Electronic Publishing: an interview with Moriah Jovan, part I

AMV has already touched on electronic publishing in Theric’s post Those LDS Ladies of Indie Publishing and other comments here and there. Today, I bring back Moriah Jovan, one of “them LDS Ladies,” for a more in depth look at e-publishing. In Part I, MoJo provides an overview of the field plus an in-depth look at some of the e-publishing publishers and storefronts that are committing to the format. In Part II, we’ll take a closer look at the LDS market and some other issues.

BTW: the links below are to provide specific examples of e-publishing endeavors (which are very important at this early stage in the field’s development and a major part of why I approached MoJo with this interview request).  They do not necessarily constitute an endorsement of the editorial choices of the various publishers and booksellers.

Could you provide a brief overview of some of the key issues with electronic publishing with some links for people who want to do further reading?

Key issues:

1. Formats. Too many, with too many variables for too many devices, and no *real* universal format. EPUB is getting there, but I think PDB (eReader) is going to become a serious contender.

2. Devices: One-purpose device versus multipurpose device. Most people want one device to do it all. There are plenty of technopundits who disagree with me, but what’s attractive about lugging around a bunch of devices if your iPhone can do it all?

3. Price and staggered release dates. Many traditional publishers price their e-books at or higher than their hardback prices if they put one out at all. I am convinced this is to discourage e-book sales. Along with this is the practice of releasing hardback, paperback, and e-book in a sequential fashion rather than at the same time. Most people have accepted the hardback and paperback delay, but e-book readers are not happy with the fact that e-books are not released when the hardback is–or, if there is no hardback, then when the paperback is. The publishers think this will cannibalize the print sales, but e-books have been seen to be the precursor to print sales. (I must admit we messed this up with The Fob Bible because of a miscommunication and a change of plans, so we have staggered releases, but we didn’t do it on purpose.)

4. Territorial/geographic restrictions. Many publishing contracts have language that addresses distribution rights (re print) by country. This usually hasn’t addressed e-books, which are assumed (by customers) to be globally available. After all, that’s one of the beauties of the e-book. However, there are innumerable books that are available in E, but not outside the United States. Nobody seems eager to change this to global rights for e-books.

5. Digital rights management. Publishing isn’t taking its lesson from the music industry. Legitimate customers don’t like being treated like criminals, especially when a publisher/author refuses to digitize its books for an attractive price (*ahem* J.K. Rowling). Piracy will always exist. Live with it and go after the people who will pay if you make it available and easy to purchase.

There seems to be a lot of both over-caution and over-hype with this whole e-books thing. Are there any electronic publishers who are doing things well (from both a business and consumer-friendly perspective)? Where are you seeing it working?

As a business model that is an end unto itself (i.e., that the goal is NOT to lead to print sales), this works in genre romance best, but that is because of the nature of romance readers. We read and BUY in bulk, cross genre, and are quite often early adopters of technology. As a class of readers, we have money.

(I should point out that the pioneer in the e-book wave was Baen Books, which is a science fiction/fantasy portal, but their goal is to give away free e-books as a gateway drug for the print versions. Also, they have in the past used a subscription model. Selling e-books to sell e-books was and is not part of the business model.)

Where it really started, the model that the e-book was the end unto itself, and was *successful* was with erotic romance, done by Ellora’s Cave, which trademarked the portmanteau “romantica.” (We’ll save the discussion as to what all that genre labeling really entails for…never…and get on with the business model.) In my opinion, this worked because romance readers wanted something hotter than what the traditional publishers were putting out *and* they read too fast for the publishers to pump them out. The last report I saw was a 2006 report that Ellora’s Cave grossed something like $6M in sales *and* they bought their own POD printers to start putting their better sellers in print. They still don’t have a very good distribution for print, and their owner seems to be wigging out completely, but they’re still going strong with e-books. They have a couple of different “houses,” so to speak, and Cerridwen Press is their more “regular” romance line, and Lotus Circle is their New Age-ey type house.

Their next competitor is Samhain Publishing. The president of Samhain broke with Ellora’s Cave (it wasn’t pretty) and took her toys elsewhere. In my opinion, this is the company who gets it about 95% right. Not only do they do e-books as the end to itself (although they source best sellers out to print and have a regular distribution system to bookstores), but they also have a storefront that is all-inclusive. Meaning, they sell their e-books *and* they cut deals with other e-publishers to sell their e-books (and print) also: My Bookstore and More. The individual e-publishers supply the e-book files and My Bookstore and More sells them as is.

The next ones are Loose Id, which has become somewhat of a niche publisher of gay romance (with varying heat levels), and Zumaya Books (which publishes across the genre spectrum). After that are a number of smaller or lesser known e-presses that all specialize in romance from one extreme (inspirational and sweet) to the other (erotic romance, if not just erotica).

Tor is hopping on the bandwagon to create a storefront like My Bookstore and More, which doesn’t just sell Tor’s list, but other science fiction/fantasy publisher’s lists.

Harlequin is the only traditional publisher who’s right there at the forefront, but Harlequin is a ground-breaker in so many respects, it’s not surprising at all. They do *not* however, have a universal bookstore a la My Bookstore and More.

They distribute one other way, which is through Lightning Source’s digital books arm and/or Overdrive, which is important to this discussion.

If you think of it in manufacturer-distributor-retail terms, the e-publisher (or traditional publisher that attempts digital) is the manufacturer, Overdrive is the wholesaler/distributor, and Books on Board is the retailer. Everybody gets their cut and the strictly e-published author gets 35% of list price. (As an aside, Overdrive also supplies e-books to libraries which do, in fact, lend e-books.) Fictionwise doesn’t get all its books from Overdrive, but enough to be significantly affected if it’s hit with an issue (like geographic restrictions). Those are the two largest retailers of e-books that I know of.

Two months ago I would’ve told you that I think the future is in storefronts like My Bookstore and More and Tor’s, where e-publishers put up their own stores and contract with other e-publishers to sell their lists, because this is where publishers make their money. For an individual author like me (or really any e-published or self-published author), there is no such thing as a long tail. I have to make my money on the margin. For an e-publisher with a large list, but a teensy margin, the money is in the volume.

The reason I thought that was because places like Books on Board and Fictionwise, who are retail stores of all sorts of e-books, not publishers, not specialists, take such a huge cut that the thin margins e-publishers were working on get much slimmer, but the visibility was greater. So it becomes a toss-up between volume and margin with regard to an e-publisher’s own storefront versus getting wider distribution. It’s really as punitive as the 65% cut Amazon takes.

(For the purpose of this discussion, I’m excluding Amazon. They have one format that is exclusive to one device. The value of a Kindle is its wireless. That is its own discussion.)

Today, I’m not sure this model will be as successful, as storefronts like Fictionwise and Books on Board have been dealt a serious blow by, first, Overdrive having issues (this is too complicated to go into), and second, publishers waking up and saying, “Your cut is too big.” But they were the biggest two games in town.

Then there were places like All Romance eBooks , which is a storefront kind of like My Bookstore and More, but it wasn’t affiliated with any one e-publisher. They didn’t deal with Overdrive at all. It was a good storefront, and now it has morphed into Omnilit, which is it’s “everything” storefront and is not exclusive to romance.

Now with Barnes & Noble and their new device (possibly a Kindle killer; we’ll see), and their purchase of Fictionwise a few months ago, and the fact that Barnes & Noble was a publisher FIRST, and still IS a publisher, there’s a good possibility that they could be the general e-book alternative to the e-publisher romance storefronts like My Bookstore and More.

The models are working, but not *necessarily* for authors.

But then, what publishing model really works for authors (other than the big names)?

16 thoughts on “Electronic Publishing: an interview with Moriah Jovan, part I”

  1. Yep. And you would know.

    For AMV’s readers: Mike is a vocal, passionate, contrarian chronicler of the digital book/e-publishing industry.

  2. I am a man of many interests, a committed dilettante, a ranking amateur, cosmo-mo-politan with a populist tongue and a provincial core.

  3. *snarf*

    To add to the discussion, yesterday or early this morning it was announced that Stephen King’s new book would sell for $35 in the E format, but apparently that figure was wrong. I’m interested to know what the final price will be.

  4. .

    You know, it occurs to me that wholesale switchover to ebooks may change reading habits because you will no longer be able to judge people by the book they’re reading’s cover.

  5. Yo might want to check out Excessica Publishing’s model (www.excessica.com). They return nearly all received royalties to the author, publish everything in eBook form, and allow the author to choose POD (with CreateSpace) if desired. Because they operate as a cooperative model publisher, they also only take non-exclusive rights. They sell in most major eBook sites including Amazon, Fictionwise, SmashWords, and a number of others fed from these sites.

  6. DB, right. That’s a coop, which is why I didn’t include it. It might be working, but it’s not making a big enough splash as a business model to warrant inclusion with Samhain and Loose-Id.

    IMO, of course.

    While I am attracted to the idea of an author coop, I am already far too aware of the burden placed on the author for not only writing the things, but marketing and social networking and “building a platform” (blech). A coop would be just one more non-writing thing to worry about for a group of people largely uninterested in anything BUT writing.

    That said, Backword Books is building a different kind of coop, but I’m not really at liberty to talk about that.

  7. What’s going on with Overdrive? (I’m familiar with their audiobooks, but not with their e-books.)

  8. Overdrive supplies ebook retailers with ebooks, as I understand it, with DRM applied.

    I know they supply the NY Public Library and other libraries. A lot of the librarians on Twitter that I follow talk about the lending of ebooks.

  9. I’ve been doing a lot of research on e-publishing, since I am starting an
    e-publishing company,and I think that most e-publishers are still too caught up with traditional publishing way of doing things. That tradition being that you have to make the same on e-books as you do on hard cover, even though, really e-publishing costs are WAY lower then traditional publishing. It seems to me that the Authors should be getting more of the pie, as the costs to the publisher is much less. I predict that over the next year or two, that prices for e-distribution will start coming down as more competitors get into the arena.

  10. really e-publishing costs are WAY lower then traditional publishing.

    “WAY” lower? That is not true. The bulk of a book’s cost is in its editing and cover art.

    The printing, storage, shipping, etc. is a small percentage of a book’s overall cost, but most people do not or will not believe that.

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