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Updates from the Digital Frontier

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by Deb Vanasse, IBPA Independent staff reporter

Deb Vanasse

As the e-publishing landscape continues to evolve, agile and innovative independent publishers are thriving

When the Association of American Publishers reported in 2015 that the meteoric rise in e-book sales was beginning to taper off, sighs of relief echoed from many corners of the industry. Revolution over, frontier closed. Back to business as usual.

Not so fast, say digital publishing experts. The e-publishing frontier continues to expand, and publishers that ignore the changing landscape do so at their peril.

Keeping up with the changes can be difficult. But all along the digital frontier, agile and innovative independent publishers are thriving.

Room for Improvement
Josh Brody, Pronoun

Josh Brody, Pronoun

“We think digital publishing is the future of books, but we also believe that the future won’t be like the past,” says Josh Brody, CEO of Pronoun, an author services platform launched in late 2015 by the company that began as Vook, which specialized in integrating multimedia into digital books.

From a publisher’s perspective, there’s much about the past—and the present—of digital publishing that warrants improvement. Ian Lamont, founder of i30 Media, which publishes In 30 Minutes guides, notes the difficulty of dealing with what he calls “Amazon’s monopolistic tendencies, which aim to squeeze publishers of all sizes through restrictive pricing rules and platform dominance.” Amplifying this problem, he says, is the failure of platforms such as iBooks and Google Play to effectively compete with the e-publishing behemoth.

“Apple has an excellent hardware platform,” Lamont says, “but the software used for purchasing and managing e-books (iTunes/iBookstore/iTunes Connect/iTunes Producer) is in desperate need of streamlining.” He also complains that Apple’s “superb closed-garden authoring tool (iBooks Author)” has done little for sales in the iBook store while at the same time preventing the export of e-books to any non-Apple channel. As he sees it, problems at Google Play include the unilateral application of major discounts to publisher pricing and a “substandard reporting tool.”

Elizabeth Turnbull, Light Messages Publishing

Elizabeth Turnbull, Light Messages Publishing

Platforms aside, digital publishing also presents unique marketing challenges. “It’s not unusual for one of our titles to sell more e-books than print books,” says Elizabeth Turnbull, senior editor at Light Messages Publishing. “But in the publishing industry, digital sales are often not counted equal to print sales, so as a small press, that puts us at a disadvantage.”

Perseid Press publisher Christopher Morris cites digital publishing challenges that include accelerated production schedules, quality control of displays and downloadable content, evolving piracy concerns, and the interoperability of manuscript formats (EPUB and MOBI) with diverse distributor requirements.

There’s also the much-debated—and litigated—problem of e-book pricing. “A common and understandable strategy for large trade publishers is to attempt to control pricing to optimize the balance of revenue between digital and print,” notes Peter Brantley, online strategist at the University of California, Davis, University Library. “As an advocate for digital publishing, I think this has the effect of lowering incentives for exploration of born-digital content, and it penalizes author income through royalties.”

Out with the Old

E-publishing experts explain that many of the frustrations along the digital frontier have arisen because publishers have traditionally relied on approaches that developed around print formats. “The e-publishing methods and strategies that are proving least successful are those transposed from print-based models but not optimized for everything digital can offer,” Brody says.

Brian O'Leary, Magellan Media

Brian O’Leary, Magellan Media

This problem arose because publishers have long treated digital as secondary to print, explains Brian O’Leary, founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting Partners. “They put a great deal of effort toward creating the perfect print edition, then threw the file over a figurative wall to let production or an outside vendor create the digital version,” O’Leary says. “Print files that had been created without a digital use in mind were riddled with errors. E-books that had not been checked carefully made it to the public, weakening consumer confidence in both the publisher and the e-book format.”

This multistep process is also expensive, he notes, because every file is touched at least twice. “Poor workflow design led publishers to see e-book production as costly,” O’Leary says, “when in practice, the expense was a function of a failure to plan from the outset for multiple formats.”

The situation is improving, O’Leary says, though not as quickly as he’d like. “Publishers are getting more comfortable with the idea of ‘write once, read many,’ even if they are still implementing workflows that can deliver multiple formats from a single file,” he explains. Toward this end, O’Leary credits tools such as the open-source platform Pressbooks. “More solutions like this are needed to move us past a strict adherence to creating files based on a page metaphor,” he says.

As Brody points out, the problem of misapplied print strategies spills over into the marketing and promotion of digital products. “Large publishers launch a book with a precise plan and a six- to eight-week publicity window,” he says. “If the initial positioning and promotion don’t make the book a hit in that time frame, the publisher moves on to the next book in the pipeline.”

In the world of print, this model makes sense, Brody says, but digital publishers adopt it to their own detriment. “Digital books are not subject to inventory costs, their contents are easily editable, and updates don’t require money or long lead times,” he explains. “E-books and metadata can be updated and optimized based on market trends and reader response.”

Doing It Right
Joe Wikert, e-book publishing expert

Joe Wikert, e-book publishing expert

To succeed on the digital frontier, publishers need agility more than anything else, says e-publishing expert Joe Wikert, whose posts on digital content strategies appear regularly on Typepad. “Organizations need to fully embrace agile and lean models, focusing on creating minimum viable products (MVPs), getting them in front of customers quickly, learning as much as possible from those customers, and producing rapid, iterative updates to those MVPs,” he explains.

Done right, digital publishing is an excellent way to create MVPs. “E-publishing gives us the opportunity to update materials and push them to retailers much more quickly and with significantly less cost than traditional print,” Turnbull notes. “It allows us to do more with fewer resources, and as a small press, that’s equal to gold.”

To identify the best promotional opportunities in the digital landscape, Light Messages works closely with its distributor. “Then our representative crafts a strong pitch for the book,” Turnbull explains. “For example, Kobo Books recently picked up Crossing Savage by Dave Edlund for a special promotion. We sold over 1,000 copies of the title at full retail price, and Dave’s books were just picked up again this month by Kobo for another promotion, this time at a discount. We’ve also been able to secure numerous Amazon daily deals, selling as many as 3,000 copies of a title in a single day.”

At Perseid Press, Morris appreciates the fact that digital publishing allows for an immediate presence in a large and global English-speaking market, fast text emendations and updates, and lower fees to distributors without warehousing or shipping fees. For a publisher, he explains, this all adds up to providing quality books more affordably than print technologies allow. “We are most successful with books that have evocative covers and blurb material, pre-pub reviews, ads, and/or excerpts on e-magazines, and about three months of increasingly focused e-based promotion before publication,” he says.

Differentiating from other publishers is also important, says Mary Alice Elcock, vice president for content at Shelfie, which works with publishers to make e-books available to readers who already own the print versions. As examples of differentiation, she points to value-added newsletters from e-cookbook club Workman’s Blue Plate Special, which includes free recipes alongside discount offers, and the Penguin Hotline, which offers personalized holiday gift suggestions via email.

For optimum digital success, Elcock also suggests publishers put smart, engaged people in charge of their social media feeds. “This should not be a job that’s done by an intern off the side of their desk,” she says. “Social media is becoming a customer’s first line of engagement. Everyone needs to be there.”

Brody also emphasizes the importance of using digital data to your advantage. “Compared to brick-and-mortar stores, book placement, discovery, and competition on online retailers can seem opaque,” he says. “With the right information and tools, however, publishers can exert considerable influence over how their books are found and positioned.

Understanding how online retailers use metadata will help get your books in front of more readers, and the right types of readers.” He explains that these efforts may include tailoring keywords to respond to actual, popular reader searches; using pricing against the most popular books in a category to communicate status or value; and placing highly in niche categories to be discovered through reader browsing.

Persistence also contributes to many e-publishing successes. “Just because a book doesn’t immediately reach its audience, doesn’t mean the audience isn’t there,” Brody says. “The publishing industry is [full of] examples of books—like 2012’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette—that sold moderately at launch, then later took off after some repositioning.”

Embracing the New

Digital publishers benefit from a willingness to try new approaches, says Elcock. “Publishers need to see their books not only as artifact, but as advertising. One of the ways that we’ve seen drive the most sales for Shelfie is through a bookplate on the copyright page. Who knew that many people were reading copyright pages?”

Hadie Bartholomew, Overdrive

Hadie Bartholomew, Overdrive

Hadie Bartholomew, communications manager at digital distributor OverDrive, agrees that publishers who maximize the availability of their digital content and embrace new formats are best positioned for e-publishing success. She also recommends that publishers participate broadly with institutional sale opportunities to libraries, schools, and corporations; thinking globally as they explore market opportunities.

Along the digital frontier, Brody points out that successful publishers stay abreast of change. “Fortunately, we’re seeing many independent publishers and authors starting to adapt their e-publishing strategies and methods to capitalize on new technologies,” he explains. “They’re starting to see the world as digital and online first, and targeting their behavior accordingly.”

He notes that the most successful e-publishing strategies are those that break from tradition completely, embracing the new context. The result: books Brody describes as “at home on any reading platform,” discovered online through search and browsing, with packaging that adapts to the audience.

As the landscape continues to shift, Brantley reminds publishers to explore the possibilities inherent in new media. “The most successful strategies in digital publishing are ones that embrace the opportunities that digital presentation offers—the ability for readers to have agency in controlling the flow of a story, the integration of a wide range of resources into the main body [of a work], the ability to update material at the discretion of the reader, and the ability to use analytics to improve production and distribution.”

More than ever, the shifting digital frontier is one in which innovative publishers rise to the top. “Always be experimenting, and track your results,” Brody suggests. “If one experiment isn’t an immediate success—or even if it is—you can always iterate and improve.”

Deb Vanasse, who co-founded 49 Writers and created the author co-op Running Fox Books, is the author of 17 books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest, and What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion, as well as Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold (April 2016).

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