The Digital Future of Books

Ed Nawotka, who writes for PW, Bloomberg, and elsewhere, has an article in the forthcoming issue of Publishing Research Quarterly on Our Digital Future – Rights, Contracts and Business Models that, somewhat ironically, is currently available for free on his website.

The article is basically an overview of the current situation from the contractual situation, to the Google Book Search controversy, to the anticipated debut of some iPod-ish sort of eReader that will revolutionize everything.

Personally, I think there are certain types of books/publishers that could really benefit from e-versions. Textbooks, some nonfiction, and especially academic presses. (I can envision a beautiful and profitable supply-demand curve in which a UP sells 100 copies of a $100 critical study to libraries and then sells 500+ copies of a $25 e-version to academics who need the work in question, but can’t afford the retail price. Add on a slew of $5 sales for particular chapters that students need to access, and this would seem to work out pretty well.)

In terms of fiction and poetry, I have a gut feeling that Chris Anderson’s free model will win out in the end, which is why some of the publishers quoted in Nawotka’s article seem so conservative and short-sighted.

Lucy Vanderbilt of HarperCollins UK, offered a variety of examples where HarperCollins had licensed book content for online use, including serializations of graphic novels and reviews from film guides. [. . .] Vanderbilt’s advice can be summarized thusly: `Don’t underestimate the value of your material.’ Copyright protection is key, as is the need to keep contracts non-exclusive and limited to a distinct period of time.

The sentiment was echoed by speaker Maja Thomas of Hachette Group USA, who encouraged publishers to resist the urge to offer large discounts for digital content. [. . .] The US audio market was now worth approximately one billion US dollars – with 14% of coming from digital downloads. Libraries are the biggest customers in the US, accounting for 32% of all sales. In light of these opportunities, publishers should resist selling their audio content on the cheap. ‘Go on out there and put a leash on that bear!’ she proclaimed.

Still seems to me like this cultural moment is perfect for a smaller indie press to slide in, figure out how to make digital distribution work and really capitalize in terms of reputation and readership. Which may be exactly what Soft Skull is doing.

A lot of Soft Skull books are already available in free, no-DRM, pdf formats through Wowio, but to build advance buzz for the forthcoming The Pisstown Chaos by David Ohle, they’re giving away free e-versions pre-pub date.

Advance orders for The Pisstown Chaos were so low last year, I canceled the original May 2007 publication, and tried again, this time for July 2008. And to pull out more stops, this preview eBook.

And unlike some other ebook promos, this will continue to be free and available for download after publication . . .

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