To provide context for the survey results, I included an optional field in the survey where respondents willing to be interviewed for an in-depth case study could provide their contact details. I sorted through these volunteers and selected those whose responses indicated a particularly interesting business situation, then arranged follow-up interviews with them. These case study interviews were conducted by either email or Skype.
Because my case study interviewees were drawn from respondents to the survey, it is possible that an element of bias affected my interviewees twice: once on initial self-selection into the survey, and the second time on self-selection into the volunteers for case study interviews. As a result, I urge readers not to consider these case studies as being representative of the experiences of the ‘average’ small publisher. It certainly seems reasonable to say that my case study interviewees were those with the greatest interest in the outcomes of my research.
Snowbooks is a publishing and publishing services company owned and run by the programmer Emma Barnes. Like many tech companies, Snowbooks emphasises its scrappy beginnings, ‘in a spare room in Hackney in April 2003’, and proudly trumpets the prizes it has won – and hence the cultural capital it has accrued (Snowbooks, 2013; Thompson, 2010). Barnes answered a number of my questions by email (Barnes, 2015a).
For Barnes, ebooks are ‘an integral part of both our production workflow and revenue generation strategies’, and creating them in-house is a financial necessity:
If we sent the work out of house, and spent any money whatsoever on ebook production, it would wipe out our profit. Thankfully we have the skills in-house to create the ebook at the same time as creating the print files. I rail against the notion that ebook production has to be outsourced for many reasons. (Barnes, 2015a).
She notes that Snowbooks has encountered issues far larger than the average small press can solve, such as industry-wide difficulties in providing acceptable ONIX data to retailers. In response, the Bibliocloud team built a tool called ONIX Ninja, designed to improve the quality of ONIX data and eliminate the need to create documents manually for ONIX consumers. They now sell ONIX Ninja access to larger companies, including academic publisher Kogan Page (Bibliocloud, 2015).
Barnes has strong opinions about DRM, emphasising the ease with which DRM can be removed, the difficulties and cost involved in applying it, and the frustration it inspires in consumers, though she believes it’s a ‘dying duck’ increasingly being dropped by large publishers (Barnes, 2015a).
Although much commentary in the trade press focuses on large publishers, Barnes argues that ‘[t]here’s nothing wrong with a company being small, true to its founding principles, with a few happy staff, a lean approach to overheads and a focus on the books.’ (Barnes, 2015b)
Thad McIlroy is a speaker and publishing consultant. He has written or edited a dozen books on digital publishing, most recently The Metadata Handbook and Mobile Strategies for Digital Publishing. I spoke to McIlroy on Skype about his publishing business (2015).
Both The Metadata Handbook and Mobile Strategies for Digital Publishing were published as ebooks. The Metadata Handbook was typeset by a designer who took a traditional approach, creating a print-ready PDF, which was then sent to Aptara for ebook conversion. Because McIlroy and his co-author Renée Register wanted the design to reflect traditional print values, the book was converted into a fixed-layout format EPUB.
Although readers of The Metadata Handbook were offered a choice of PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats, most readers bought the PDF version of the book. This may have been because PDF was the default file format for sale, but when McIlroy emailed buyers to offer them free EPUB and MOBI versions, only one in fifty accepted the offer.
McIlroy believes this is indicative of a broader preference for PDFs among academic and professional audiences. Although trade publishers are unlikely to consider PDFs as a serious ebook format, McIlroy believes the enduring popularity of the PDF format among academic and professional readers stems from their familiarity with it from its use as the medium for most journal articles.
When he published Mobile Strategies for Digital Publishing, McIlroy took a different approach to design, hiring an ebook designer rather than a print designer. Unfortunately, the designer’s approach was ‘too informal’ and not well matched to the challenge posed by the heavily illustrated text, which also needed to be produced in a print version. McIlroy believes that although it is possible to find people with the design skills required to create both print and electronic formats in high quality, these skills are expensive and often beyond the reach of small publishers. Indeed, the production of The Metadata Handbook for ebook format would have cost around $2,000 if Aptara had not donated its services in exchange for promotional considerations.
McIlroy suggests that small publishers should not yet be satisfied with the ebooks they are producing. He argues that the file formats in common use encourage publishers not to spend time producing high-quality books, but that it is relatively easy for a publisher to distinguish itself and make the quality of its books stand out.
McIlroy avoids reading non-fiction titles in ebook format, because he expects that the illustrations and other complex features involved will be handled poorly, and he believes MOBI files are worse offenders than EPUB in this respect. Further, he believes customers are increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of ebooks produced, providing anecdotal evidence of customers claiming to have read ebooks in the past but stopping because of a perception that their prices are high and production quality poor.
Galley Beggar Press is a small independent publisher of literary fiction based in Norwich. It describes itself as ‘an old fashioned publisher for the 21st Century’, and had a notable success in its 2013 title A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press, 2015). I spoke to co-founder Sam Jordison on Skype (Jordison, 2015).
Galley Beggar was founded in 2012 and has two full time employees: the co-founders, Jordison and Eloise Millar. They tested the waters for ebooks with a series of short works and digital classics, treating ebooks as an experimental format with lower upfront costs, lower risk, and a quicker turnaround. Jordison has a personal preference for paper books, and considers the press’s printed books more of a ‘finished product’. The percentage of sales they make in ebook format is lower than that for paperbacks, averaging at around 10–15% of overall revenues.
Initially, Jordison made the ebooks in-house. However, he found the process time-consuming and the formatting difficult, and expresses surprise that there isn’t better ebook production software available. Now that Galley Beggar is a Faber Factory client, they send most books to Factory as PDF files, which are converted into ebooks by an offshore production house then distributed by Faber Factory. Jordison believes it’s a problem that ebooks look ‘so bad’: he believes the experience of reading an ebook could be improved through better control of fonts, text sizing, page breaks, and layout.
Jordison believes ebooks won’t replace printed books but will be used for other purposes, pointing to Faber’s app edition of The Waste Land and Roads Were Not Built For Cars (Reid, 2015) as ebooks that successfully added ‘bells and whistles’ without resorting to gimmickry. However, he believes ebooks like these are significant financial gambles, and counsels other small publishers to focus on using them instead for more experimental publishing, like short stories. He notes that Galley Beggar has developed a small but reliable income stream through subscription programmes, where subscribers spend £30–50 each year and automatically receive print books in the post and ebooks by email.
Jordison has a negative opinion of DRM: he feels it doesn’t stop criminals intent on pirating books, but just annoys everyone else. He doesn’t like the ‘licence-to-use’ model of ebook sales, and the difficulties it places in the way of readers trying to organise their purchases. Jordison believes that the only way to stop piracy is to appeal to readers’ morality, trust them to do the right thing, and make it as easy as possible for them to buy ebooks. Still, he doesn’t anticipate Galley Beggar’s ebook sales increasing beyond the 10-15% range any time soon: he believes that his readers are largely book lovers who prefer the paper product.
Spinifex Press is an independent Australian press founded in 1991 and specialising in feminism and literary fiction. I spoke to the co-founder, Susan Hawthorne, by telephone (Hawthorne, 2015).
Spinifex Press was among the first independent presses in Australia to sell ebooks, releasing its first titles in the mid-2000s. It started selling ebooks after being approached by a company. Because it was a slow publishing year, Susan and her co-founder had time to think about the opportunity. They based their decision to begin selling ebooks on their suspicion that when books started going digital, feminist books would be among the last to be digitised. After Spinifex Press began selling ebooks, Susan attempted to publicise their efforts, but she found that the Australian publishing community was largely disinterested. Over time, this changed, and Susan began participating in industry-organised ebook training sessions for other small presses.
Spinifex Press has worked with a number of outsourcers since it began producing ebooks. Its original partner was an Indian company with offices in Australia and the UK, which Susan found very effective and from whom Spinifex Press learnt much about ebook conversions, including how to deal with poetry and other unusual layouts. Unfortunately, this partner went out of business, so Spinifex Press partnered with an Australian ebook production company which also did some of their typesetting, which Susan was also very happy with. When this second partner also went out of business, Spinifex signed up with Ingram for production as well as distribution, where they remain today.
Susan is currently frustrated by big booksellers, who she feels don’t use metadata nearly as well as they should, frequently mixing up Australian and foreign editions of Spinifex Press’s books. Susan would like to have access to a system for automatically feeding out ONIX data, but none of the options available are affordable to her. Despite her experience in and knowledge of digital publishing, Susan believes it is growing in complexity every year, and feels that every year she knows a little less than the year before.
Susan describes recent years’ ebook sales as a ‘growth spurt’ and believes that although sales growth is slowing, it isn’t stopping altogether. She also believes some of the changes related to ebooks will be generational, and that people now in their teens and twenties will create further growth in the ebook market as they move into middle age – the heaviest book-buying demographic. Susan is also optimistic about the potential for increased ebook sales in emerging markets like India, where Spinifex Press has been selling rights since 1992. Finally, Susan echoes Mike Shatzkin’s optimism about phone reading, pointing out that most ebook readers in Asia and Africa are already using phones rather than tablets or dedicated ereading devices.
Spinifex Press regularly makes 10-20% of its sales in ebook format, much of them in the USA, and between 2009 and 2012 this share occasionally reached 30%, only dropping due to a strengthening in Spinifex’s print sales. Susan attributes this success to Spinifex’s successful long-term partnerships with their overseas distributor, Independent Publishers Group (not to be confused with the UK’s Independent Publishers’ Guild), and their having been present in the ebook market for a long time, giving them time to build brand awareness. In fact, Spinifex has maintained a presence in the US market since 1991, and Susan feels they know the feminist market there as well as anyone. She feels that maintaining Spinifex’s relationship with IPG – they keep in regular contact via email and meet every year at the Frankfurt Book Fair – is an important part of this effort. Susan notes, too, that Spinifex’s nonfiction titles generally ‘hit the mark’ in the USA, and credits this with the pace of social change there putting it ‘three to five years ahead’ of Australia.
‘Publisher X’ is a small independent publisher based in New York. I spoke with ‘Nick’, a digital employee, by Skype (Publisher X, 2015).
Publisher X is a client of a big five publisher’s distribution arm, which produces X’s ebooks on its behalf. Nick told me that although the files he receives are functional, they look ‘the same as they did five years ago’: with standard blue hyperlinks, ‘crowded’ text, and very basic design. He notes that although the files are flexible and can be sent to any retailer, the user experience is much poorer than that offered by new platforms like Oyster [Note: I spoke to Nick before Oyster announced its closure in September 2015].
Nick sees an irony in the fact that although the dispute between Amazon and Hachette is widely considered to have stemmed from Hachette’s efforts to protect the perceived value of ebooks, Hachette and other large publishers are still damaging ebooks’ value in consumers’ eyes by failing to offer high quality design. Still, Nick believes that complaints about poor quality books are a red herring, and that since user experience is mostly dependent on the reading system, it is the reading devices themselves which add value, rather than the publisher.
Nick’s role at Publisher X is to diversify its digital sales, and he points proudly to its ‘brisk’ direct sales business and strong relationship with Oyster and other subscription businesses as evidence of success on this front, although he concedes that ebooks’ share of Publisher X’s revenue is lower than the industry-wide average, dropping from a peak of nearly 25% in 2012 to somewhere between 14–18% today. Like Susan at Spinifex Press, Nick attributes this drop to a strengthening in Publisher X’s print sales.
In Nick’s opinion, DRM is another red herring – frequently discussed in the trade press, but with little relevance for real consumers. He notes that Publisher X’s ebooks are DRM-free, but that only ‘half a dozen’ sales a year are actually contingent on that fact. Nick believes that a resale market for ebooks would be disastrous, but points to the music industry for succour, arguing that since some trends in digital media tend to play out there three to five years before they affect publishers, the absence of a secondary market for digital music suggests that such a market is unlikely to develop for ebooks.
Finally, I asked Nick about the subscription model of ebook distribution. He believes that it will never be a big part of publishers’ revenues, and that the business models often don’t make much sense: for example, Oyster, whose profitability relies on subscribers not using the service, and Scribd, whose business he believes is ‘in freefall’. He also points to the ‘terrible’ terms offered by Kindle Unlimited, which compensates authors and publishers for their participation in the scheme with a share of a pot of money whose size is arbitrarily chosen by Amazon.