I want to try to lay out a strategic approach to enhanced ebooks which I believe is more extensive than any general house has shown an inclination to pursue so far. I thought the clearest way to express this would be as a letter to an author which is, after all, how a strategic approach would have to begin. (For the purposes of this exercise, I’m sidestepping the obvious requirement to address authors through agents. The best approach would be to introduce the idea through a consultative process with agents and authors to bandwagon some advance support, but we’ll ignore that as well for the moment.)
I also want to stress that I’m thinking this through in here from the perspective of the general trade publisher: one not yet focused on niches and one whose brand is not a consumer brand. I don’t expect houses like Wiley, O’Reilly, or Harlequin to see as much of a gap between what is said here and their present practices as those houses that dominate the bestseller lists and have the most high profile authors.
Because I believe in short posts, and this publisher-to-author letter would not be short, I am going to break it into pieces, sort of a Dickensian approach to telling the story but without the frequent introduction of new characters. This first piece explains the overall strategy for a house-wide approach to “enhanced ebooks” by a notional company I’ve called National Trade Publishing. And it tries to make the case to the author to participate in the spirit necessary for the times: the spirit of experimentation.
Dear NTP Author,
As you know, the fastest-growing market for publishers and authors today is in ebooks: electronic files carrying the content that we have always sold in printed form. Although it is growing the fastest, and has been for years, the ebook market still only accounts for about one percent of our sales (and probably, of yours.) But because we believe that these sales could well reach 10% in the next few years and grow even faster after that, and because we believe that ebooks will be adopted first by many of the most important parts of our audience (and yours): reviewers, writers, and other thought leaders, we at National Trade Publishing are initiating new efforts to deliver a more robust ebook program. This presents opportunities for all our authors that I hope you’ll take advantage of.
There are three important things we want all our authors to understand about ebooks:
1. They present the opportunity to deliver additional content and features to consumers with no additional run-on production cost. Traditional printed books cost something additional for every extra page we put into them; ebooks don’t. (This doesn’t mean ebooks add no costs: the enhanced ebooks we want to do will require a little additional effort from authors and some real developmental effort from us. This letter is just the start of us expending real resources to try to make something new happen.)
2. We don’t know anything yet about how ebook pricing will ultimately work or, put another way, how well either authors or publishers will do as ebook unit sales rise. Publishers, ourselves included, have endeavored to keep ebook prices close to print book prices and, for the most part in the consumer book area, to sell individual titles the way we have in print. But we see pressure on the pricing and we also see the likelihood that various bundle and subscription models might become very important in the book world. So we’re going to need flexibility in how we price these enhanced ebooks. We’ll need modifying contract language to enable that.
3. We speak of ebooks as if they are one thing, but they’re not. Most ebooks today are still read on desktop and laptop computers; only a minority of sales are for handheld devices like iPhones or Kindles. We expect this to change; Kindle is having a big impact on changing it. What this means is that what an ebook can do: whether it can “show” video, make use of outbound links, deliver clear images (even in black and white, let alone in color) is variable. We can’t give the same capabilities to somebody on a Kindle as we can on a PC. And what we can give somebody on an iPhone (and ultimately a Blackberry or an Android) may depend on whether the ebook platform is a Stanza reader or a Scrollmotion reader.
So, with all that in mind, National Trade Publishing is building a dynamic database of resources — digital assets — to make the best possible ebooks in all possible formats, as we learn what that means and what it will take to do it. We are offering you the opportunity to collaborate with us to invent the future and, of course, to share appropriately in the rewards. We are also offering you the opportunity to collaborate with other NTP authors in marketing through your books and theirs, but only if you choose to.
(To be continued…but not tomorrow)