BY CHARLOTTE HARPER
It was pitch black in Verity Lane, and the mid-winter drizzle added to the eeriness. I generally avoid these dark back streets, having narrowly escaped being mugged in one nearby years earlier, but I had books to distribute, and at the other end of this service courtyard stood Smiths Alternative, Canberra’s most bohemian bookshop. At the time, Smiths was run by Jorian Gardner, the trilby-wearing director of Canberra’s Fringe Festival, and Domenic Mico, a former director of one of the city’s largest arts centres. Their clientele visited Smiths to hear poetry readings, drink coffee and wine and attend gigs. Sometimes, they even bought books and zines.
As is the nature of these things when you’re juggling a six-month-old baby, a three-year-old, a Masters degree, two teaching gigs, a magazine publishing job and your ebook start-up, time was short. I hadn’t managed to forewarn the booksellers of my impending arrival, so I was relieved to spot them as I slipped out of the alley and within sight of Smiths.
‘Hi Jorian,’ I said as he pushed a rack of indie fashion items through the side door. ‘I think you know about my new publishing venture? Would Smiths be interested in taking a couple of copies of [Anna Maguire’s] Crowdfund it!?’
The former radio shock jock filled his partner in. ‘She’s a REAL publisher, Domenic. Publishing books professionally, here. At Gorman House. Of course we’ll take some, Charlotte. We’ll buy them outright. Is a 30 percent discount OK? Email me an invoice.’
Just like that, I had my first retail partnership in my home town.
As one who is used to uploading a file and entering some metadata to ensure an ebook’s availability worldwide, I was frustrated to discover that print distribution is almost always more complicated than that.
Most booksellers said yes to taking some copies, but would only accept them on consignment, which meant no money up front and signing a written agreement allowing them to take them off the shelves in six months if they weren’t selling.
One Canberra retailer failed to respond to emails so I decided to drop the books in with a card so she could take a look. I noticed Kickstarter for Dummies, a direct competitor published by a multinational, on the shelves where the book I’d published from my office right around the corner should’ve been. I mentioned this to the manager who said she’d pass the message on to the owner, but still I heard nothing. In the end, I visited again and took the books back. For whatever reason, they weren’t keen to support Editia, and I was running out of stock fast.
As a tech-focused title on a niche topic, Crowdfund it! sells particularly well via our website. The fact that Anna is a diligent and engaging blogger and speaker on her subject directs a lot of traffic our way. But I hadn’t allocated enough copies from the first print run to online sales. With a six-month-old baby and reduced income, I wasn’t in a position to allocate the time or money needed to produce a revamped and updated second print run. I wasn’t happy enough with the design of the first to press the button on a straight reprint either.
For the first few days the paperback was on sale, my heart did a star jump or two each time my mobile phone chirped to let me know we’d received a PayPal payment for a copy. This was often several times a day, and at all hours.
Though it had been on sale in ebook form for nine months, it was attracting an entirely new audience in print. Word of mouth has ensured consistent sales all year, and as time went on, those same chirpy alerts inspired my heart to do awkward somersaults. Would this be the week I’d run out of stock? What would I do then?
So after spending the first half the year trying to talk booksellers into stocking the book, I had to switch in the second half to visiting the same stores to take copies back to fulfill online orders.
Anna was invited to speak at a festival in November and the festival bookseller requested nine copies. I dropped everything and went scrounging. I sent her the remaining copies from Canberra bookstores plus the designer’s copy and my own along with my mum’s and sister’s. If they’d all sold, I may have had to insert an ‘Out of stock’ note on the book’s page at Editia.com.
Fortunately, there were a few left after the festival because we sold two more online the next day. My cousin retrieved them from the bookseller and we posted them out to the customers. Now what, I wondered as I scrambled to meet a separate deadline to publish 18 days: Al Jazeera English and the Egyptian Revolution in between drafting this essay, marking student blogs and being a frazzled mum. Then I remembered that Gleebooks had taken several copies earlier in the year when Anna spoke at the Sydney Writers Festival. Could I pick them up them this weekend, I asked David Gaunt. Sure, he said, noting however that I’d have to visit Glebe, Dulwich Hill and Blackheath in the Blue Mountains to collect them all. I managed the first two in between other commitments to buy myself another couple of weeks.
It was while talking to team at Gleebooks that I realised that despite seeming disorganised, all of this was actually going to work out better for customers and booksellers. When I do distribute the new edition in a couple of weeks, all of my partner booksellers will have fresh stock with content that is completely up to date. It is also in keeping with Editia’s environmentally conscious, no-waste philosophy. No books would be pulped or remaindered. Wastage: zero. I will need to work out a more streamlined process in future, but hey, whatever works isn’t a bad strategy when you’re starting out.
With digital on the rise, I was a little surprised by the reactions of literary editors when we published the ebook edition of Crowdfund it! They were supportive and several offered coverage of our launch, but not one could accept an industry standard ePub ebook file for a review copy. Nor were they any more impressed by a browser-based copy provided via the now defunct Booki.sh platform. ‘Can you send it as a PDF?’ one asked. At the Independent Publishers Conference in Melbourne in November 2013 a literary editors’ panel discussed this very issue, explaining that because few of their reviewers are geared to receive digital copies, they still require a printed book or a set of page proofs. They weren’t familiar with the US digital proofs service NetGalley, which is used by bloggers and mainstream media reviewers alike in that market, though they said they’d take a look.
In my last few months as a newspaper and blog book reviewer I was frustrated at the fact that few publishers were geared to issue ebook review copies. Allen & Unwin and Scribe used the Booki.sh service, and Text once sent me a PDF. The rest insisted on sending printed books. Given the lack of space on our bookshelves, it probably just as well I gave up reviewing once I became a publisher. Editia will continue to encourage digital proofs as part of our philosophy of keeping trees alive and trucks off the road.
Another question for the digital first publisher is whether you should you hold a launch for an ebook or wait until a print edition is available. I say until because one thing I am absolutely sure about after this year is that the world is not yet ready for digital only publishing. The requests for a print edition started the moment we first promoted Crowdfund it!, and print sales overtook ebook sales within days of publication despite the ebook having been available for several months.
As for a launch, my advice is to start with a digital-only campaign based around key bloggers. While we had a fantastic time debating the merits of crowdfunding, eating Editia cupcakes and buying other people’s physical books at the Gleebooks-hosted launch for Crowdfund it!, no one bought an ebook during the event or in the hours immediately afterwards. Not a one.
Launch sales are about friends, family members and fans getting their hands on printed books and autographs. Don’t miss your chance for print sales by throwing the party too early.
Speaking of which, does the ebook really need to come first, or should print and digital be published simultaneously, globally?
Publishing every format at once and distributing as widely as possible in all markets might make the most sense, but the reality of running a small publishing house combined with the desire to publish titles quickly to keep up with current events makes that difficult. Also, while you may want to sign up world rights every time, there will be occasions when you’re only offered local rights on a book that has already been published to critical acclaim in other markets. This happened at Editia recently. The book had been reviewed in The Guardian and The New York Times. As if I was going to say no because ‘big six’ (or should I say ‘big five’ — or perhaps even ‘big four’ by the time you read this) publishers had rights elsewhere.
What about bundling? Should the print and ebook be sold as a package together?
If it’s what the reader wants, then yes. I believe the book buyer should be entitled to receive updates and new editions for nix too. That said, I offer my print edition customers coupons to download the ebook edition free and none have taken it up so far. Also it may not always be possible (or simple): in the case of our second book, Business and baby on board by Johanna Baker-Dowdell, we only own the ebook rights. Johanna retained the print rights and used Pozible to crowdfund a self-published print edition.
Pricing continues to confound and confuse me. I believe the ebook edition should be cheaper, and for shorter works the price should be under $10 because I reckon that’s the magic number at which people will click to buy online without contemplating the impact on their budget. With Crowdfund it! we increased the price from $7.99 to $9.99 after publishing the second edition and sales actually went up (and stayed up).
The physical edition needs to be more expensive to cover the substantial costs of print-ready art design, printing and distribution.
Which brings me to another topsy-turvy stage in the life of digital specialist Editia’s experiments in print. I was keen to avoid print production entirely if I could for environmental reasons and because I knew how much work was involved. Or thought I did. I was under the mistaken impression that the production of a printed book was not that different to publishing a magazine, newspaper or website.
The key difference I hadn’t factored in was that the designer set the book up as one long file, which meant only one person could work on the manuscript at a time, and changes to the layout in one section affected the entire flow of the copy. For a print and online media production editor who is used to being able to redesign a page then cut a story to fit on screen in seconds without impacting on any of the publication’s other pages, this was a disaster in the making.
I’d also always been able to jump in and make text changes to articles myself and therefore had no idea of how much harder that would be if the designer had to do it on my instructions.
I ended up taking a book away from one designer 16 hours before deadline, then staying awake until 2am with another as we tried to tweak the manuscript to fit my dream of what an Editia book should look like, as well as making an absurd number of text corrections that should’ve happened long before the designers came anywhere near the copy in any case, before breakfast.
Don’t talk to me about what it cost. I don’t want to think about it. Oh, alright, I’ll give you an idea: more than any other single line item in Editia’s bank statement has. Ever. The only things I’ve spent more money on in one hit in my life are my house (since sold – as if publishing start-ups can afford mortgages!) and my car. This big spend was supposed to be in an investment in a template for use for future titles. If only.
The good news is, we managed to meet the print deadline and thanks to my Sydney distributor (read: former journalism student Steven Russo), got the book to the Sydney Writers’ Festival just in time for several attendees at the author’s workshop there to buy a copy on their way out the door. Considering the timeframes in which we were working, it was astounding really.
However, in the crossover between the two designers we ended up with a gutter problem. Most readers probably won’t even notice, but to me, there is simply not enough white space between the left and right pages. It’s a common problem with self-publishing authors and one I thought I’d paid to avoid. I can’t wait to publish the new edition with that spacing right.
I’m pleased to say that this higgledy-piggledy production process is in the past. I am in the process of negotiating with the team at Canadian book production platform PressBooks to see my standard template dream come true, and know already that this will lead to a much smoother process. In this new phase of Editia production, designers will be able to focus their efforts on book covers while I maintain control over the look and feel of the internal text through one file that can be output in multiple formats: ePub, Mobi and print-ready PDF. The only reason I didn’t just use this PressBooks system for the print edition in the first place is that the PDF output wasn’t working well when I first attempted it. I have used the platform to create all my ebooks, but could never get the PDF component to work until now. I guess PressBooks is a start-up with its own teething problems.
We’ll continue to work with designers on our covers, though these are also based on a standard template, much as the earliest Penguin paperbacks were. Editia’s covers vary in terms of colour, though. There have been some lengthy debates with members of the corporate advisory board about whether the ebook covers should be text only or include images, or perhaps even consist only of images given that in ebookstores, the title and author name are always visible alongside the cover. I voted for text only in the end to streamline the production process and make the covers simpler and more striking at thumbnail size. Despite sending several emails asking the designer to bump up the point size, some which he even paid attention to, I’m still not entirely happy with our ebook covers because I reckon the title needs to dominate the real estate further still in order to be easily legible on some smartphone screens. Still, I have heard nothing but good things about our print covers.
The digital model makes it easier to publish to vary publishing schedules. With our third title, 18 days, we offered pre-orders for the ePub version for a month before publication, and made the pre-orders available to those customers five days early. We’re now offering a similar service for the print edition, due out three months later than the ebook.
In the future, we’d like to publish books in instalments, so that the reader could either buy individual chapters or pay for them all at once but receive them as they’re released. This would fit in better with my philosophy of digital first. In newspapers and magazines, digital first means publishing the content digitally as soon as it’s ready to go rather than waiting for the next available print opportunity. It’s about getting content out there in a timely manner rather than being constrained by the availability of printing press time, delivery truck schedules or newsagent opening hours.
Given we can update content on the Editia site instantly, and on our partner retail sites within hours, there is no concern that early chapters may be out of date by the time the last chapter becomes available. Customers would always have access to the latest version.
Subscriptions are another option we’re looking at. Once we’re publishing several titles a year, our readers will be able to pay a discounted annual subscription fee to receive each book when it is available.
Official publication dates have been a frustration in our first year. They’re vital for literary editors who plan coverage based on release dates. If your book isn’t in their pages in the week or two around publication, it won’t be at all, because there are several dozen newer books for them to consider the week after and the week after that. But given one major platform won’t give an exact timeframe on how long it’ll take for your uploaded book to land in their store (it can vary between a couple of days and several weeks, as far as I can see), you’d need to have the book all ready to go and then sit on it for all that time in order to synchronise release on all the larger platforms.
Clever publicist and festival programmer, Renee Senogles, gave me some advice on this one. She suggested making the day the book goes live on the Editia site the official ebook publication date whether other retailers are with the program or not. They’ll catch on when they see their approach leading to lost sales.
Books+Publishing editor-in-chief, Andrea Hanke, has agreed that given she needs a printed proof for reviewers, she’ll consider the print edition publication date to be the relevant one for reference when considering publishing a review. This makes complete sense given the ratio between print and ebook sales. It’s great news for us because we’d never meet their four-month lead times otherwise. I sign a contract with an author and then publish the book as quickly as I can (ideally only a few weeks), whereas traditional publishers sign a contract then set a publication date that is a year away. For me, the biggest hold-up is waiting for the National Library to provide a Cataloguing in Publication reference. It takes them ten days, and they need the cover plus blurb, so I can’t apply until I’m a little way along with production.
Speaking of paperwork, I learnt after filling out and submitting all the appropriate Public Lending Rights forms at arts.gov.au that the Government-run scheme does not yet cover ebooks. The program is currently undergoing a ‘modernisation process’ which may or may not lead to ebooks being included. The timeframe for their potential inclusion is unspecified.
Print distributors are not yet geared to fast turnaround, new media-style publishing either. ‘We’ll need your cover, blurb and press release at least five months before publication,’ one told me when I began investigating print distribution options.
I nearly coughed my mouthful of lemon and ginger tea into my keyboard.
At this stage, it means traditional book distribution is out of the question, which means you’ll see me skulking about in dark alleys near bookshops, but wishing I was at home in a dark room tweaking my ebook files, for a while yet.
Charlotte Harper is founder and publisher of Editia, a Canberra-based digital first start-up specialising in short non-fiction and longform journalism. She is also publisher of Management Today magazine, a former technology journalist, a Walkley Award-winning web producer and ex-literary editor of The South China Morning Post. Charlotte wrote about the digital transformation of the book industry between 2010 and 2012 for Fairfax Media, Bookseller + Publisher and the ebookish and booku blogs and is the author of Weird Wild Web (Penguin Australia, 1999).