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It’s Time to Be “All In” Digitally

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PUBLISHED MAY 2016

by Bill McCoy, Executive Director, IDPF


Bill McCoy

Digital publishing has clearly arrived. Major U.S. publishers are generating upwards of 25 percent of their revenue from e-books, and for some bestsellers and in certain genres (e.g., romance) the numbers are much higher. Yet e-book sales growth has paused, while print sales have ticked up. E-book piracy is a reality, but there’s no evidence that it’s impacting sales to loyal readers. Subscription services are not radically disrupting what is still primarily a purchase-based business model.

In short, the sky hasn’t fallen, and business continues—if not quite “as usual”—much as it did before. E-books have become an accepted alternate format, but are not a complete replacement for print books, which are still valued as artifacts, gifts, and for many people, as a preferred means of reading. So how should independent publishers approach e-book publishing to maximize revenue and relevancy to their authors and readers? And what’s coming next?

You’ve got to play digital ball. Even if you’re in a segment (such as art books) that hasn’t yet heavily adopted e-books, if you aren’t offering e-books for all your titles, at launch, you are cutting off your ability to reach readers for whom tablets and large-screen smartphones have become primary devices, denying readers the option of instant gratification, and nipping at the bud the online buzz independents desperately need to create awareness and interest without the marketing budgets and channel muscle of major publishers. Digital marketing on the web and social media is increasingly the first way potential readers will hear about your titles, and if there are months of delay while physical inventory trickles out through the supply chain, they’ll be hearing about other publishers’ new titles first, and loudest.

EPUB is the distribution and interchange format standard for digital publications and documents based on Web Standards

EPUB is the distribution and interchange format standard for digital publications and documents based on Web Standards

In addition, you have to play the field. Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla in the U.S. market. But if you make your e-books available only on the Kindle Store, you are giving them control over your business model, distribution, readership, and ultimately, perhaps your authors, too. Making your e-books available through more channels may seem like a pain when these channels don’t add up to a major slice of your sales, but it’s an investment in sustaining an independent future, and will help force you to develop direct digital marketing chops: reaching readers directly will be critical to your ultimate survival, rather than ceding that to Amazon and thus being subject to disintermediation in the future. Adopting open standards—EPUB for content—is key to staying open.

By making sure you’re all in digitally and developing a direct digital competency, you’ll be well positioned for what I predict as the next big trend: direct online consumption of premium published content. The growth of Medium, Wattpad, and others have shown that there’s an avid readership for longer-form content—not necessarily full-book length but more substantive chunks than a traditional blog post.

To maximize your relevancy as a content publisher, you should be seeking ways to publish and share content on the web (for browser consumption and perhaps also for mobile apps), not just as monolithic downloads. Since EPUB is based on HTML, CSS, and other web standards, adopting EPUB 3.0 as your primary content format will make it easy for you to remix and reuse your content assets in both online and offline forms. The International Digital Publishing Forum is collaborating closely with World Wide Web Consortium to align EPUB’s evolution with the overall Open Web Platform to make both online and offline publishing simple and the transition seamless. The list of tools supporting EPUB 3.0 are rapidly expanding, including earlier this year, Google Docs adding direct EPUB 3.0 export—and much more is on the horizon.


Bill McCoy is executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), the trade and standards group responsible for the EPUB standard. McCoy was previously general manager of digital publishing at Adobe Systems. He has been involved in publishing technology for more than 20 years, and has contributed to the establishment of numerous industry-standard platforms including EPUB as well as PDF, OpenType, and PostScript.

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