Cracks in the Dam: Publishers dabble in digital tales

The following appeared in the May 22 edition of Canada’s Globe & Mail newspaper:

A pair of Canadian book publishers dipped their toes ever deeper into the online world this week by offering free digital downloads of entire books. House of Anansi Press and HarperCollins Canada have decided to make the full text of a single book available to readers for a limited time, hoping to attract new readers, raise the authors’ profiles and boost sales of traditional copies. Jon Evans’s mass-market paperback Invisible Armies can be read for free until June 30 through the HarperCollins read-only interface called Browse Inside, which normally allows readers access to excerpts of books. HarperCollins chose Evans because of his enthusiasm for the experiment and for his status as an established writer with a solid following that they hope to expand.

While it’s encouraging to see a publisher go out on a digital limb, one has to wonder whether they have thought through the best way to proceed in this Brave New World:

“We didn’t feel like we were going to risk anything in terms of the book’s sales,” Anansi president Sarah MacLachlan said. “I could be delusional in this, but I really don’t think the digital book has come of age, so I don’t think that people would prefer to read something digitally than they would to own the actual book.”

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080522.wbooks22/BNStory/Entertainment/?page=rss&id=RTGAM.20080522.wbooks22

Now there’s an example of innovative, cutting edge thinking: “We can give it away, because nobody really wants it anyway.” Not,  “How can we use this new medium to build market share and capture an audience that we couldn’t reach before?”  To show how ill-conceived their strategy is, when I went to their website, I was able to download the PDF file of the book without even registering! I then emailed it to my Kindle, where is is quite readable.

If the Anansi executive had discussed this approach with Leslie Hulse, Vice President of Digital Business Development at HarperCollins (parent of Anansi Press) who spoke at the International Digital Publishers Forum on MAy 14, she would have heard her say: “People will register for free content”. (For a look at a site that takes this premise to a higher level, check out www.wowio.com, where users are asked to complete a fairly detailed profile in order to download a free e-book daily.)   Harper Collins is arguably the furthest along in experimenting with digital content, with their “Browse Inside” feature, which looks a lot like Amazon’s “Search Inside” option. It actually lets you read quite a bit of the book online (in a few cases, all of it) (http://www.harpercollins.com/book/browseinsidemain.aspx) But I think they’ve still got some work to do on the pricing model. The books I looked at listed for $24.95 for the hardcover edition, and $19.95 for the e-book version (full DRM included at no extra charge). Not exactly a compelling enough discount to try out a new format. (“Let’s not risk those margins”)  They do however, require registration in order to download the occasional free e-book they offer. Maybe the Anansi folks should check it out.

HarperCollins’ Dips its toe in the Digital Pool

As they say, everything old is new again. Remember back in the 80s, GM created the Saturn Car company, whihch was meant to be completely separate from and autonomous of its parent? This was ostensibly so it would not be contaminated by the practices that had brought GM’s market share hurtling towards the Yugo’s. It appears that HarperCollins is taking a similar approach in launching its yet unnamed imprint that promises to end the traditional practices of paying large advances and taking back returnsfrom booksellers. According to the story in today’s New York TImes,

The new unit is HarperCollins’s effort to address what its executives see as some of the more vexing issues of the book industry. “The idea is, ‘Let’s take all the things that we think are wrong with this business and try to change them,’ ” said Robert Miller, 51. “It really seemed to require a start-up from scratch because it will be very experimental.” The new group will also release electronic books and digital audio editions of all its titles, said Jane Friedman, president and chief executive of HarperCollins, a unit of the News Corporation. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/04/business/04harper.html?em&ex=1207454400&en=2e85dd23a4442d80&ei=5087%0A

If this new unit accomplishes nothing more than reducing the deplorable waste of resources caused by the pulping of returned books (about 30% – 40% of all titles), it will most likely be more sustainlable than the current antiquated practice. If it lets more authors share in a greater percentage of the profits, as well as giving readers more choice of format (ebooks, audio) even better. I hope the Kindle is part of their distribution strategy.

“At this moment of real volatility in the book business, when we are all recognizing things that are difficult to contend with, like growing advances and returns and that people are reading more online, we want to give them information in any format that they want.”