A Publisher’s Perspective on Ebooks

Posted Thursday, January 12, 2012 - 16:31
The digital revolution has transformed every aspect of the publishing business
Interest in ebooks is trending

It was a rainy afternoon just before Thanksgiving in 2007 when I stood on a New York City sidewalk clutching my first e-reading device. I had just come from Amazon’s press conference where Jeff Bezos announced the launch of Kindle, a new e-reader designed to wirelessly deliver book content directly to customers in as little as 30 seconds. The device used E Ink technology, which provided a more true-to-print reading experience and allowed for longer battery life. An e-reader could store hundreds of books and run for hours on a single charge, all without use of a computer. Paired with the vast book, newspaper, and magazine content that Amazon had amassed and the ease with which customers could access that content, many predicted that Kindle would forever change the print-media landscape.

Publishers were skeptical. None of the early e-reading devices, CD-ROM book products, or even the recently launched Sony Reader had met with much success. Some publishers, notably Wiley, Random House, and HarperCollins, were already selling ebooks and experimenting with the creation of other types of digital content. However, as consumer adoption remained scant, most publishers had invested little time, resources, or thought into ebook products. Could a $399 device that was meant for reading black-and-white, text-only books really redefine the market?

While this story is now ancient history and we all know how it ends—or rather how it begins—just a little over four years have passed since the moment I stood on that sidewalk holding the device that would revolutionize how we read. In that short time, the business of publishing has changed irrevocably. Ebook sales represented just 1% of major publishers’ revenue in 2008, the year following the Kindle’s launch; by the end of 2011, that number has climbed as high as 20% for the largest trade houses, with some predicting sales up to 80% of revenue for narrative text titles in the coming years.

As publishers, the challenges we face in light of the digital revolution are myriad and touch every aspect of the business, from acquisition, design, and production to marketing and distribution. When Kindle first launched, most of us scrambled to convert books and get them into the marketplace. Our focus over the subsequent two years was mainly on clearing rights, locating and converting files into ebook formats, and working with new vendors to distribute content. However, the business of acquiring, producing, and selling digital content largely remained an afterthought to the production of print.

In 2010, Apple launched the iPad and the iBookstore, ushering in the next major developments: the ability to easily display ebooks in color and a platform for producing book content in new, more interactive formats through the app marketplace. These developments encouraged publishers to convert more visual, nonfiction work into ebook formats and to think about book content outside of its traditional container.

Although the possibilities for producing interactive ebooks and apps are now seemingly endless, resources for most publishers are limited and the market has been slow to keep pace with our enthusiasm for creating these new products. One of our biggest challenges today is deciding where to focus our time and energy as the digital landscape evolves and the consumer’s needs change. At Workman Publishing, we have always made it a priority to produce high-quality book content at retail prices that are friendly to readers. We must now figure out how to remain true to that mission while broadening our scope from creators of books to creators of content in multiple formats. This issue is only exacerbated from an operational perspective by constantly changing file formats and metadata specs, all of which need to be customized to some degree for each vendor.

In an environment of shrinking shelf space, limited customer attention spans, and price wars among major retailers, we must also learn to be a more data-driven, consumer-engaged industry. Publishers have traditionally relied on wholesalers and retailers to set prices and market their products to end users. However, a highly public feud over terms that erupted between Amazon and Macmillan in January 2010 resulted in the eventual migration of all Big Six trade publishers to the agency model, in which the publisher sets the prices on its ebooks rather than the retailer. It was clear that the biggest publishers wanted to control the ebook prices their customers paid in order to prevent product devaluation and to stabilize the market among vendors. It is yet to be seen whether others will also migrate from wholesale to agency. Certainly such a move would necessitate investment in systems allowing publishers to price their books dynamically based on market fluctuations.

In spite of these massive changes and the hurdles we face, there is much that is encouraging about the industry’s shift toward digital. According to a recent study of ebook enthusiasts, 40% said they read more now than they did in print. The proliferation of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads makes it easier than ever for publishers to market their books to the right audience and to keep them engaged. We can bring authors together with readers and readers can share with other readers in ways that have never before been possible. Online discoverability means good books and apps can be easily recommended by satisfied customers. As publishers, therefore, our goals are two-fold: We must continue to produce the best content possible while investing in the digital business in service of content and platforms yet to come.

ANDREA FLECK-NISBET is director of digital publishing at Workman Publishing in New York City.