There is no doubt that e-books are a bright spot in the dismal economics of publishing. The current market is strong — according to a recent Harris Interactive poll, one in six Americans now uses an e-reader, and that number will grow as consumers become more comfortable with the technology.
Actually, the potential for growth is astonishing. The Association of American Publishers reports that e-books have risen in 2010 to 6.4% of the trade market, up from 0.6% in 2008. The Institute for Publishing Research predicts that by 2015, e-book sales will increase to $3.6 billion, from $78 million in 2008. In publishing terms, that’s petrodollars.
But the certainty of growth brings confusion. E-books are transforming publishing, but nobody is exactly sure what that means. We all know that Amazon is dominant, and Apple and Google are now players, but the future of e-books is perhaps better divined by looking at the smaller players: the innovative startups and the individuals in the publishing trenches — the editors, agents and writers.
In terms of digital publishing, perhaps the biggest of the smallest is Open Road Integrated Media, founded by Jane Friedman, a former president and CEO of HarperCollins, and Jeffrey Sharp, a film producer. Open Road publishes 12 to 15 new e-books a year, but its bread and butter is digitizing backlist titles by such authors as Michael Chabon, Leon Uris and William Styron — names big enough to shift a few e-units.
Simultaneously, as an exercise in branding, Open Road produces short films about its authors. The living ones talk about their inspirations (often shown conspicuously absorbed by their e-readers). The not-so-living ones are the subjects of brief documentaries. Though Rachel Chou, its chief marketing officer, wouldn’t provide sales figures, Open Road seems poised to do well — it is perhaps the only publisher, traditional or digital, with such a canny approach to marketing.
The slickness of Open Road is in contrast to intimate and organic Emily Books, the brainchild of writer Emily Gould and former literary agent Ruth Curry. While Emily Books also digitizes previously published titles, Gould told me that the publisher’s list reflects “our enthusiasm for criminally underappreciated books.” Gould and Curry see themselves more as curators than publishers, and their goal is to foster an independent bookselling culture online. Thus, Emily Books’ first two releases are “Inferno,” a novel by poet Eileen Myles, and “No More Nice Girls,” an essay collection by anti-authoritarian feminist Ellen Willis.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Emily Books is that it’s a book club. Titles can be purchased individually or, for $159.99 a year, a subscriber gets 12 e-books, one per month. While this is a chunk of change, Emily Books has more than 100 subscribers. That’s enough, Gould says, to put the company in the black, even to generate “a tiny surplus.”
So with e-books, one viable path is to brand older or neglected titles. Perhaps this is because most consumers are overwhelmed by the selection of books now available. In this regard, e-reading creates opportunities for selectors, whether they be curators or savvy marketers.