The electronic medium has become a fact of life. Even print publishers today have websites to promote new titles, provide information on authors, detail submission guidelines. The format in which the product is offered is the only difference between epublishers and the traditional publishers. More and more, however, these lines have become blurred. ePublishers offer print-on-demand paperbacks, which they consider an extension of electronic publishing. Increasingly, print publishers offer consumers new and older titles in e-formats. Contrary to epublishers, however, the profit is not passed on to the authors.
ePublishing then and now
The Internet has been a boon and a curse for epublishers. The Internet is what allowed them to exist, but it allowed for a lot of mediocre –and, in many cases, just plain awful—material to be disseminated and offered. Anyone could now have a website and sell his or her own stories. No revisions, no editing, no selection. Because of the latter, the print publishing world saw itself as doing a better job: the awful and the mediocre never went further than the slush pile.
The problem was, many good manuscripts also never left the slush pile, whether a publisher’s or an agent’s.
In the past ten years a number of people with varying levels of expertise in the publishing process decided to widen the range of possibilities for writers. They began putting together virtual publishing houses. The product was electronic, the store was an Internet site, and the staff (mostly volunteers with hopes of a potential cut of the profits) scattered across the world. They communicated through email, both with each other and with their authors. This is still the case today. For instance, the President of Zumaya Publications lives in Vancouver; the editor-in chief and co-owner lives in Texas, and one of their cover artist in Tasmania. Their authors come from all corners of the globe.
It takes little initial output to start an epublishing business. Most epublishers buy Adobe Acrobat (for .pdf files), then either download or buy the plug-ins for other formats. Some ebook making software is also free. Laura Adlam, publisher of LTDBooks, has all the conversions to different eformats done by a third party. “I have someone who does all our conversions reasonably priced,” she says, “so it does not seem to warrant the purchase of several creation software programs.”
When asked how much staff one needs to start up, Tina Haveman, President of Zumaya Publications, says that it “depends on how much knowledge you have about the publishing industry yourself and the ability to format and convert books to ebooks. You need at least a competent editor and an artist on board to start with. If you can't do the conversions and formatting yourself, you need another person to do those. And of course you need to have a slight knowledge of accounting.” As for hardware, “…a good computer, CD burner, DSL server, Firewall/virus protection, and a fax” are essential.
Because the outlay is minimal, epublishers decided from the beginning to pass on a bigger share of the profits to the authors. Typically, royalties amounted to 45-50% of the sale profits. On the other hand, ebooks were priced a lot lower than hardcover books, an average of six to seven dollars US. In addition, there was a concerted effort across the board to be transparent with contractual arrangements. Most epublishers posted their contracts on their website.
Unpublished authors flocked to epublishing. In an article written by Moira Allen in June 2000 for the now defunct Inskpot ezine, she indicated that, for instance, Hardshell Word Factory had received 1,200 submissions in 1998. In an article for Inkspot on the epublishing industry in 2000, Karen Weisner reported an increase in numbers of submissions: Hardshell received 125 submissions a month, Awe-Struck over 800 queries a month, Wordbeams, 100 a month, and Diskus Publishing, 200 to 300. Dead End Street, one of the few literary epublisher, received 100 to 200 subs a month. Most of the epublishers accepted between 5 and 20 percent of the submitted manuscripts.
Over the years, epublishing was forced to evolve. Most epublishers now have paid staff: editors, copyeditors, cover artists, webmasters. Many aspects have remained true of epublishers, however. Royalties still hover in the 40% range and the relationship between publisher and author is much closer. Most are genre publishers, and they are diversified instead of sticking to one genre. Mixed genres has also become a trademark of epublishing. “It is also a home for those great stories that fall between the cracks with NY publishers for various reasons,” says Mary Wolf of Hard Shell Word Factory, in Moira Allen’s Inkspot article. “We are free to push the envelope, resulting in fresh new voices.”
With the advent of epublishing, many more books were now available to the public at reasonable prices, and readers began to catch on. The large print publishers saw their share of profits potentially diminish. This is in part why they have hopped on the epublishing wagon, after being its most vocal detractors for years. Baen, Tor, St-Martin’s Press, Signet, Bantam, and Ballantine are but a few who have had some of their authors’ books converted to ebooks. They also now publish most of their current titles in both print and electronic formats, and the additional cost of doing so is minimal. They are not, however, passing on the profits to the authors, since authors’ contracts usually include a clause for rights to any “new” technology appearing in the future. The lack of cooperation from the print publishers on this issue has angered the National Writers’ Union. In a 2001 communiqué, they argue that electronic rights should be negotiated separately from print rights and that the “…union recommends negotiating for a [royalty] rate as close as possible to 50% of list or retail.”
It has long been believed that that it is easier to get published electronically than in print. This may no longer be true . The volume of submissions is still more than epublishers can cope with. A brief survey of 15 epublishers indicated that eleven of them are closed for submission, including three of the Canadian epublishers.
One of the problems epublishers have is distribution of their product. The print business has a well established process that gets the books into the stores. If epublishers use only their own website to sell their books, they are not getting the worldwide exposure the Internet allows.
Enter the etailers. They are the virtual equivalent of a bookstore. Some, like Palm Digital Media or Mobipocket.com offer only one format. Others, like Amazon.com, Fictionwise.com, or eBookAd.com, offer ebooks in multiple format. In all cases, however, the etailers’ charges are hefty. In general, the epublishers must give the etailer a 55% discount. Royalties are usually paid on the discounted price. ePublishers must therefore weigh exposure against profit.
Another form of etailer, calling itself a “Digital Content Marketplace”, is Content Reserve. Overdrive, its operator, has assembled “digital inventory from the leading eBook and digital book producers in the world and is building a global network of resellers.” ePublishers can upload and manage their inventory on the Content Reserve server. Content Reserve can then distribute this content to libraries and ebookstores. To date, they have content from 538 publishers, including Random House, Simon and Schuster, and McGraw Hill. The ebooks come from 57 countries in 19 languages. Ninety-seven libraries are now using Content Reserve as a source of e-products for their electronic lending contents.
In another forward move, Franklin Electronic Publishers has joined with Mobipocket to establish eBookBase, an ebook distribution service for mobile devices. With eBookBase, now that personal digital assistants (PDAs) and smartphone services are more and more combined, the consumer will be able to browse through an ebookstore, select a book, download it, and pay for it – all through etail storefronts. Already these estores are on trial in US and Japanese airports. On 11 November 2003, Overdrive and Mobipocket announced the addition of 10,000 titles for smartphones and PDAs.
These moves may appear more optimistic than realistic, but it is obvious that the medium is gaining popularity. In a recent article on Open eBook Forum, John Roderick published the results of his research on e-publishing sales in 2003. He predicts that sales will exceed $10 million, a forty percent growth over 2002. This “compares to an annual growth of 5% in traditional print publishing.” Simon and Schuster, for instance, show double digit growth in their ePublishing section. Libraries, schools, and consumers are getting into the medium at a faster rate every year. Fictionwise.com, one of the large eTailers, expect to rake in a million dollars in ebook sales in 2003. Roderick further reports that over 660,000 ebooks were sold in the first half of 2003 by etailers, with 280,590 available titles and nearly $5 million in revenue. Over 620,000 ebooks were sold directly by publishers with over 3,000 titles published in the first half of the year and revenues of nearly $4 million.
Clearly, epublishing is coming of age, and is here to stay. Even its most violent opponents now see ebooks as an alternate format rather than one that will supplant print books. Like small press print publishers, independent epublishers are also here to stay. The major difference is that publishing has now gone global.