By Arash Hejazi
Ebooks have complicated the world of book publishers
Many publishers, especially small and independent publishers, are struggling with the concept of e-publishing. People talk about ebooks, epubs and mobis, the search the web to find the best solution that fits their work, they stumble upon a myriad of service providers who convert PDF files into ebooks, or even their old titles for which a PDF files doesn’t exist. Then there is a hype for converting everything into ebooks, and they see the figures reported by large publishers claiming that thousands of copies of an ebook has been sold, and they want that.
They were used to the way they worked. They received the MS Word files from the authors, the editor would edit the book on the Word file and a typesetter would set the book in a page-setting software such as Quark or Indesign. Then they would have the book proof-read, the typesetter would correct the files and apply the final touches such as getting rid of the orphan and widow lines, place the images on the right location, and after the final sign-off, they would export the final proof as a PDF file to the printer. Voilà, a couple of weeks later, they would be asked where to deliver the printed copies.
Of course this is a very simplified story. Even before starting the process, publishers had to make several decisions. How to design the book, what page template fits the specific demands of the book and the market, keep the costs low or produce a luxurious edition. Paperback or hardback? Colour or greyscale? A bespoke template or re-usable template? How to price it? etc.
But now, as if they didn’t have enough troubles with their print production process, now they have to deal with hundreds of other questions, dictated by the ever-growing e-market: ePub or mobi? iBookstore or Kindle or Nook or Sony or… What price? Which service provider? They pick one and after service provider produces epubs and mobis for them and they evantually publish the book and put have a sigh of relief that they have been put on the digital map, they notice the errors and the typos. Hyphens that appear in the middle of the sentence, images that appear in the wrong place, italics that should be bold, bolds that appear regular, math equations that look like a giant billboard, and footnotes that are not easily accessible. What the heck?! What should I do, They ask themselves. Do I now need to go through proofreading each digital file again?
And as if all of this wasn’t enough, after a while they find themselves in another hurdle: Reporting sales and royalties. How do I collate all these sales figures from various outlets and calculate royalties for them? How many ISBNs a book should have?
All this trouble, and at the end the sales of the ebooks are at best 10% of the sales of the print edition.
What has changed?
Well, nothing has changed. Everything has changed.
Why should I produce ebooks as a publisher?
The fact is, the demand for ebooks is growing. People love new gadgets, and e-readers, tablets and smartphones, combined with the WiFi and 3G and 4G technologies make life easier — of course not for publishers and content providers. If a publisher ignores the demand, s/he is ignoring the ABC of product development and management.
If publishers are considering to have a presence on the digital map, first they need to know the ‘Why’, and only then they can think about the ‘How’ and the ‘Where’.
The why is not that complicated. New reading habits are emmerging. Twenty years ago the publishers were facing a similar question that today may seem a naïve question to ask: ‘Why do I need to have a website?’
People are on the move and print books are heavy. A new generation of readers is emmerging that is more used to touch-screens than to paper, to have everything in one place rather than having to sort things on their bookshelves, to get the information immediately rather than waiting for the information to be delivered, to fill up every spare second of life with a gadget. A generation that takes the concept of hyperlinks and hypertext for granted. A generation that wants everything, wants it cheap, and wants in now. This generation doesn’t go to brick-and-mortar bookstores for pleasure, to browse through the bookshelfs and find a treasure there. Hence the decline of high-street bookstores. It’s sad, but if these bookstores do not change their function to provide added value to their products, they are going to become obsolete. The same way that if publishers do not appreciate and embrace the demands and needs of the new generation, they will run out of things to do.
No one is saying that print books are dying. They are going to be around for a long long time. But not in a similar function. Print books are going to serve functions that cannot be readily reproduced in ebooks. You cannot create the same high-resolution images of artwork in an art book on an epup or mobi file (well, you can, but it’s too impractical that you wouldn’t want to do it). You can’t implement the complex layout of an educational book on an epub (again, you can, but…), hardbacks are going to stay on bookshelves, and whatever you do, you can’t make people ignore the ephemeral nature of ebooks. But mass-market paperbacks and huge reference books are going to in-evitably change their bodies and emmerge in the new digital formats.
We sometimes hear people saying, ‘Nothing will replace the pleasure of reading a nice printed edition of my favourite novel.’ and they are absolutely right. The same way that mass-produced carpets are not going to replace the pleasure and beauty of a hand-woven Persian rug. But you will miss this pleasure only if you have known it. The new generation is not growing up owning a nice bookshelf, or running to the local library to borrow their favourite classic. This doesn’t mean they are reading less than the previous generation. They are actually reading more. They turn to the web for knowledge, and like it or not, the nostalgia is not going to change the way the world behaves and evolves.
Not that the analogy above is actually correct. Ebooks and print editions are not equivalents of cheap carpets and Persian rugs respectively. Ebooks bring significant value to the written word. You can search within an ebook, highlight bits and share them, open links within the text, read several books at the same time, and have all the books you need with you all the time.
So, it’s a no-brainer. Ebooks are here to stay. The ebook is not canibalising the print market, it’s resurrecting the shrinking market of print books in a new incarnation. Most people who are buying ebooks today would never have bought these books in print.
And you, as a publisher, would want to embrace this transformation.
In the next posts we will talk about ‘how’ independent publishers can easily embrace the new publishing platforms and develop a Digital-First strategy.