“YOU AND YOUR FUTURE IN DIGITAL PUBLISHING”
I reviewed a major study about digital printing and the future in July, 2009, and I was curious to see how much of that was valid today. A remarkable amount of it holds true, in fact or short-term prophecy. The two biggest changes: the conversion to digital books has been slower than anticipated, but the emergence of what I call “ancillary publishers” (LSI, CreateSpace, Publit, Lulu, Blurb, Smashwords, Kindle, Scribd, and others) has bloomed brighter and faster…
Since I’ve been asked repeatedly to share these observations on my blog, here they are, unchanged. I address much of it, as appropriate, at my free, monthly newsletter.
If you’re a “small publisher” like me, or will become one, we’re in the same pickle. We produce the kind of product that we grew up with—ink-on-paper bound books. But we can’t not see that traditional structure around us tumbling down: larger publishers closing their doors, newspapers and magazines disappearing, shipping slowing down and costing more, libraries and schools buying less, fewer reviews in fewer publications, distributors squeezing harder and selling less, and so on…
It’s not all bad. It is easier, faster, and over-all less costly to print books now, mostly because of computers and that we can produce affordably smaller runs. And if our books are niche-sold, we can control our near-term destiny by pre-testing to see if our book will sell before we even write and publish. But if our books are general (mostly bookstore sold, with some library sales) or are for children, our fate is less controllable. And then there are all those digital products threatening to turn it all upside down!
Is digital publishing the salvation? I was eager to read the 148-page first-rate report by Steve Paxhia and Bill Tripp called “Digital Platforms and Technologies for Publishers: Implementation Beyond ‘eBook’” sponsored by Follett Digital Resources (serving the educational field).
I’m going to share the key points the report made that directly affect us right now. That will make this newsletter longer than I’m told you will read, but I’ll take my chances. The last paragraphs are the report’s main conclusions, if you can’t wait.
Some quick notes first. Consider each section self-contained and to be reflected upon by itself. And know that the writing style jumps around a lot, since I pluck the key words from different authors giving different lessons. Still, they have a lot to say…
The authors and I had very different concerns. They talked about digital books and technology, workflow implications, editorial and business models, channel relationships, partners, and the role of search engines They were sharing best practices and lessons learned from the megahouses (like McGraw-Hill and Random House) and mostly talking about content development processes and the larger firms using it (or hiring other firms to implement it). Important stuff but fat chance that much of it will intentionally find its way to my two-man publishing stand!
My questions were: (1) since my books have a digital core but are mostly sold on bound paper, how can I use basic manuscript information digitally (as is or restructured) so I can sell (and sell again) its unique concepts (and artwork) more widely and for greater profit? (2) where are digital products (now spin-offs) going in the near future, how can I get aboard, and when will it be profitable? (3) what new digital skills must I learn?, and (4) what new mindset is required to jump from print to digital? In reading what the industry leaders are sharing with each other, I feel like a guerilla fighter reading future battle plans while I’m sneaking a peek behind the lines. We are using different weapons. They have digital cannons; I have a 22.
What can I learn from them?
And what can I share with you in summary form that I’d like to know if someone else had a chance to read those battle plans? Here it is.
* Digital publishing is suddenly coming of age after a very disappointing start. Digital sales percentages were about 10% of the total book sales in 2008.
* All the writers saw its future as moderately to alarmingly positive. It won’t replace ink-on-paper publishing, but it’s where most of the substantive increases in the industry will take place. You can’t ignore it either. Your future readers are Internet babies, digitally-trained.
* The digital market will accelerate about as quickly as the reading platforms (the dedicated devices like Kindle and the Sony Reader and the mobile devices like the iPhone, iPod, and the Blackberry) are accepted and improved.
* The number of titles in digital form will also substantially increase once the Google settlement has finally been approved by the courts.
* A parallel advance has particularly improved the small publisher’s flexibility in reaching tight niche markets quickly and inexpensively in print. The two changes that have revolutionized publishing in general are print-on-demand and short-run printing.
* David Taylor from Lightning Source provided a good set of definitions. “POD means that a book is sold before it is manufactured and that each copy is manufactured especially for a specific customer. Short-term printing involves using new, more efficient processes and printing technology to economically produce a smaller number of copies than would have been possible with traditional long-run printing processes.”
* Small publishers need to fully understand POD. Since POD copies cost more per unit than offset printing, it only makes sense to consider going there when you want to print less than 1,000 or so copies. (The key advantages of POD? Less money spent for smaller runs, less shipping, and reduced inventory obsolescence.) At Lightning Source, their Espresso machine can print 100 pages a minute at the cost of a penny per page. Taylor sees the Espresso as serving bookstores and libraries worldwide, with distribution centers in remote countries. A customer will go the counter, buy a book, and walk away with it, just printed and bound in a four-color cover, a few minutes later.
* How will PODs particularly help us? Rather than bulk printing again, the one-time copies will keep a book alive longer at the end of its normal lifecycle. In fact, now many more books are simply starting out as PODs, particularly to very limited audiences. It also lets us escape the warehousing and physical distribution business—and invest that money elsewhere. It will also let customers select and print out key selections from their eBooks. What I like best, its digital asset management capacity will give us full digital capacity without having to create the infrastructure. For example, it will make our printed books, eBooks, excerpts, even our widgets, instantly usable on mobile phones.
* The lower costs of digital products (and their downloadable immediacy without shipping) will increase their buyability (and still make profits and reasonable royalties possible).
* The biggest benefit of digital publishing is its ability to keep its viewers/readers informed at the very moment that change occurs. Not only, for example, can the medical field learn of life-changing procedure or research as it is reported in real time, they will be able to see both the history and the projected future of that subject in text or three-dimensional, active video, all at one sitting.
* By extension, digital components to a printed base can keep the “locked” text alive by directing the reader to credible and appropriate websites and news sources.
* Consider the flip: the book first appears digitally, is expanded as needed by add-ons in multiple media, is kept current by links—and, when the reader wants, is “frozen” by that reader at a chosen moment, with that configuration reproduced and downloaded or mailed by print-on-demand.
* Our biggest challenge is “tapping into the many competent and sophisticated channel partners to help us distribute new and mature products to consumers and institutions worldwide.”
* The term “cross-media strategies” was used repeatedly throughout the report. No longer are the publishers bound to the words and static illustrations or charts initially captured on paper. Digital formats combine the immediacy of word definition linkage, color, sound, conversation between the reader and writer, cross-text references (with the other media also involved), and reader response (like opinion surveys, with to-the-second tallies).
* Cross media usually refers to where print is linked to digital to reach the widest possible audience of readers. Whether the content uses XML and a content repository or is pieced together on the fly, print delivery will be composed on the press as we know it, print-on-demand, or self-printed while digital delivery can occur via email, RSS feeds, podcasts, DVDs, and so on. The future sees much of the same base content being provided by more appropriate means. Rosenblatt’s example of a higher education product has the customized narrative content delivered as a printed book, problem-solving help and sophisticated solutions coming through a computer, and iPhones used to ask for help or to take sample tests.
* How might we publish our work once we have digital in place? As interactive hardcover, trade paperback, or mass market paperbacks; audio; electronic; digital; eBooks, websites; video; real-time updates, video interviews with authors, in large-print format, …
* Concerning portability, the report suggests that each of the various reading devices seem to work best with different formats: long-form reading and novels are best on Kindle, mobile devices work best for short selections of books or short-form content, and computers work best for educational content (so students can carry all their textbooks on their laptop).
* It’s easy enough to convert a Microsoft manuscript into an attractive digital book cheaply and quickly that costs very little to manufacture and distribute. Prices will drop (and more items will be bought) when the distribution and royalty models are changed. They say to look at licensing and subscription models for even more cost savings.
* Will copyright on all of these new platforms be a problem? Just remember the key points: Buyers can’t copy and distribute information found in a book, but they do acquire a perpetual license to use the book and then sell it to another reader. That doesn’t change on the formats. Incidentally, used book sales have almost no effect on other publishing sales except in higher education, where they can cause an increase in the cost of new books.
* One theme appears repeatedly in the report that we small publishers must embrace. Says Brook, “develop a product roadmap before specifying individual product offerings.” Or mindmap your book idea before you dig into the research. Richard Ferrie says it again, “think through and plan a new product for multi-channel development,” and he adds, “while keeping the traditional book people in the lead.” I read: if we are print publishers, don’t throw that away in some digital mania. Build out from what works—but plan all the formats before anything else.
* The new paradigm in publishing is taking place way above us. It is defined in the report as WCM (web content management), DAM (digital asset management), XML, and PFD (which in small publishing we now mostly use for print workflow, print on demand, and digital distribution, including eBooks). The technology is strategically important for the bigger houses; it allows them to get control over their digital strategies and assets.
* XML provides a way to develop multiple products from a single content base. How does that reach the small publisher, and is it ever going to be applicable to us? In the meantime, how does the unique content of the small house products get protected and acceptably absorbed by larger firms for mutual benefit?
* Some business models discussed in the report: (1) outright sale of a digital product. Buyers starting to expect to pay less for digital content products; (2) hybrid print and digital (at Amazon now, digital costs less, about $10—they see this flipping, with book (POD) offered at cost, $5-10, (3) subscription. They see popular nonfiction books will offer enhanced services, readers become subscribers to continual updates, newsletters, communities…, (4) modules, see Cengage’s iChapters, where breakeven is at 8-10 iChapters; chapters could be worth $1 sold individually to hundreds each for content license; (5) licenses (institutional), courses priced per student enrolled, would cover upgrades and updates—would let user make liberal modifications to customize the contents; (6) individual licenses, sold by the publisher to the person or through bookstores or e-tailers; (7) sponsored or ad sponsored—GoogleBookSearch offers 30% to the publisher of web ad revenue, where ads appear in book, ad inserts, sponsored websites, or update services linked to book, and (8) free. Here, it’s promotional; authors give books to show their expertise, thus sell consulting or speaking (see Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson.)
* In education, Ferrie sees “lower-cost, higher-function handheld devices could become a game changer.” That would replace the bag of books, but it would only happen “where all students, even the neediest, could be provided with such devises, perhaps through state or federal funding.” He sees it starting in the upper grades and working down, with different devices at different levels.
* Pay attention to iChapters and eChapters, which allows price conscious students to buy parts of eBooks. Ken Brooks sees more digital products in higher education, more modularity, and more learning products developed from scratch by a new generation of web-centric authors to take full advantage of digital platforms. Some students will still want print products (likely customized by their instructors), and they will combine personal computers, dedicated readers, and mobile devices. Audio and video will be part of the mix. Why limit our minds to higher education here?
* In the same vein, if your publication is used by students or teachers, investigate how your digital editions can be sold by chapters or sections, and how the bookstore can be compensated for its role in aggregating adoption information and transmitting to you and to the students. Consider selling licenses directly to students. Or how the college store might merchandize optional study materials, perhaps by producing customized printed materials via print-on-demand.
* If you publish books that educators might consider for class adoption, replace the old “free printed copy” with a “free digital download copy” ASAP. And link the cover letter, at least, to ancillary components at the support website. (We’ve done it for the past year and it’s worked great. Just gently remind the instructors of the copyright restrictions.)
* You don’t want the confusion, risk, or hassle of publishing at all? Rather, just speak or create other products instead? Then check lulu.com, where they will print your book or photo creation plus provide some solid social networking. You get total control (sort of, within Lulu’s formats), and 80% of the revenue (after book costs are paid). It has a solid on-line sales and distribution structure. If you’re not going to do your own book, for lots of your needs Lulu is quicker, cheaper, less risky, and more efficient than standard publishing. The biggest feather? Regular publishers are using Lulu to keep a book alive after the regular print copies run out. (An alternative: POD backlist copies.)
* Only now! If your reader wants your words in daily 5-minute-or-less installments (like learning a different language, business guides, or test prep), see DailyLit.com or look at the 50 free Wikipedia tours. Works best on mobile devices (or email or RSS feeds): “quick-read” installments. A thousand titles already.
* Jim Lichtenberg (Lightspeed) captures the publishing future best when he sees it heading towards a service model. The model we have known is uni-directional. The customer could only buy a specific product at a set price—printed words on a page. Then came digital: multi-directional. Here, the author and publisher can expand into a range of products, and plan it all in advance, including a direct relationship with the customers at each step, particularly in what is needed, how, and in which order. Each component of the product has its own manufacturing and distribution model, plus its own channel (selling) strategy—the order can be fulfilled by the publisher, distributor, retailer, or e-tailer. The author’s personal voice can be added to the boo k through blogs, podcasts, and reader communities. Lichtenberg says “that listening to readers, not just bookstores, is the first key to transitioning to a service mentality. This allows publishers to concentrate on their core competency of developing outstanding content rather than designing beautiful books.”
* I like the SharedBook’s idea of letting readers dip into a digital pot of content and artwork and add their own comments to create their own book, be seen on the web, downloaded as .pdfs, or just printed out. I see a dozen applications but you’ll have to check their website to see if it would work for you, if it will justify its cost, and if you could affordably sell the result in volume.
* One Gilbane conclusion says that “publishers must remember that their mission is not to create books, per se, but instead to develop content products that satisfy the needs of their customers. Print publishing will continue to be a vital business.” Whew.
* I’ve left out about half of the material concerning textbook publishers—not many survivors there are “small publishers.” If that’s your field, Follett wants to know you anyway. Ask for this report because much of it addresses your needs and your future. The most compelling arguments sit in the digital textbook area.
* Many publishers now offer a “digital” version of their book that is usually nothing more than the same text slightly modified, saved in .pdf, and downloaded. Gilbane says they “need to find ways to make digital editions richer than printed books.” With fiction, for example, “perhaps audio with authors reading selected passages, or video clips could be added.”
* It’s a huge pain to sell bound books one at a time; it’s more profitable (though hardly painless) to work through distributors and retailers. But it’s infinitely easier to directly sell digital books individually. There is no warehousing and since they can be immediately downloaded, there are no costs of shipping and handling either. The problem is getting buyers to buy digital and to be aware that the digital editions even exist.
* “All content is now digital” says Ingram Digital’s Frank Daniels III. Check Ingram’s Lightning Source for quick and reliable transition to the digital world. I have used them for years to produce print-on-demand large print spin-offs and to make our digital book copies more widely available. Their conversion process from .pdf is very easy to use, but their website software to get there is a groaner.
* “Until recently, the sales of eBooks have been extremely disappointing, mostly because of the lack of a suitable platform, weak publisher commitment, minimal consumer demand, and affection for (ink-on-paper) books. But that has changed in 2008 over 2007, with a growth of 68%.
* Why are eBooks growing now? Readers like the new eBook platforms: Kindle, Sony Reader, and Apple’s iPhone and iPod. Plus, the increased availability of titles for each of these platforms.
* There is a need for new products that aren’t simply repurposed print items. In short, a digital-first publishing strategy, rather than looking at markets through the primary lens of a book. Fortunately, digital production costs are low. But strongly consider as you create your digital-first plan that you seek (or even develop) websites that serve those who have interests and topics similar to the kinds of products you want to publish so you can identify and address them in your products. Your shift must come from not looking at digital products as derivative items delivered on gadgets, rather to publishing on the coming readers’ favorite media platforms—including the traditional book.
* With the Internet, people’s reading habits worldwide have changed. They actually read more, but less in traditional media, like books. The difference? Digital platforms. They are reading topics that are more personal than general, and spending less time to do it.
* We aren’t responsible for preserving printed books as the dominant media format, rather to serve readers by providing them with compelling content that is entertaining and/or informative. We should offer content on as many popular formats as are practical and profitable.
* It is much more efficient to plan the full suite of intended products at the beginning of the authoring and publishing process instead of retrofitting them after a book is published. Every platform has unique characteristics that should be considered during the product planning process. The best content products are those optimized for each media platform.
* Pay particular attention to what Lulu.com and Safari Online are doing, with their authoring and publishing platforms that are in line with the current Media 2.0 principles. See how that fits into what you are planning to do in the next few years.
* Answer a simple question with a book, then let the reader digitally roam (with your help) on an interest-piqued quest. That’s one way to begin a suite of “living book” products plus build a reader-led following from which you can build your empire.
* Consider making the digital form (with full multimedia richness) your lead product, with a print-on-demand book available on request. Few upfront costs, no expensive print runs, and you can expand as interest dictates.
* “The biggest challenge is to change the planning processes from being book focused to being customer focused. By thinking about how customers can benefit from content delivered in various media formats, publishers will be well positioned to benefit from customer preferences and reading behaviors to garner a greater share of the expanding reading marketplace.”