How Well Do Downloadables Sell?
by Linda Carlson
Downloadable publications: What are they? Do they make sense for your market? What technology is involved?
Downloadable and e-book are terms that some publishers use interchangeably, so let’s start with definitions. For the purposes of this article, downloadable refers to book-related content that can be downloaded to a PC, laptop, or handheld device and read either online or offline; some downloadables can be printed out. E-books—a downloadable subset—are books formatted for download with a specific reading device.
A downloadable publication might be a book, a magazine, a newspaper, an excerpt from one of these, a blog—or almost anything else. It may look as if it has pages, even pages that software lets you “turn,” or it may be continuous text for a reader to scroll through.
As BISG executive director Michael Healy points out in Book Industry TRENDS 2008, “There are no comprehensive figures available today for sales of electronic book products in the U.S.” The International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), which defines itself as “the trade and standards association for the digital publishing industry,” has very limited statistics on sales of e-books, and it defines them as “All books delivered electronically over the Internet OR to hand-held reading devices.” The numbers IDPF does have show that about a dozen trade publishers wholesaled $10 million of e-publications in the United States in the first quarter of 2008. That’s up from an estimated $1.5 million in the first quarter of 2002. These figures do not include direct sales, sales to libraries, or sales of educational or professional material.
Do Downloads Make Sense for You?
Next question: Is there any reason for you to be creating publications—or converting existing ones—for use on Amazon.com’s Kindle, the Sony Reader, a Blackberry or Palm Pilot, some other handheld, a cell phone, or a PC or laptop?
Of Course, Say Some Publishers
Production is cheap, updating publications is easy, and don’t we all want to be part of whiz-bang technology? “It’s about the screen doing a dozen things the page can’t do,” Jeff Gomez wrote last year in Print Is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age. [For an excerpt, see “Generation Download,” January.] “What’s going to be transformed isn’t just the reading of one book, but the ability to read a passage from practically any book that exists, at any time that you want to, as well as the ability to click on hyperlinks, experience multimedia, and add notes and share passages with others.”
The former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, L. Gordon Crovitz, suggests that the e-book is simply an evolution. “The book introduced a disciplined way of thinking about topics, organized around contents pages, indexing, citation and bibliography,” he pointed out in a Journal opinion piece last spring. “These are at the root of Web structure as well.”
Quoting Gomez, Crovitz adds: “‘What’s really important is the culture of ideas and innovation’ books represent.” He continues, “To expect future generations to be satisfied with printed books is like expecting the BlackBerry users of today to start communicating by writing letters, stuffing envelopes and licking stamps.”
IBPA member Jenna McCarthy is one who agrees. “As authors and publishers, we need to provide materials in the formats that the reading public prefers. The e-book concept is a win-win-win: Cheaper for the buyer, more profit for the author/publisher, and better for the environment,” she writes from Santa Barbara, where she is awaiting publication of The Parent Trip.
Interviewed in April, she said what industry executives would also say a month later at the annual conference of the IDPF. Speaker after speaker pointed out that the Internet has given us unprecedented access to consumer feedback, and that we can grow the e-book market if we listen to readers.
“When publishers push their customers [readers] to buy the publisher’s preferred way, the readers may get a sense that their needs are not being considered.” That’s important even if those readers are a very tiny percentage of a publisher’s market, adds another southern California publisher, Carolyn Howard-Johnson, who projects that 3 percent of her sales will soon come from downloadable editions. “Is that 3 percent of my customers worth the trouble? You bet they are!”
Bold Strokes Books in Johnsonville, NY, has two years’ experience with downloadable editions of all its print titles, and president Len Barot reports that, yes, the market is still small. “But we have been seeing a slow increase in sales over the last few months,” he adds.
His e-book sales are now about typical for the industry, he believes: 3 to 5 percent of total. Bold Strokes’ downloadables, offered in three formats—PDF, PRC, and LRF—sell for 20 to 30 percent less than its traditional books.
Later this year, the company will add an imprint, Eclipse Books, to offer Web-based downloadables of new titles that will also be available in print editions produced in very short runs, probably with digital printing. Barot believes there is an independent market for these books, particularly internationally, and that “Eclipse will also allow us to expand our range of titles and authors while shortening the production period, and to offer titles that we anticipate will have such a niche following that standard print runs would not be cost effective.”
Ray Friesen, with Tehachapi, CA–based Don’t Eat the Bugs attributes success with downloadables to crafters’ desire for immediate gratification. The company publishes five print-on-paper books by a well-known polymer clay artist who has been creating miniprojects that she advertises on her Web site. These how-to downloadables have about seven pages each and sell for $1.99 to $6.99, depending on length and complexity. Friesen reports that this artist has sold hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of them.
User’s guides and training manuals in electronic form are also successful for ProChain Press, headquartered in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and publisher Rob Newbold says his forthcoming The Billion Dollar Solution: Secrets of Prochain Project Management will be available in both printed and downloadable formats.
Sydney Solis, who runs Mythic Yoga Studio in Boulder, CO, uses downloadables as “e-courses” so she can authorize others to teach her story-time yoga for children and train them more quickly and less expensively than she could otherwise. She reports that she sells far more print-on-paper books through IPG than on her own or through her Web site, but that the downloadables “are great because I can capitalize on the market I already have, there’s no cost involved except for the tech guy, and each one is a chapter for a book I’ll publish later.”
Since spring, the Ithaca, NY–based SUNY Press has offered e-book and hardcover versions of its frontlist titles simultaneously. It is the first U.S. university press to do so, its executives say. Through what SUNY calls the DirectText initiative, readers will be able to download and print PDF editions from the press’s Web site for 180 days for $20 per book. By contrast, the hardcover editions cost $35 to $80.
Downloading a SUNY Press book requires registering with SUNY vendor PublishersRow.com, and customers may register a maximum of three computers to access a book (for home and work computers and a laptop, for example). By year end, the press expects to have 130 e-books available.
Even more enthusiastic about e-publications is the Chicago-based American Bar Association, which plans to have more than 300 downloadable products by year’s end. “The majority of ABA Publishing’s sales are direct through our online bookstore, so adding a downloadable option was a natural,” reports Tim Brandhorst, acting director of book publishing. “One popular feature: an online ‘book locker’ where customers can permanently store and access any downloads they’ve purchased from us.”
Brandhorst describes another innovation: “We have begun bundling some print and PDF products together, so that a customer may purchase the print product but access the text instantly.”
Unlike SUNY, the ABA has several pricing models. “We’re experimenting,” says Brandhorst. “Some products sell at a discount from the print version, some at the same price, and some—those that a customer might need instant access to late at night, for example—sell at a premium.”
Not Worth It, Other Publishers Report
“One sale in a year,” reports Mary Lynn Archibald of WineCountryWriter.com in Healdsburg, CA. Howard Brockman of Salem, OR’s Columbia Press had similar results. “Rarely purchased,” he says about his Dynamic Energetic Healing: Integrating Core Shamanic Practices with Energy Psychology Applications and Processwork Principles.
At Tapscott Press, Herman Price is cautious. The Commerce, TX, publisher hasn’t issued a downloadable book yet, and the possibility of piracy is a concern. He also questions how profitable downloadables will be if they significantly cannibalize the sales of print editions.
Edna Siniff’s careful research showed that because of the way schools budget for office supplies and handle computer tasks, downloadable publications from her Country Messenger Press in Okanogan, WA, don’t make sense for individual schools or teachers.
“I thought that publications for elementary-school children would sell if teachers could download and print them. But I was overwhelmed with comments such as: ‘Things already printed and bound are cheaper in the long run,’ ‘The school’s budget barely covers the paper and ink/toner I use now,’ and ‘My time is too valuable to print out enough copies for my students.’”
Three Lessons Learned
Tim Brandhorst of the American Bar Association has come to “three somewhat counterintuitive preliminary conclusions”:
“Buyers of all ages, experience, etc., sometimes prefer electronic versions of print products.”
“Our customers do not seem to be worried about file size or number of pages.”
“Promotion of an electronic product generally leads to an appropriate increase in sales of that electronic edition—and often an even greater increase in sales of the print edition.”
Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she creates two downloadable newsletters.
Eugene Schwartz, editor at large for ForeWord Magazine, suggests that publishers quit thinking of digital editions as optional or unimportant “stepchildren.” Instead, he recommends creating native files (in InDesign or Quark, for example) that can be archived in a tagged electronic form (probably XML). “From this you can generate the PDF as well as e-book formats, widgets, and online browsing,” he points out.
For smaller publishers, as he acknowledges, this may seem costly or needlessly complex, especially if they market through targeted channels.
That’s exactly how Tierney Tully feels. The executive director of the National Acupuncture Foundation in Chapin, CT, Tully explains: “Our titles have a very limited audience, and they are technical/reference books. They would be perfect for e-publishing. The question is, what format is best for us?”
Because budget is a concern, Tully wants a format the foundation staff can use to create books that can then be sold via its own Web site. “What is standing in our way is simply lack of knowledge about how to do this,” she reports.
If you’re going to publish downloadables, you must research the compatibility of any format you choose. Initially, there were complaints about the inability of Kindles to handle PDFs; Amazon claims that issue has been resolved. Some formats have to be converted with third-party software before they work on certain readers. And Mac vs. PC conflicts exist.
You’ll find information on formats and standards at IDPF.org.
Some e-reader sites also provide details:
For the Kindle, check g-ecx.images-amazon.com/images/G/01/digital/otp/help/Amazon_DTP_Quickstart_Guide.pdf.
For the Sony Reader, see learningcenter.sony.us/assets/itpd/reader/CreatingPDFsReaderGuide.pdf.
More experienced publishers may also be able to recommend tech consultants. Emilio Corsetti, at Odyssey Publishing in Lake St. Louis, MO, spent what he considers a negligible amount—less than $500—to have a consultant format his 35 Miles from Shore for Sony, Kindle, Palm, MS Reader, and PDF.
Selected Sales Channels
Those of us who want more downloadable sales than the limited traffic to our Web sites will provide can make use of other sales channels. For instance:
Amazon.com, where publishers receive 35 percent of the suggested retail price they select for every download of a book that has been converted to Amazon’s Kindle format
Mobipocket (mobipocket.com), described as a wholesale distribution center for e-books through booksellers and e-booksellers; now owned by Amazon.com
Lightning Source (lightningsource.com), owned by Ingram, which handles both print-on-demand and e-book sales to retailers
OverDrive’s Content Reserve (overdrive.com), described as a wholesale distribution service for e-books, audiobooks, music, and video
Follett Digital Resources (fdr.follett.com), which serves libraries
ebrary (Palo Alto, ebrary.com), which sells content to 1,200 libraries
Net Library (netlibrary.com), the Boulder, CO–based e-content unit of the nonprofit Online Computer Library Center, Inc. Its distribution partners include Baker & Taylor.
“I have fairly good skills in desktop publishing and assumed that all I would need would be to create a PDF and up it goes on the Web site,” says Tierney Tully of the National Acupuncture Foundation. However, she adds, a little research made her realize she needs technical help to ensure that the foundation uses a format accessible to people in the United States and abroad.
Technology-challenged publishers may want to work with a vendor for another reason: customer support. Meg Weaver has been publishing the downloadable Writing for Magazines: Twelve New Things Writers Must Do Today to Make Money for eight years to advise subscribers to her weekly Wooden Horse Magazine News and its database. Initially, the Astoria, OR, publisher says, “I spent a lot of time assisting customers with downloads and opening the PDF file, and I received many requests for hard copies or printouts.” Her customer-support workload has subsided, though, so that now she gets involved only if software incompatibilities prevent the downloads from going through.
Another issue for the very small publisher is payment. If you don’t take credit cards or have your own shopping cart, services like PayPal and Payloadz are options. “I uploaded each file to Payloadz and used its HTML for ‘buy now’ buttons on my Web site,” says Odyssey Publishing’s Emilio Corsetti. “Payloadz processes the user’s credit card and then provides the information for the user to download the file. I pay Payloadz 15 percent of each transaction at my current level of sales.”
Barnes & Noble Offers E-pubs Free
Quamut is the “go-to how-to,” said Barnes & Noble’s Web site, and these free e-pubs look like a way to keep people going to BN.com—at least whenever they need “For Dummies” or “Idiot’s Guide”–style instructions.
Marketed as concise guides to topics ranging from buying a car to making sushi, Quamuts can be read for free at quamut.com, or downloaded as PDFs. The Web site says most are two to eight pages long and cost $2.95 . The day I checked, the three most popular were “Building a Web Site, “ “Business Etiquette,” and “Business Writing,” all priced at that price.