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The Flattening Wave of Digitizations

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by Kelly Peterson, Director of Client Services, INscribe Digital —

Kelly Peterson

The rise of indie publishing is a breaking wave. But what is the sea behind it?

As Vladimir Nabokov said, “The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea.” The breaking wave we see now is the rise of indie publishing: authors are becoming their own publishers and controlling all the parts of the process of a book’s release. But what is the sea behind that? It’s the same as every industry: computers have changed books forever, from the writing process to the book in a reader’s hand. Our industry is becoming completely digitized.

What Digitization Looks Like in Publishing

Now, authors are writing in Word, Scrivner, or one of the thousand other author tools to keep them on track. They submit their book electronically to their editor, who can track changes for them to review, and leave digital notes at various points. Once finalized, the file can be put into software like InDesign or Vellum for formatting, and the book can be finished without ever touching a sheet of paper. As an e-book, it can even be enjoyed digitally on a Kobo Aura One, iPad, or Kindle. But let’s face it: When we think of a book, we think of the paper-hundreds of pages holding typed letters that we can read under a tree or in our bed at night. You might think that means that books will always be a paper medium, no matter how we digitize the rest of the process. That may be true, although the future tends to wreak havoc on our presumptions.

However, we’ve digitized something even more important than the book itself; we’ve digitized the way it is printed. Now, it’s as common for a book to be printed one at a time, digitally, as it is to do an offset print run. That is the biggest change of all in this vast sea: Anyone can be a book publisher, and not carry a huge, costly inventory load. As CNET’s David Carnoy said, “Traditional publishers aim to publish hundreds of thousands of a few books, and self-publishing companies make money by publishing 100 copies of hundreds of thousands of books.” If you reduce that down, indie authors are trying to sell thousands of copies of tens of books. The beautiful part of today’s publishing is that both of these models can co-exist alongside each other right now, and indie publishing can choose from a gamut of printing options.

Ink Monster, a Boutique Press, Planning to Grow

A microcosm of this variety of options can be found in the everyday choices of one of our IBPA members, Ink Monster, and its founder, Aileen Erin. When Erin started her business, she decided to only release books as series, and to ensure she always had the next book available for preorder when the current book came out. Those are easy, simple opportunities with e-book, and that’s how she launched her business: e-book only. After her series caught on, and especially when Alpha Divided hit the USA Today bestseller list, she added print for all her titles using POD options. Once the print became popular, she added short-run printing to ensure customers never had to wait.

Now that she’s sold over half a million copies of her books, it’s time for her to nimbly pivot to offset printing for her newest series, Off Planet. Because both options exist, she is able to flexibly handle her inventory from title to title, and use different strategies for each book, making more money each time because she is accurately predicting demand. It’s thrilling to think about indie authors getting more and more opportunities to dip their toes into arenas that were invisible to them for so long.

With the high quality of digital printing now, she will even be able to switch back to short run or print-on-demand once she is in the long tail of her book’s sales; the books will not look any different from digital to offset. (That may apply to black-and-white printing only; color books do show differently when printed on a digital printer.)

Ink Monster is looking at all of the same choices that publishers face, from editing, formatting, and publicity services to printing and audiobooks. Now that her content is digital, and easy to move from one area to another, it’s allowing her to rise to meet each opportunity.

Dudley Court Press, a Hybrid Publisher, Leverages Success

Sometimes, digitization can lead to much more growth. Dudley Court Press’s Gail Woodard had a hit on her hands with Live Pain Free and Yoga for Pain Relief, two natural health books featured on PBS. While Woodard usually prints in digital, she wanted the opportunity to sell books in stores with the help of a sales team. As an early adopter, she is very careful to ensure she understands the metrics of her financial choices, and she was very realistic about what she wanted for her offset run. Once PBS stops airing, Woodard plans to adjust back to digital printing, all based on her financial models.

As an IBPA member, Woodard realizes that there are many ways to manage a title. They design an individual strategy to give each book its best chance at success. Because Dudley Court Press is not tied to traditional publishing cycles nor to traditional book-selling approaches, they can launch, re-launch, and run bestseller campaigns on Amazon anytime. They re-work categories and keywords regularly to keep life in books that have been around for years. This back-and-forth strategizing using POD is also being employed by publishers of size to lower capital expenses on older titles, which benefits authors because their books are perennially available. Why go out of print, when you can try POD.

And Now, For the Future …

It doesn’t take a fortune teller to realize that digitization of books could lead to cutting-edge applications. For example, Digital Book World 2018 was very focused on home speakers like Google Home, Amazon’s Alexa, and Apple’s HomePod. With the improvements that we are seeing in voice-to-text, we might soon be able to switch back and forth between our e-books and home speaker, just like some people do today with Whispersync on their Kindle, but without having to press a button. There are even companies creating book sound effects, modular learning, and other voice-activated content that normally lives on paper. It certainly opens up big opportunities for audiobooks, as well.

While that may be coming to fruition in the next year, what’s down the road even further? Even for people who love to read paper books, it could mean that everything they read is digitally printed and may even be printed in the reader’s home. Three-dimensional printing could easily make that a reality, as it gets more affordable.

With that level of ease, there’s one cautionary note: ubiquity and convenience can often push pricing down, so it will be harder to charge more for an “invisible” product. It’s important for authors and publishers to reflect the author’s work to create the story, but storytelling will live on in many new and exciting forms—most of which I’m sure aren’t even thought of yet.
Ultimately, how we manage and maintain our digital files could be the key to publisher—and author—longevity and success. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” The publishing industry, authors and publishers, have an equal chance to ride those waves with this new egalitarian digital world.”

Kelly Peterson is director of client services at INscribe Digital and brings 20 years of marketing and merchandising experience to her current role, helping major trade publishers, university presses, independent publishers, agents, and authors maximize their e-book sales and marketing efforts at the major retailers.

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