Digital publishing news and views from the Firsty Group

Commentary New eBbook Publishers

Published by FirstyNews

Who are the new eBook publishers?

Just as digital technology turned the pop music industry on its head by giving every Tom, Dick and Harriet the means to record, promote and sell pop music to a worldwide audience, and has opened the way for film directors to bypass Hollywood and distribute their movies via video-streaming firms such as Netflix, so it is now encouraging a host of people and entities other than traditional book publishing houses to become book publishers.

A central proposition of traditional book publishers has long been that they – and only they – had the skills and resources to put books on shelves. So long as those books and shelves were physical, that proposition held, more or less. But when both the books and the shelves became virtual, the proposition started crumbling. Several groups within the book publishing industry, other than the publishers themselves, started looking at the opportunity presented by digital technology to become book publishers. Amazon was there first, and so now is Google. Authors are bypassing both publishers and bookshops, and self-publishing has taken off. A slew of literary agents, tired of publishers rejecting manuscripts the agents consider publishable, has jumped on the bandwagon, forming in-house divisions or even separate self-contained ePublishing houses ­– and ignoring grumbling in the industry about the ethics and logistics of literary agents acting as publishers.

And now this trend has moved out of the publishing industry and into the wider media sector, with more and more non-book publishing media companies venturing into book publishing. Currently leading the way are the major newspapers, in both the US and the UK. Some of these ‘new book publishers’ are turning to Firsty for their digital publishing needs, as illustrated by our banner advert for Guardian Shorts in this newsletter. Which is why we decided to take a closer look at this trend in our Commentary this month.

Publishing consultant and blogger Mike Shatzkin calls the trend ‘atomization’ (“the dispersal of publishing decisions and the origination of published material from far and wide”) and cites the many eBook programmes launched recently by American newspapers and magazines. These include USA Today, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Playboy and Cosmopolitan. Among the first was The Boston Globe, which has now produced more than a dozen eBook titles. Among the most recent is The New York Times, which announced its foray into eBook publishing last December, partnering with Byliner to publish original ‘long-form’ journalism as eBooks, such as columnist David Leonhardt’s Here’s the Deal: How Washington Can Solve the Deficit and Spur Growth.

Leading the way in the UK is The Guardian, with its Guardian Shorts series of eBooks on business and economics, culture, politics, science, technology, sport and travel. Recent offerings include a collection of Beatles reviews, a selection of writings on Charles Darwin and reports by Guardian journalists on Libya in its revolutionary aftermath. The Times and Sunday Times have published a series of eBooks reviewing events of 2012 (sport, art, obituaries, etc.) and in February The Independent launched its eBook programme with a collection of Robert Fisk articles on Algeria.

News industry analyst Ken Doctor observes that newspaper companies “are content-producing giants, yet they’ve shoved it all into a single daily edition, and said ‘You want it, or not?’ The key here is that content production is expensive. Use it once and it’s really expensive. Use it six ways and you spread costs over a wider range of revenue streams.” And newspapers, now facing declining readership volumes around the world, need all the revenue streams they can get, a point made by Alison Uncles, the Toronto Star’s editorial director of eBooks at the BEA last month. She said that they had launched their eBook programme because they were “completely desperate and panicked” by the paper’s loss of print advertising and were looking for new revenue opportunities.

TV companies, too, are taking note. And so they should, not only because of their huge content archive, but also because of the visual and audio production resources they possess that are pertinent to eBook production. NBC is among the early starters, having just launched NBC Publishing to produce eBooks. In the next few years there is no doubt that eBook publishing will move beyond the parameters of the media sector itself and into the wider world of law, finance, construction, retail, manufacturing, and so on. Shatzkin predicts that “most people employed in publishing books, perhaps as soon as 10 years from now, won’t be working for publishing companies.” Already, it has been estimated that about 50% of the top 100 sellers in most Kindle categories have not been produced by what would have been considered a ‘publisher’ just a few years ago.

Let’s give the final word to Claude Nouget, a painter – and also (appropriately, given our ‘diversity’ theme) a novelist, a poet and an economist: “Atomization! It parallels what is happening at a political and social level: ethnic groups are getting stronger everywhere, more individual and demanding. Also, consumer products are getting customized to suit the tastes of varying groups of customers. So why not publishing? I belong to a group of painters here in Italy and we have just launched our own eBook imprint, asking all members to contribute their work… since the group has more than 200,000 members worldwide, I guess a publishing enterprise makes some sort of economic sense!” Of course it does. That’s the joy of digital publishing.

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