On ebooks: A Publisher’s View of the Digital Transformation by Dominique Raccah, CEO and Publisher of Sourcebooks

images.jpegI’ve been a book publisher for 23 years and today I believe we are at the transformation of the book. You may call it the tipping point or the point of no return but whatever you call it, this is that moment in the history of the book.
The digital transformation is bringing with it an onslaught of content. In fact, more content was published last year than ever before. Bowker (the ISBN agency) reported that 2009 self-publishing or what they call the non-traditional book publishers drove total book production over 1,000,000 units for the first time-that’s over a million books produced last year. Think about that as a reader, an author or a publisher.

This deluge of books has, I believe, two big implications:

1. It devalues content-there’s too much of it and too little time. So there’s increasing pressure to keep prices low and to give readers more for their money. Not necessarily a bad thing, by the way.

2. It also creates an overwhelming sense of constantly being sold to, which, when combined with the fragmentation of media, makes marketing increasingly difficult. No one likes being sold to. And today there are fewer and fewer mass market media outlets.

Because of a willingness to embrace new technology and go beyond traditional boundaries, romance readers know better than anyone the diversity of self-publishers, ebook-only publishers, fan fiction, and numerous other sources of reading material. So in this new landscape, how does an author get heard? How does a reader find the next book she’s going to love?

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For me, the real job of a publisher is many, many things, all of which center around the incredibly rewarding challenge of connecting authors and readers. In the end, whether physical or digital, the role of the publisher is to create an audience for the author. It’s to bring the author and the book to market. It’s never really been about printing. And that’s really clear now, isn’t it? It’s always been about connecting authors and readers.
And that’s where your publisher comes in. Because the digital transformation hasn’t created less work. It’s created more. Let me explain.
The Ugly Stuff

During the Q&A at a recent writers conference panel, a writer stood up to extol the virtues of publishing his own ebooks to the world. Yet in the same breath he asked me, “could you help me fix my files and upload them for Amazon and Sony Reader so they read correctly?” It seems that ebook creation could use an “easy button.” And paraphrasing Tim O’Reilly at Tools of Change earlier this year, that’s one of the reasons there are publishers – to handle the ugly, not easy stuff.

I have yet to meet the ebook customer who’s never purchased a bad or at least slightly wonky ebook. Poor page flow…new typos that weren’t in the printed book…dashes and apostrophes that now resemble weird Cyrillic symbols. Regrettably, I’m only scratching the surface of the problems that occur. And that’s all assuming you had a good description and cover image to know what book you were buying in the first place. Were the ebook free, these might be problems you’d accept. But here’s the thing – you paid for it, why should you accept less than you’d get in a printed version?

As a publisher, I sure could use that easy button too. Up to now, it’s been a commonly accepted notion that ebook sales were supplemental, additional, a nice added bonus using book files that have already been created for the print edition. But publishers deeply engaged in both print and ebook know differently. It is true that the book is the book – happily, its content doesn’t have to be redeveloped. The starting point is still the final file we delivered to the printer in InDesign, PDF, or the like. But it turns out that starting point doesn’t aim you toward one finish line, it’s more like the center of a wheel, with spokes running off in multiple directions.

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The Book Wheel

Authors want their books available everywhere possible. We agree! If you’re our author, we want your book available anytime, anywhere, any device, any format. If your local car wash sells romance novels (and we know a few that do) but they’re not carrying your books, if I’m your publisher, I expect your call.
The same goes for the evolving ebook market. If publishers and authors want the ebook available broadly – everywhere readers might buy their ebooks, rather than just one e-tailer – the publisher has to manage every one of those customers individually.

That also means that we have to manage their technical requirements individually. With printed books, we ship the same product to different retailers. Barnes & Noble, Borders, Walmart, Target – everyone receives the same book. That’s not the case with ebooks.

Ebook retailers use different file formats. Despite attempts at standardization, the reality is that if you want ebooks available in as many retailers as possible, you will be creating a minimum of three different file types based off that one original file. The technically savvy among you who’ve worked with InDesign might say, “easy! I select ‘Export for Digital Editions’ from the pulldown menu. Done!” And welcome to the world of broken files, widows, orphans, and stray Cyrillic symbols.
At Sourcebooks, we’ve calculated that just the proper production of separate ebook formats requires an additional 13 steps in the workflow process, and that’s before production, metadata, file upload, or customer-specific requirements. Add to that the quality assurance (QA) process which by itself is a separate 40-item checklist across a number of devices (with more coming). And new stuff arises all the time because these are all new processes so you’re constantly reviewing, changing, and updating all of these processes as devices, specs, etc. change.

Every separate ebook file format runs through the technical steps to create the file properly, the proofing steps to ensure editorial integrity, and the quality control steps to recheck both of the above. We also run quality assurance for every device to which we output, so, for example, the same epub file requires separate quality assurance when output to separate devices (Nook, iPad, Kindle, Kobo, etc.). On the conservative end, that’s a minimum of 10 e-tailers and devices, but most publishers are working with many more.

In total, we’ve added 6 new workflow processes with 80+ steps to our existing processes, but here’s the real rub – almost every one of those processes is manual. Just as “spell check” won’t produce a cleanly written text (in lieu of writers, editors and proofreaders) automation and technology are aids but not an all-encompassing solution for ebook production (at least not at this time). You still need human beings to check it all.

More interesting than the steps, though, are the skill-sets involved with executing those steps. Many of the editing steps fit within what production editors have traditionally done. The exact work has changed and the technology is significantly upgraded, but traditional publishing people can do the job.

When it comes to the file preparation, output, and delivery, however, publishers have been investing capital in retraining existing production and design staff or simply hiring those skill-sets anew. Those skills are often more akin to computer programming and technical workflow management than they are to traditional publishing production skills, so the people and processes of the back engines at publishers are changing. At Sourcebooks, for example, our entire production process, including old-guard talents like copyediting, composition and design, actually report into our technology group. Making that change several years ago has helped drive us into the future at a much more rapid pace.

Metadata Matters

Metadata may have become my favorite word in recent years. In fact, it’s been a big buzz word around a number of romance blogs as well. Most publishing companies of any reasonable size these days have a person or persons who are responsible for nothing but “metadata.” So what is metadata? Metadata is all the information/content related to a specific book, from the title, author name, and ISBN all the way through the description, marketing copy, author bio, and images you see for a book on an e-tailer’s site. Ebook buyers run into metadata problems all the time – it seems like it’s the book you want, but there’s no description, no cover image, and hmmm, I think that might not even be the right author.

As with ebook production, managing metadata is challenging in part because of inconsistencies in how e-tailers receive, handle, and post it. Once again, most have unique requirements and needs. Everyone has a different approach and once again each must be handled individually by a human being in order for it to be done properly. And truth be told publishers can also be challenged by metadata. It’s only recently that we’ve understood that book publishers (all us folks with English degrees) needed to actually be paying close attention to data. And in metadata, there are even industry-wide challenges. For example, we haven’t as an industry agreed about how to identify ebooks and digital content, and specifically the role of the ISBN. But that’s another story.

If you remember only one thing from reading this article, let it be this: metadata really matters for ebooks. On the web, reading with your e-reader, on your phone or however/wherever you access ebooks, discovery is everything. Unlike in a physical bookstore where you can browse shelves and find that next perfect book that you want to read, how you find a book online (whether a physical book or a digital book) is all about metadata. So making sure all those descriptive pieces are correct and where they’re supposed to be really matters.

Keeping up with Technology

So we want ebooks published, we want them published correctly, and we want to publish simultaneously with the physical book’s release. As a publisher, what that means is that you need to add staff and time. Even publishers outsourcing the work add staff to manage the outsourcing, and either way it adds cost with a return on investment that’s often unpredictable.

Here’s where things get extra challenging. There are new devices coming, and on our end it feels like it’s every week. Many of them look kind of neat, they’re loaded with potential, but they’re untested. Moreover, the reporting mechanisms for views, uploads, and usage are usually poor – unlike in the physical business where we see sell-through data on at least a weekly basis, in ebooks we often can’t quickly tell why, how, or sometimes even how many people are using a given format’s ebook.

And in fact, reporting for digital books is a big issue. For physical books, we get weekly reporting from every major customer, daily when we need it. Not so with digital books. And how we audit those digital book sales is something that publishers and retailers will need to create that’s essential to the well being of authors and of the industry. But again, those are matters for another day.

As of this writing, we have exactly three e-tailers from whom I can confidently expect enough sales to make creation of their ebook files an in-the-black activity. Everyone else falls into the “hopefully soon” zone. So in this area publishers are subsidizing technology’s research and development costs.

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As you can see from the timeline I’ve included, my belief is that as the market evolves we will be adding new ebook retailing partners, each undoubtedly with their own requirements. And I probably should note that while forcing publishers to fit proprietary systems is good for our technology partners because it provides them with a competitive advantage, it is not necessarily of value to the individual book publisher (or to the reader).

From a business perspective, it’s an unpleasant reality. It’s also something on which you don’t want to cut corners. If you want the job done right and you want things to work as well as possible for authors and readers, you have to invest in the future. As a friend of mine said to me: “When publishers don’t invest in digital, that’s dangerous…because what we need is continuity between the book and the future of the book.”

As a lifelong book lover, it’s the most exciting and most rewarding investment we can make. What we’re doing together is nothing less than creating the future of the book. At the end of the day, it’s the promise of what’s next that moves us all forward, and it is vital that publishers push innovation and create more immersive experiences on behalf of authors and readers.

But what is also true is that we’re experiencing an explosion in the amount of work we have to do. And that’s just in the making of ebooks never mind the distribution, marketing, promotions and sales aspects. We’re incurring more expense for less dollar revenue, and we’re investing significantly more in the business at a time when our traditional brick and mortar business partners are challenged.

So What Does a Publisher Do?

What gets lost sometimes in the ebook discussion is an understanding of the role of a publisher. It goes without saying that a publisher does all the things discussed here, but the reality is that those are just a few of the things a publisher must do in order to help authors be successful. It’s great that we make ebooks, but even in an emerging digital marketplace, merely making the ebooks isn’t the core activity of any publisher. Labyrinthine as it might be, making the ebook isn’t the hard part, nor is making them available at various e-tailers. The hard part, and indeed the ultimate job of any publisher, is helping the author find their readers, making those connections that enhance, enlighten and maybe even change people’s lives.

And today we are walking towards a future in which books can be with you always. And not just some books, but any book you choose… any time, any place, any device and any format. We are creating a completely new future for the book. And anything this important is going to be challenging, complex, maybe even difficult. Got it! Game ON!

Editor’s Note: Dominique Raccah is the Publisher and CEO of Sourcebooks. This is reprinted with permission from the Sourcebooks blog. PB

7 Comments on On ebooks: A Publisher’s View of the Digital Transformation by Dominique Raccah, CEO and Publisher of Sourcebooks

  1. Richard Askenase // November 2, 2010 at 10:34 am //

    Excellent piece- very thorough and a refreshing perspective. AND, I like that you didn’t harp on higher ebook prices. This article demonstrates where some of the ebook costs lie.

    This is a part of the new world order. I do not expect standardization across retailers for some years yet, as the field is still very much evolving. But moving forward efficiently will produce better and more reading material for all of us.

  2. A very well written piece. Through and well set out. Good points about the role of publishers which has been discussed here many times.

    I am not sure I like the use of the terms “onslaught” of content, which has markedly negative implication for what is simply an increase in the number of books being written and published. This is the world we live in. A world of billions of human beings, a rapidly expanding educated population spreading across the world into new countries every day. The future is one of a permanently expanding number of books being published and we are going to have to find some way of dealing with it.

    In my personal opinion self publishing for new or lesser known writers, in such a world, doesn’t make a lot of sense as a successful first choice strategy. As the volume of eBooks grows and grows the task for readers to find good eBooks becomes increasingly difficult as Ms Raccah correctly says.

    Publishers have a valuable role to play in this new model, just as they did in the old model. From editing services to file management and on to promotion and marketing Publishers offer the writer a range of invaluable services and to the reader they offer a critically needed filter for quality. However I believe that promotion and marketing will be a very different animal in this new model. Media advertising is too expensive and low in pay back value. Publishers need to develop a new generation of web site where readers come to share reading experiences, recommendations and disapprovals and this kind of service will need to be accessible through eReaders as well. I believe most publishers will become more specialised according to an expanding list of genres and geographical regions and sell through a range of online eRetailers while a small number of mega eRetailers sell to the mass market. I don’t believe for a minute that the current domination by Amazon and B&N et al will continue for more than a couple of years. I still find it astonishing that the wider publishing industry allowed Amazon to first of all dominate the book selling industry and then repeated the mistake and allowed it to walk into a domination of the eBook market. Short sighted greed for high retail prices, unwillingness to abandon an old and bloated operating model and a refusal to move with the times and to learn from other industries tells me that the people at the top of most publishing houses have been and still are extraordinarily average in their business skills and commercial awareness.

    I don’t for one minute buy into the claims by Ms Raccah about the complexity of the technical process and the cost and tear jerking burdens thereof. We have heard it all before and as someone familiar with much of the technical elements of the process, it’s tiresome to read it all again. It all smacks of industry excuses and hyperbole and part of Publishers attempt to justify ridiculously high prices such as this week’s Stephen King and James May’s Car Fever con job. Pricing and geographical restrictions are the biggest problems that the industry has right now and it seems blindly determined to chase the super profits now, irrespective of the damage it is doing to it’s relationship with the reading public in the middle term.

    In my opinion metadata is another area of seriously mistaken focus. It is very similar to the mistakenly blinkered strategy by many commercial companies in the 90s, and even now, to obsess about search engine placement as the sole route to customers. I do not believe for one moment that readers will find their eBooks through metadata.

  3. The solution to a lot of ebook formatting problems is to develop new workflows. Right now it’s:

    MS Word —> Print format (InDesign or other) —> assorted ebook formats

    The problem is, the print-formated file is full of things that support the printed page, like hard hyphens, that totally mess up any ebook versions. If instead you create valid XML, where the book becomes not pages, but data, identified by what it is and not what it should look (i.e. chapter title, not 14-point Helvetica Bold), then you can create conversions as needed for print and for ebooks. This way the master copy is stored as data and not as pages:

    MS Word —> XML or similar format —> all desired formats

    You do still need to create conversions but it’s much easier to convert valid data reliably than to convert page formatting reliably. And if the format of the month changes, you are not stuck with useless data.

  4. Excellent post Karen.

  5. If converting to eformat is so expensive and time-consuming, how can Baen create multi-format ebooks and sell them for a quite reasonable $5 or $6 per book?

  6. Becca, because they’re selling them direct to the customer and don’t have pay any ebook stores for it. If the same books were sold at Amazon, they’d probably need to cost something like $9 to bring in the same amount of money per book, and they’d have fewer sales to boot due to the higher price, which would mean a loss.

    I imagine it’s also because they’ve been releasing ebooks for so many years now that they have optimized the workflow a lot better than the company mentioned in the article. I too put a lot of question marks at the 80+ steps supposedly needed – I’ve scanned some of my own books and I certainly don’t need to go to such major lengths to create an ebook I’m happy with. The one thing publishers are doing which I’m not, is all the metadata and marketing, but even that can’t account for all of it.

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