. Heath’s students have requested that, so we may offer a print-on-demand option.
Most of our other e-books were conceived as 32-page titles that we could afford to publish because of the digital format. However, we’ve discovered that all our authors want printed copies for direct sales, especially when they speak at conferences. And reviewers also want printed books; one editor who complimented us on offering e-formats added that his reviewer needed a printout.
So far we’ve published nine books as PDFs, with another one planned. None is offered in any other digital format. Most are or will soon be available POD. By late summer, we had sold approximately 500 e-book units.
From E-book to Ebook
Ebooks passed the tipping point some time ago.
Ebooks are not the future, they are now.
That is why we dropped the hyphen some time ago.
Ebook deserves to be its own word.
Ebooks deserve more recognition. That is why we established the Global Ebook Awards.
All our current books are available as ebooks and have been for some time.
They are available from Smashwords, Amazon/Kindle, LSI, and several other places.
So far, we have learned that:
• Advertisers have moved money from print to online.
•The new book reviewers are the book bloggers; each one specializes in a category, and you must send
printed books to capture and keep their attention (a printed book sits on the shelf and constantly
reminds them of you).
I am the distributor and marketer for a self-publishing press called In-Phase Publishing, the publishing arm of Baron Mastery Institute. Its two books by the founder, Dõv Baron, are Don’t Read This . . . Your Ego Won’t Like It! (which is priced at $26.95 both in print and as an e-book but discounted to $24.26 at Amazon as an e-book) and Don’t Read This . . . Unless You Want More Money: The Subconscious Tactics of the Truly Affluent, which is priced at $21.77 in print and $9.77 as an e-book (there is a belief among some people that numbers have energy, especially the number 7).
We sell the books primarily on Amazon.com but also on BarnesandNoble.com, and I have been marketing them during the past two months by using Social Oomph to schedule Twitter and Facebook campaigns. So far, the Don’t Read This . . . Unless You Want More Money print version is outselling the e-book version two to one, and the Don’t Read This . . . Your Ego Won’t Like It! print and e-book versions are selling the same number of units. Of course, we are making more money from the inexpensive e-book sales, with a 70 percent royalty on $9.77 and a 35 percent royalty on $26.95.
Sales of these e-books started to improve when I took advantage of Amazon’s ability to offer free sample downloads and began to tweet this.
Montgomery Vendor Services
Pricing, Predictions, and More
I have chosen to release all our titles in paperback and e-book versions—for the most part, virtually simultaneously. We publish our e-books through Kindle, PubIt (for the Barnes & Noble Nook), and Smashwords and have made a few of our titles also available through Google Editions, with more to be added later.
Since we are a small press and have been publishing only since December 2009, it is hard to determine whether e-book sales are increasing. I can say that e-books account for 30 percent of our unit sales, and that the Kindle accounts for 88 percent of our unit e-book sales.
I figure that there are people who prefer to buy e-books, and people who prefer paperbacks. I want to make our books available to both, and I don’t feel that they are really competing with each other.
The actual cost of producing an e-book (if you’ve already developed a print version of the title) is minimal—at least for fiction. I’ve been able to do the conversions myself and can usually complete the process in a couple of days. (I realize, of course, that books with complicated formatting, tables, charts, illustrations, etc., would be much more time consuming and expensive to convert.)
It does bother me to have to strip out all the nice formatting and design I do to make our books more attractive when they are printed. It would be interesting to find out if readers who prefer e-books have any appreciation for the aesthetics of books (design, typography, paper, etc.) or if they are only interested in the straight text. I get the sense that those who prefer to read printed, bound books have a much higher appreciation for the appearance and feel of books, which leads me to wonder if readers of historical fiction have a higher appreciation of the aesthetics of books than, say, readers of thrillers or self-help books.
In the future, I expect we will see more standardization of e-book formats, and easier production mechanisms that will allow publishers to produce more attractive e-books, while still keeping the cost affordable.
I’ve experimented with the pricing of our e-books. At first, I listed them at $6.99 when the corresponding paperbacks were $14.99. Later, after reading a number of pieces indicating that readers were more likely to make impulse buys if the price was less than $5, I brought my e-book price down to $4.99. With one title—and largely because the author insisted—I experimented with offering the book for 99 cents for a limited time to give sales a bump.
While the number of copies sold has gone up with the price lowered to 99 cents, the profits have dropped considerably, because Amazon pays a 70 percent royalty on books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, and if the price is lower than $2.99, the royalty drops to 35 percent. I’ve calculated that we need to sell 10 times as many copies at 99 cents as at $4.99 to make the same money. So far, sales have not increased enough at the lower price to make it worthwhile.
I wonder if buyers perceive the quality of books to be less if they are priced lower. Do they expect less from the writing?
I choose to think that e-books are just another delivery system—some people will embrace them wholeheartedly, and others will always prefer to read printed, bound books. There is plenty of room for both. I plan to continue to offer all Allium Press titles in both paperback and e-book formats, and I will drop one format or the other only if my sales figures show me that is the way to go.
Right now, with the major review sources still focusing on titles produced in printed form, it is very hard to get attention for books produced only in digital form. When more reputable forums, with larger audiences, are developed for review of e-book titles, that will be easier, and until that time, reviews of print books will help drive audiences to their e-book versions.
* 99-cent e-books will be a big deal for a while.
* Self-published e-books will continue to make news for a while longer.
* Then people will realize that they have a Kindle full of poorly written books that they’re unlikely ever to read.
* Eventually, they’ll realize that it is usually a good idea to pay more for a quality book.
In the end, I think that we still need “gatekeepers”—agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, and so forth—to help contain the output and give readers guidance on what books meet certain levels of quality, although e-books do provide an affordable way to make titles available for very small niche audiences.
Allium Press of Chicago
Charlene Woodward of Dogwise Publishing didn’t just send us the report on her company’s e-book activities that appears above; she also sent questions that are on her mind—and, we suspect, on the minds of other members too.
Please send responses to firstname.lastname@example.org; we’ll aim to report on them in an upcoming issue.
• Are you selling your e-books on your own Web site? (Dogwise is, and per unit, it is far more
profitable than selling on another e-book site—but the other sites have far greater exposure than our 30,000–40,000 customer base.)
• How much are you paying for e-book conversions?
• If you’re a retailer as well as a publisher, have you been successful in getting
suppliers/publishers to let you retail e-books? (Dogwise has had some success, but the sticking
point with many publishers is that we don’t provide DRM.)
• What kind of royalties are you paying authors on e-book sales?
• What sales figures can you share? (Our numbers aren’t big yet.)