The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

The e-book Revolution Favours the Agile (But Deep Pockets Help)

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The publishing industry is finally turning toward “mass digitization”, Matthew Shaer reports in The Christian Science Monitor .

But “it’s not the bigger houses, such as Macmillan or HarperCollins, that are moving the fastest” he says. It is agile independent presses — who can make decisions quickly  and are “more open-minded when it comes to distribution and marketing” — that are “making the most extensive restructuring efforts” according to Schaer.

Independent presses are undoubtedly innovating — necessity is the mother of invention after all — and I would really love to believe that they can steal a march on the big publishers in the “e-book revolution”. Unfortunately I just don’t think it’s true. Or, at least, that simple.

Even if you ignore the Schaer’s assertion that the “typical” independent press can make quick decisions “without much internal friction” (in theory yes, in practice I’m not so sure), the ability to adapt is not just about a “fast and light ethos”, it is also about resources. It actually takes a great deal of time and expertise — often in short supply at small presses — to put a digital program in place. And although the cost of creating, marketing, and selling e-books may be low once the infrastructure is there, getting to that point requires a lot investment.

Soft Skull’s ambitious aim to have its entire list available digitally by the end of the year is a huge step for an independent publisher. But the two publishers Schaer specifically identifies as being behind the times are, in fact, already on this track. In November last year, Pan Macmillan made books available for the Stanza e-book reader for iPhones, and they currently offer a large, large number of downloads in different formats from their  web site, as do  HarperCollins .

In fact, ALL of the other major publishers — Random House, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster — offer e-books to download from their web sites in the US. Not that you would know from Schaer’s article.

And HarperCollins has been trailblazing with creative online initiatives in the past year. They set up Authonomy, a community site for writers, and are launching BookArmy, which Victoria Barnsley, chief executive of HarperCollins UK, describes as a “social networking site organised around books and authors.” . They’ve collaborated with if:book London and Apt to create an online, annotated version of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook , and in December they released a charming online video, This Is Where We Live, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their 4th Estate imprint, that quickly went viral.

In April 2008, HarperCollins also acquired The Friday Project — originally set up to find  web based material and turn it into books — as an “incubator for fostering new talent, and finding new markets.”

And let us not forget HarperStudio who may not be offering e-books yet, but have firmly established themselves on online.

Penguin have not been idle either. In December, Penguin US launched Penguin 2.0 to boost their web presence with an iPhone app and other downloads. Penguin in the UK — who sponsored in the recent BookCamp on technology and the future of the book — not only offer over 1,000 e-books on their website, they have an online dating service (no, really), and have created SpineBreakers, a web site with teenage contributors. And there is, of course, the ever-popular Penguin Blog.

The same day as Penguin 2.0 was announced, PW also reported that Random House would be partnering with Stanza and making select titles available for iPhones, and in January, Simon & Schuster relaunched their website with all the whistles-and-bells — such as blogs and author videos (outlined by PW here) — that one would expect from a publisher who knows their audience is online.

Of course none of  these strategies is perfect and the major publishers still have work to do on their e-books programs (there have been complaints about the  pricing in particular), but this is a period of experimentation and, with the best will in the world, it’s simply absurd to suggest, that the big publishers are “dinosaurs” who “think people are just sitting down in leather chairs and reading hardcopy books.”

Independent publishers may have “the most to gain from electronic publishing” as Richard Nash of Soft Skull says, and I genuinely hope that e-books usher in a renaissance of independent publishing. But the big publishers are not blind to the possibilities that technology is opening up and they have the resources to move quickly and boldly, and, in some cases at least, they are doing so. Let’s just give credit where it is due.

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One Comment

  1. Much of the challenge for most smaller/independent publishers are that they’re still dealing with e-books as PDFs, caused partially because of the unified slow response of publishers to form partnerships and the development of technology-related government grants. It’s a big hill to climb when it comes XML/XHTML -based e-books.

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