Revisiting Digital Publishing

Sarah O'Keefe / ConferencesLeave a Comment

A panel discussion with a bunch of book publishers.

So, in 1998, we had e-book readers and no adoption. Just like now.

What holding back e-books?

  • Price. Publishers have not figured how to charge for digital “items.” Disconnect between customer expectations (dollar or two) and publisher business model requirements.
  • Format. Format wars continue and confusion for customers.
  • Ease of use. Devices are difficult to use.
  • Availability. Content selection is not sufficient. Compare what’s available on amazon (millions) to what’s available via e-books (tens of thousands).
  • DRM. Content is locked down, and consumers want it to be totally portable.

Random House guy (with four people, I have no chance at getting names right)

  • Believe that e-ink is a major leap forward
  • Sony Reader
  • Amazon is planning to enter the marketplace.
  • Increased selection
  • Consumer demand is increasing. General electronic reading is increasing. Random House year-over-year sales are increasing.
  • General trend is to more electronic reading, and they do not feel that fiction will be an exception.
  • 4,000 titles currently in the e-book catalog. Currently converting 2,000 backlist titles. Are committed to providing the frontlist going forward.
  • Will not choose a format; will provide all formats for which there is demand.
  • Publishers have always had electronic rights, but have “respected” their authors’ opposition and not digitized titles unless the author supported it.

And again, “immediacy” as an advantage of e-books. No inventory or quality constraints — digital availability is cheaper than print availability over time.

Weight — a single device holding lots of e-books is lighter than a pile of books.

First mention I’ve seen here of e-books as a “green” alternative. No paper, and therefore a lower-impact way of getting content.

Standards will help market growth. Being able to deliver a single, standard e-book format is appealing. Adobe Digital Editions a clear contender already.

Another challenge to the audience to experiment with different content delivery models, such as subscription, ad-supported content, and personalization.

HarperCollins, Theresa Warner

Not interested in giving away content. Is putting e-books and audiobooks in the same “digital” category. Major hurdle with e-books is clearing author rights.

From 2001 to 2008, 800 percent increase in revenue from e-books. From 2005 to 2008, 800 percent increase in audiobooks. (Of course, the baseline numbers is small.)

75% of revenue is generated from titles selling fewer than 49 units a month. This is backward from print books. 95% of titles sell fewer than 49 units a month. Top-selling category is romance. Michael Creighton’s Prey is the top-selling single title.

Large book retailers are not in the e-book space, but amazon is coming. Library market is about 15 percent of overall revenue. Direct sales are about 5 percent of revenue.

Experimenting with “digital only” short content. They sell well, and are also driving sales of the author’s backlist by 41%. Buyers are coming from the author’s web site.

Small experiments may be worthwhile for data capture even though they may not generate revenue.

Claire Israel, Simon & Schuster
Worked at one point for the startup that created the Rocket eBook.

Started publishing e-books in 1998. 3500 books in the program to date. 80 new titles a month. No ROI calculations for a single book. Lots of experiments.

E-books are released on the same day as the print book. They are creating e-book files “just in case” they get the rights for a particular book. They are working on getting e-book production into the standard workflow. This is difficult and expensive.

Originally, Star Trek fan fiction was popular. Now, narrative non-fiction, Stephen King, and also romance.

The young adult market has been ignored and shouldn’t be. (This is a really good point. Everybody’s talking about how kids are all over computers and only consume information online, so why not provide their books online?)

What they worry about:

  • How do we maintain the value of content in a “free” world?
  • When will formats be interoperable?
  • Can authors get paid with looser DRM?
  • How can we increase revenue now?

Panel discussion

  • Very difficult to get readers to try e-books at all.
  • How to make money? Write about vampires or sex. Preferably both.
  • What about e-book pricing? $25 hardcover generally results in a e-book price of $16.99. Mass market paperbacks about $1 less than cover price. Need more volume to reduce prices. “Why short-change the author?” They are arguing that costs are basically a wash versus print. (That would indicate to me a highly inefficient publishing model.)

My comments: e-books and books have different advantages. Books are prettier, e-books are more functional. But the cost of digital distribution should be basically zero, whereas physical distribution is expensive and inefficient. Consumers are demanding cheaper e-books, and the current pricing models don’t pass the sniff test.

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe


Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

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