Digital First: Putting the Print Model Behind You

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As Ebooks Rise, so Do Digital Imprints

While newspapers and magazines have been exploring new ways to use the web, book publishers have found themselves faced with another technological change: the advent of ebooks. As the percentage of tablet and e-reader owners has climbed, the percentage of those who read ebooks has also risen. According to Pew Internet, in 2012 the percentage of Americans 16 and older who read ebooks climbed from 16% to 23%.

It's not surprising, then, that several publishing houses have added digital imprints to their repertoire. Among them is HarperCollins Publishers, which in 2011 launched Avon Impulse. HarperCollins senior vice president and publisher Liate Stehlik says it "has been an amazing ride" thus far.

"When we launched in 2011 with a select number of romance titles we had no idea then how far we'd come in just under two years," Stehlik says. "In 2012, Impulse produced three New York Times Bestsellers and a RITA Award winner, which is the romance industry's ‘Oscar.' Our hope in 2013 is to top this with more bestsellers than before."

Currently, Avon Impuse publishes "a few titles each week," Stehlik says, and the company hopes to increase that number in 2013 "by acquiring across all genres," including not just romance but also mysteries/thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, women's fiction, and popular nonfiction, according to Stehlik.

With digital-first publishing, Stehlik says imprints can "react quickly to market trends" and publish "of-the-moment stories that fulfill immediate reader demands."

Overall, she says, there is "a great deal of freedom and immediacy in digital publishing."

"We can change a cover readily if there is a new trend that is showing considerable reader appeal," she says. "Pricing is readily adjusted, to give these books the benefit of e-tailers' varied promotional platforms [such as daily deals]; a book can be a short-form novella, an interstitial, an omnibus, or epic in length."

And for those who do their book reading the electronic way, a good book's a good book; it doesn't really matter to them how it was published as long as they can access it.

"Genre readers are increasingly making their book purchases in digital formats that can be read on their mobile devices and tablets," Stehlik says, "and as long as great consumer feedback/good reviews, savvy pricing and smart metadata drives them to discover a book, I don't believe the consumer sees much difference between a digital-first book or a print book that they buy in ePub format."

"Authors want to be published," she says. "There is no fear or anxiety in being published digital-first in this era of publishing."

But, Stehlik adds, there is always a desire-both from consumers as well as authors-to see "a physical, printed copy as well," which is why HarperCollins has also invested in a "short print run" platform for its Impulse releases, to complement the digital.

Indeed, Stehlik feels there are several benefits for an author to go with a digital imprint offered by a traditional publishing house. "Each acquisition is carefully edited, copyedited; receives an attractive, eye-catching cover treatment; and benefits from an extensive marketing, sales and publicity platform," Stehlik says. "That is a guarantee-and a huge amount of work that we take off of an author's plate."

Oliver Rhodes, on the other hand, feels an independently owned digital imprint is just fine. In September 2012, after 12 years of working for traditional publishers, Rhodes launched the digital imprint Bookouture.

Rhodes says he feels his company doesn't face the same boundaries digital imprints offered by traditional publishing houses do-and, ultimately, that benefits the author. "At bookouture we believe in publishing and marketing globally, whereas often-though not always-digital imprints from traditional publishers still operate based on territorial rights," Rhodes says. He says this is a "more reader-centric approach" and is also "a lot more efficient" than developing different covers and marketing campaigns in each country.

While many of the ways a book gets put together are going to remain the same no matter what, Rhodes stresses there are definitely some plusses to going the digital route. "A lot of the production processes-cover design, typesetting-are the same [as they are with traditional print publication]," Rhodes says, "though we don't have the same headaches of selling physical books into retailers and arranging distribution-which is a major challenge for traditional publishers right now."

Additionally, no printed product means no set-in-stone date for a book to drop-and that's also a good thing, Rhodes says. "A major benefit of not being tied to a physical publication date is that we can be more flexible with our publishing," he says. "That can mean getting a book that's ready into the market very quickly, or taking time to get the story perfect."

In mid-January, bookouture signed its second author-a rather small stable, true, but Rhodes says "we're consciously focusing on a small number of authors so that we can guarantee we'll add value with attention to detail."

Added Value, Experimentation, and Innovation

Indeed, offering value to its clients is key, Rhodes feels, to any publisher looking to go the digital route. "My advice is to really concentrate on adding value to authors-particularly in helping them connect to readers," he says.

Meanwhile, Stehlik has her own advice for would-be digital publishers: experiment. "It's a time for experimentation: take advantage of fresh voices, trending genres, and experiment with pricing strategies," she says. "We're in a new frontier of publishing, and we're all part of the greater learning process as the ebook market evolves."

Back in the journalism world, where U.S. News & World Report and The Christian Science Monitor have already successfully embraced a "new frontier," the advice for those looking to ditch print and go digital seems to be simple: Don't forget what got you where you are-and at the same time, don't be afraid to change.

"The main thing is to understand your content, your talent pool and your audience(s)," Yemma says. "If you work on linking up those three things without getting sentimental about the way things used to be done, you have a reasonable path toward success."

For U.S. News & World Report, Kelly says, "[W]e were fortunate to have content that we knew would translate to the web and a good start on building a strong audience on that platform. We knew that we couldn't just replicate the print product online. We developed multiple revenue streams. We have stayed flexible about how we build things out, cutting off what isn't working and keeping a constant eye on the bottom line.

"And we know," he adds, "we have to keep innovating."



Resources

Bookouture

The Christian Science Monitor

HarperCollins Publishers

U.S. News & World Report

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