How a smaller publisher adapts to an ever-changing industry: e-books

Adapting to the ever-changing landscape of the publishing industry represents some unique challenges for every publisher. Larger publishers have the challenge of having to lead the winds of change, but they have an advantage of having more manpower to throw into issues of research, cost analysis, design, development, implementation, etc.

For a smaller publisher such as ourselves, we still need to adapt to our brave, new world, but resources are limited. Our biggest challenges were in terms of overheads and man-power.

Electronic publishing has been around for a fair amount of time. Adobe’s PDF was one of the most popular formats to view on computer and that’s been around seemingly forever, but major publishers took real notice of e-books around the turn of the millennium. Once Sony, Amazon and Apple got involved, the market for e-books exploded with the proliferation of platforms dedicated to hosting that very product.

Last year, when I initially introduced the idea to Melrose Books, we had a few quandaries we had to deal with.

  1. Because we allow all of our authors to retain not just copyright but all subsidiary rights to their work, we couldn’t begin converting our back catalogue because those subsidiary rights included electronic publishing rights and digital rights management. How would we approach our past authors about signing over their electronic publishing rights/DRM?
  2. Keeping in mind that we need to limit overhead without sacrificing quality, which platform (or platforms) would we use to host our e-books? Parties like Amazon and Apple, or would we sell internally?
  3. Would we outsource conversion, or would we do it in-house? If done in-house, how do we do it, and which file types will we need for our selected platform of choice?
  4. This is just the tip of the iceberg, really…we knew there would be even more questions once we ran into obstacles and the further we got into the process.

How we answered our questions, after the jump…

As it turned out, obtaining electronic publishing rights from a select group of authors in our back catalogue wasn’t difficult. A number of them had already expressed interest in having an electronic version of their book on the market, and others were excited by the idea of being available to a wider audience. This was our easiest problem to overcome: we were honest, told the authors what we wanted and why, and explained how it would benefit them.

Problem numbers two and three were a bit more complicated and involved, because they involved a lot of research…and a lot of trial and error.

Seminars help, reading reports online is necessary and useful, research was essential, but ultimately we knew that we had to keep overheads low and so we had to do everything in-house. Running the conversion of manuscripts ourselves kept us in more control, but it also limited our options for platform to either Amazon’s Kindle or playing host ourselves (and selling our e-books through our website).

Ultimately we chose to go through Amazon. We already worked with them, have had a strong relationship, their platform was already up-and-running not to mention accessible and successful, it gives us time to feel out our market before introducing some new e-commerce into our own website, they have their own security, and selling through Amazon allows our products to be viewed on an e-reader in a fully-formatted, professional manner. A PDF looks fine on your computer screen, but they can look a little shoddy on a Kindle or iPad (a Kindle App allows iPad users to purchase Amazon’s e-books and read them on the foreign reader…another big advantage of choosing Kindle, in our eyes).

Then came the aforementioned trial and error. Kindle accepts a number of different formats, but we needed one that gave our e-books a professional, readable, accessible style. Ultimately we settled on .mobi files, because they’re compatible with InDesign. But there was a lot of time spent making changes, doing the conversions, and checking out how the book looks on an e-reader before we finally had a basic process down. We knew that process would change as we ran into obstacles and began converting more complicated manuscripts.

Of course, now we make things a bit easier on ourselves. Now that we know how Kindle reads our files, we can make changes to the typeset on the front end of the production process to make an eventual conversion to e-book that much easier.

Pricing was another important issue. Many mainstream authors, retailers and publishers will not give too much of a discount on their e-book, for a number of reasons. Some of them have additional content, a lot like extras on a DVD.

For our authors, saleability and getting any edge possible on the market is vital, and so we set a loose guideline for the e-book price being 40% of the cost of the actual book. If any of our authors are brave and willing to try putting their book(s) on sale for even less (we’ve all heard the success stories of the $0.99 or £0.99 e-book from a once unknown author), we encourage that, too.

It continues to be an ongoing process for us, but we have now converted fourteen of our back catalogue titles…all to varying levels of sales, of course.

Over the coming weeks I’d like to talk about some of the other ways Melrose Books is continuing to evolve. It’s a subject I’m very passionate about. In the meantime, I hope you’ll connect with us.

And just in case anyone is interested: Celtic Maidens (Ceri Norman), Here’s a State of Things and Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner (Bernard Lockett), The Shepherd Lord (Peter Algar), Up the Rhine and Down the Danube (Derek Brown), University Shambles (Chris Rhodes), When Blood Ties Lie (Jeremy Drewett), The Adversary (James Bowman), His Masters Lover and Sinning in the Rain and Simon: a Decline and Fall of the English Landed Gentry (Nick Heddle), The Great Ocean of Truth (Peter Wadhams) and So Your Girlfriend’s a Vegetarian? (Adam Shaw). Claire Shearwood’s The Grey Scale: Devil’s Game will be available as an e-book by the end of this weekend.