Make It Work: Publishers Need to Embrace Ebooks

It's been a big year for ebooks. We've seen exponential growth in market share and revenue, new platforms and readers, and even what some might call "recognition," most notably in the creation of an ebook best-seller list in The New York Times. Most importantly, I think, we hit the tipping point in terms of wider acceptance by the general public.

No longer is it just editors and agents on the subways and buses with their submission pile on Sony e-readers; it's actual, real, live, nonindustry people who just love to read. Harris Interactive, Inc. polled more than 2,000 people in July of this year and found that roughly 15% of those polled already owned an e-reader, and 15% of those who did not own an e-reader were likely to buy one in the next 6 months.

Even more promising ebook news can be found in the industry study "BookStats," a joint venture between the Book Industry Study Group, Inc. (BISG) and The Association of American Publishers (AAP). It highlights some of the major gains that ebooks have made in the past 3 years. According to the survey, ebook market share increased from 0.6% in 2008 to 6.4% in 2010, and net unit sales increased more than 1,000% to 114 million.

Both studies show an increase in awareness and interest in ebooks by the general public, but they also illustrate a problem: Fewer people are buying books, e- or otherwise. Rising ebook sales just aren't compensating for the loss of sales in other formats. Most ebooks are priced lower and have a lower ROI, so revenues are shrinking. We've already seen staffing cuts, lower author advances, and smaller royalties: What's going to get cut next?

So despite the booming ebook business, publishers continue to struggle with the ebook price point, and part of this stems from an inability to control the platform-and a devotion to the sacred notion of the book. While publishers desperately search for new revenue opportunities, Amazon will be advertising on Wi-Fi-enabled Kindle models and will continue its daily deal program, while offering reduced ebook pricing in conjunction with publishers. In other words, Amazon is making the ad dollars off of the publishers' content. If ebooks are ever to be truly profitable for the companies producing them, it may mean rethinking the business model-to include things such as advertising dollars.

As much as publishers may want to blame ebooks for dwindling sales, the industry owes these digital workhorses a debt of gratitude as well. In many cases, ebooks present solutions where there were only problems before. For instance, romance used to be one of the staples of the mass-market paperback-you know, those things you used to buy in airports before you got a Kindle. Mass-market paperback sales have plummeted over the last decade. Price has been cited as a major factor: The retail price of a mass-market paperback has jumped to almost $10 each. Meanwhile, lower ebook pricing has allowed a new generation of romance readers to make multiple purchases without breaking the bank.

Large romance publishers including Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. and Avon Romance are creating ebook-only lines to complement their print lists. There are also smaller ebook-only romance publishers that have had success, such as Samhain Publishing and Ellora's Cave Publishing. These traditionally inexpensive, easy reads have found new life in digital form. And now, instead of picking one up in an airport shop, you can download one to your e-reader while waiting at the gate.

It isn't just book publishers that are waking up to the opportunities ebooks afford. News sources are using the immediacy of ebook publishing to their benefit. A digital book can be as long or as short as it needs to be, can be priced accordingly, and can be delivered to the market with unprecedented speed. With this in mind, Vanity Fair issued a series of short ebooks about Rupert Murdoch and the News Corp. newspaper scandals. The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, and the TED Conferences, LLC are all moving into ebooks, and they aren't the only ones. Literary agents are getting in on the action too. London-based Ed Victor Ltd. has created Bedford Square Books, which will publish both ebooks and print on demand.

With flat overall sales, ebooks are the one platform growing exponentially; it's time to stop complaining and start embracing digital as the way of the future and to figure out how to make it work for you. Whether it's figuring out pricing and format or streamlining your workflow, follow Tim Gunn's advice and "make it work."