The Shatzkin Files

What smaller publishers, agents, and authors need to know about ebook publishing

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As the shift from a print-centric book world to a digital one accelerates, more and more digital publishers are creating themselves.

The biggest publishers, with the resources of sophisticated IT departments to guide them, have been in the game for years now and paying serious attention since the Kindle was launched by Amazon late in 2007. But as the market has grown, so has the ecosystem. And while three years ago it was possible to reach the lion’s share of the ebook market through one retailer, Amazon, on a device that really could only handle books of straight narrative text, we now have a dizzying array of options to reach the consumer on a variety of devices and with product packages that are as complicated as you want to make them.

Free or very inexpensive service offerings through web interfaces suggest to every publisher of any size, every literary agent, and every aspiring author “you can do this” and, the implication is, “effectively and without too much help”. Indeed, services like Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) service, Barnes & Noble’s PubIt!, and service providers Smashwords and BookBaby, offer the possibility of creating an ebook from your document and distributing it through most ebook retailers, enabled for almost all devices, for almost no cash commitment.

Is it really that simple? One suspects not, since literary agencies are creating ebook publishers (for example: The Scott Waxman Agency’s Diversion) and baskets of services (for example: The Knight Agency in Atlanta) and consulting to help their authors. And a bit further upstream, ebook distribution companies (for example: MintRight) and ebook-first publishers (for examples: Open RoadRosetta, and the granddaddy of them all, Richard Curtis’s e-Reads) are creating more alternatives, sometimes propositions explicitly addressed to the agents. If publishing ebooks to all channels were really a simple matter of uploading a file, it would hardly seem necessary to build all this infrastructure.

We know that small publishers, literary agents, and authors are becoming publishers at an astounding rate. Two years ago when I was trying to organize a panel of literary agents to talk about working with authors on a charge-for-services basis instead of a share-the-royalties basis, it was hard to get volunteers to discuss new models. Two weeks ago, a major agent outside New York said to me, “we all have to think about it now; we have no choice.”

In short, it isn’t just the big publishers who are compelled to develop a digital strategy to adjust their businesses to changing times. Their smaller competitors, the agents they depend on to deliver their content, and even the authors that have always just depended on the publishers to handle the business of getting a book from a manuscript to a purchase, are all assessing the new landscape. They are considering what new approaches might reduce or eliminate their need for a publisher, or at least reduce the publisher’s share of the take.

Although the correct strategy for any entity would depend on the factors that prevail in each case, there are things it would seem that everybody entering this arena needs to know and understand.

First of all, what are all the things publishers do to get from manuscript to sale, are all the steps necessary, and what do they cost? Developmental editing, copy-editing, mark-up for design, creating metadata: these are all things publishers do routinely. Are they critical for every book? Would a purchaser-reader notice if a publishing newbie left any of them out? Will the services that promise to make and distribute an ebook without a cash investment do these things well?

The ebooks themselves have gotten increasingly complicated. The ebook standard epub (used for just about every ebook not intended for the Kindle ecosystem) has risen to the challenge posed by apps to be able to accommodate color and video and audio and software elements. Everybody who knows that “you get what you pay for” expects complicated ebooks to take more effort and money to create than ebooks of straight narrative text. But what constitutes “complex”? And how much more money does that additional effort cost the publisher that wants to deliver an ebook more complicated than just simple text?

Marketing ebooks also requires a whole new set of knowledge and skills. The key to all ebook marketing is the accompanying metadata: coding that travels along with the file specifying its core bibliographic information and price, but which can also tell a retailer or a search engine much more than that. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art of delivering metadata that makes the book more likely to be found in response to various searches and queries; that’s yet another set of understandings new ebook publishers have to acquire.

That is just the beginning of what is possible (and therefore necessary) in ebook marketing. Sample chapters can be given away. Web sites can be invoked as partners.

And authors and publishers can, and therefore must, engage in “social network marketing”: using Twitter and Facebook and commenting in high-profile streams to catch attention and gain credibility with core audiences for the books. This is more knowledge to acquire.

Any new publisher will need to understand the paths to market. Yes, Amazon gets more than half of the US ebook sales and Barnes & Noble gets half of the rest. But it isn’t that way on every book, ignoring the others leaves a big chunk of the market unexploited, and things are changing quickly. Amazon’s market share has dropped by a huge percentage in the past two years.) OverDrive is the primary path to libraries. Ingram aggregates many independent stores. Baker & Taylor is opening up markets among mass merchants. Kobo is as important in Canada as B&N is in the US and works in markets all over the world. Google has the ebook ecosystem making the most serious penetration of independent book retailers. Sony is about to introduce new devices that could increase their importance. And Apple is doing its best to dominate sales to its own device holders, who constitute a large wedge of the ebook customer pie.

One can go to all of these channels directly but there are also a slew of services to handle what is the increasingly complex job of delivering to and administering the multiple channels. Perseus Constellation, Ingram Digital, INscribe DigitalLibreDigital (just bought by Donnelley), and Bookmasters as well as the automated services like Smashwords, BookBaby, and MintRight we mentioned above, and others offer service packages to do that and to help with the creation and marketing needs as well.

As we said at the top, nowhere is the change in publishing greater than in the agent community. What has been a stable business model for generations is now, suddenly, changing. There seem to be as many new models and approaches as there are literary agencies. That adds another thing that all of the fledging epublishers — some of which are agents, others being small publishers and authors — need to know about and understand. The relationships among authors, agents, and publishers are getting much more complicated and everybody needs to spend some time thinking that through and discussing what it means.

If all this strikes you as a set of topics worthy of a day’s discussion, we’re in agreement. We think it is too. And that’s why our new Publishers Launch Conferences partnership with Michael Cader is delivering a day-long event called “eBooks for Everyone Else” in New York (in conjunction with The Center for Publishing at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies) on Monday, September 26 and in San Francisco (co-located with F+W Media’s new StoryWorld conference) on Wednesday, November 2.

Not only do we have an expert-packed lineup to deliver the information, we’ve carved out time for our attendees to get their own specific questions answered by the experts and by the providers of many of the services that are part of the new ecosystem. If the business of ebook publishing is part of your future strategy, you’re bound to get the knowledge and make the connections you need at eBooks for Everyone Else.

Among the leading service providers who will participate in eBooks for Everyone Else in New York and be available for “speed-dating” conversations with attendees are our global sponsors Copyright Clearance Center, Constellation, and Bowker, as well as supporting sponsors Ingram Content Group, INscribe Digital, B&N’s PubIt!, Kobo, and BookBaby. (Kobo and PubIt! will be speaking from the main stage as well.)

Our New York show features an all-star lineup of literary agents including Jane Dystel, Robert Gottlieb, Sloan Harris, and Scott Waxman. We have a distinguished group of publishing veterans — including Jack Perry and David Wilk, Smashwords founder Mark Coker, Renee Register, Iris Blasi, Rich Fahle, Ron Martinez, and Joshua Tallent — who will present advice and insight to help you develop a comprehensive ebook strategy. Most of them will be available at the breaks and alongside the speed-dating sessions to lead small group discussions and answer your questions about creating, marketing, and distributing your ebooks. (The San Francisco roster is slightly different, but just as powerful.)

Michael Cader and I will be moderating all the day’s activities, asking questions, and helping to put an enormous volume of facts into a strategic context for an audience with a staggering array of choices as to how to proceed with ebook publishing.

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  • Chris

    “Amazon’s market share has dropped by a huge percentage in the past two years.”

    I wonder if this will change again once their $250 7-inch colour tablet hits market in a few months. Not to mention the 10-inch next year?

    • Well, it sure isn’t going to do them any harm. But there are also reasons to expect continuing fragmentation of the market too. Apple is perhaps, in the words of Silican Valley investor Roger McNamee, on its way to getting an “iPod sized share” (rather than an “iPhone sized share”) of the tablet market. Tablets are replacing laptops for many people. So Apple’s position strengthens. We’ll have to see how Nook and Kobo respond in terms of ereader pricing. My notion has been that monochrome ereaders have a place if they are less than half the price and less than half the weight of tablets. Sub-$100 readers might also keep the market diverse (although, of course, Amazon’s original Kindle will be there too.)

      In any case, we have a marketplace today where there are definite segments which you must use other players to fully access.

      But Amazon is definitely still king of the hill and leveraging their advantages extremely well.


  • Paul Salvette

    Once EPUB3 becomes commonplace, there will be a lot of eBooks with video and audio goodies. Even though it will become more complicated, I think self-published and eBooks published by large companies will exist side by side (just like websites).

    • So far, the video and audio goodies are nowhere near paying their way. In some form or another, making it cheaper and easier must increase the amount of it. But I’m one who believes that for a very long time — let’s say the next 10 years at least — ebooks that are “used” simply to be *read* (no matter how much other “stuff” people try to put into them) will outsell books with all kinds of bells and whistles by an ovewhelming number: 10 to 1 or more. It’s probably 10,000 to 1 now or maybe more.

      From a commercial perspective, the bells and whistles are highly experimental territory meant for learning, not for making money. In trade.

    • I’ve yet to find a multimedia publication that’s engaged me as much as a good read, a film or a TV programme. The problem is non-linearity. A good story draw you into its own world: to jump out to watch a video or listen to an audio clip brings you out of that world.  And to be faced with menu options really breaks the spell – imagine if, at the start of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, Charles Dickens had written:

      1) It was the best of times, 
      2) it was the worst of times,
      3) it was the age of wisdom, 
      4) it was the age of foolishness, 
      5) it was the epoch of belief, 
      6) it was the epoch of incredulity, 
      7) it was the season of Light, 
      8) it was the season of Darkness, 
      9) it was the spring of hope, 
      10) it was the winter of despair

      Click on an option.

      • Noel, I know circles where people would read your suggestion and say “wow! let’s do that.” I agree with you; it’s ridiculous.


  • Anonymous

    I am glad that it turned out so well and I hope it will continue in the
    future because it is so worthwhile and meaningful to the community.
    eBooks with Resell Rights

  • Sofie Bird

    So many fascinating talks, conventions and discussions going on – but I’m finding it increasingly humorous (and frustrating*) that we’re discussing the possibilities global distribution of a non-physical medium by holding physical conventions that only a handful of people can attend. This is a global occurrence of digital media, why aren’t we using digital media to discuss it globally? Bring on the e-conventions.

    *I live in Australia. We read books, too.

    • Sofie, there really are a lot of webinars that address your concern. But we believe there is still great value in interpersonal contact and face-to-face discussion. I think we’ll eventually graduate to archiving these things so that video streams can come later, but it’s not a trivial cost or effort to do that and it isn’t as effective as the live show.


  • Danbloom Neo-luddite

    Mike, great post and an important one. Came here the UK London booksellers newsletetr link. As someone who never wanted to be involved in ebooks but am now planning a big 2012 rollout of a sci fi book about global warming, I am boning up as best I can on all the book ins and outs I can get my hands on, er eyes on, and what I especially interested in is ebook PR and the new PR strategies for getting ebooks reviewed or paid attention to in the MSM print media. Would love to attend your workship in NYC with Mr Cader but distance prevails for now as I am in Taiwan and ….I don’t fly anymore……

    • If you don’t fly, it would be quite a journey. Sorry we’ll miss you.


  • Mike,  Great info as usual.  Will the presenters at the NY and SF conference be the same?  Will I miss anything essential by attending in SF instead of NY?

    Richard Bard, Author of BRAINRUSH, a Thriller

    • Richard, I gave you the links for both programs in the post. The programs are pretty similar and most of the presenters are the same. I really would suggest to anybody who is interested that they go to whichever is more convenient for them, based on geography and the calendar.



    Some dots not being joined up…  Publishers are meant to publish i.e. produce, market advertise, sell books. Most ‘epublishers’ simply provide a distribution channel and let the suthor arrange the promotion etc, and believe me Tweeting and Facebooking are not efficient ways to reach the market.

    Neither is the SmashWords/Lulu approach – you just end up with a jungle of not-very-good stuff that hides the occasional gem.

    As one of the very many independent authors out there, no publisher or agent is ever going to approach me and say, ‘Hey, your’e writing excellent stuff, let’s make money together’. And i am much too busy to play games trying to talk to them.

    I have to make my own way, and I’m guessing that author co-ops will be one way forward. See as an example  the Yellow Silk Dreams co-op I am hosting at

    • Coops can be a fancy name for what Charlie Chaplin and others did creating United Artists at one level.

      Whether anything — a coop or anything else — will be effective is all about whether it can pull an audience. That requires coherence (of subject, of genre, of SOMETHING); it can’t be “random”.

      You’re right that Smashwords and Lulu are not effective marketing arms. I don’t know as much about Lulu, but Smashwords get you into the real ebookstores that people go to and buy from. Having them buy *you*, of course, is yet another problem.


  • I agree that getting an ebook widely available is somewhat tricky for a technophobe. 
    Still, I suspect that the aggregators will continue to make it easier to the point that only the densest/laziest authors will avoid doing it themselves. 

    Therefore, I believe that what really matters in the future will be marketing. If agents/publishers can bundle marketing in their services, then they’ll live. If not, they’ll suffer.

    • Francis, no doubt that marketing is the big leverage point. But if there are *enough* aggregators (i.e. points of purchase) that matter, then there can be a business helping authors or small publishers get to them. How much of a percentage it will be worth is another question.


  • Bob Mayer

    Interestingly I just got a royalty check from Richard Curtis’s e-reads.  I was with them so long, the 7 year clause ran out and I got all my rights back.  Richard was ahead of the time. Of course, getting $48.13 on books I have the rights to raises some questions, but when I’m selling over 2k a day on PubIt right now, I’m not too concerned.  And PubIt is only 25% of my sales as you note.

    Here’s the part I don’t think a lot of these companies– both large and small– don’t see or don’t do or don’t care about.  We started Who Dares Wins Publishing two years ago.  We did tons of things right and a lot wrong.  We learned by trying a lot of different things whether it be covers, pricing, marketing, social media, even the formatting and lay out of the book– what’s in your front material, what’s in your end material?  We learned about ‘promoting’ via social media which is more about building community and helping others than selling.  But also lots of small details that become big, like merging reviews.

    It’s not a one time thing:  some company does your cover, formats, uploads, presto you’re off and running.  It’s a nonstop process requiring constant updates, changes, re-evaluating what works and what doesn’t.  What I’m seeing is a lot of companies that have the technical and editing expertise to be “e-publishers” but they don’t have the big picture expertise from author to the book on the reader’s device.

    We’re currently putting together a series of workshops for conferences, each 50-60 minutes long about all we’ve learned and it’s a daunting task because so many things keep popping up.

    As far as co-ops go, I’m working on Readers Rule, which we hope to launch by the end of September, where many of those writers who have the stamp of approval from readers in the forms of actual sales numbers are banding together.

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  • Very useful post, Mike, thanks! I was wondering about that string of service-providers: Perseus, Ingram Digital etc… What are the criteria to recognize who’s selling smoke and who’s serious?

    • The big names are all serious and none of them are selling smoke.

      But you ask a good question: what’s the way to choose between them. I think so far I can’t offer much more advice than “relationship” and “personal comfort level”. Since many of these players will be at our conference, I am hoping that various new epublishers with different perspectives will ask the questions about differentiation that will lead to a more satisfying answer.

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  • Mike, really engaging post. First time visitor to blog and spent some time on it this afternoon. There is a wealth of information here!

    Would be really interested in your insights as to what challenges and opportunities social media is creating for the ebook publishing industry and it’s authors. For example do authors that spend time building a social media community do better in sales then those who may not spend as much time on the medium?

    I’ll be back for more!

    Michael Girard
    Community Engagement, Radian6

    • I think there is a general consensus that social engagement is helpful for authors. Nobody really argues to the contrary. But I’m not aware of anybody having quantified it. We’re actually running a conference at which there will be some good people to ask about that. I think our social marketing expert, Iris Blasi of Hilsinger-Mendelson PR, and Michael Tamblyn of Kobo could have some facts to bring to bear. I haven’t encountered any so far.
      Thanks for the kind words. Glad you found your way here.


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  • Karin

    I don’t know if I’m missing something or too naive, but here is the question: why don’t the big publishers (Random House, Hachette, Egmont etc) sell their own e-books on their own website (with integrated DRM or not), so that they don’t need to give away a % of their cover price to Amazon and other distributors? Surely they’d earn much more money this way …

    • Simple answer. They wouldn’t sell nearly as many. Amazon and and the others have the customers. They shop from what’s available to them there. While there are some very major authors for whom SOME of the audience would just go find them on a publisher’s web site, even they would lose a lot of sales.

      JK Rowling is trying your strategy with Pottermore, which will be the only place to get Harry Potter ebooks (apparently.) She’s doing it partly for the extra margin but also in order to be able to sell more and different things to the audience. That makes sense for a cohesive audience like Potter fans. It wouldn’t make sense across a general trade list. But I am sure she would sell more UNITS if she took a conventional approach and a publisher is obliged to his author base to move as many units as possible.