The Digital Advantages for Small Publishers

Arthur AttwellBy Arthur Attwell, co-founder and CEO of Electric Book Works

If you’re a publisher of any size, you’re thinking, and possibly worrying, about ebooks. There is no doubt that the ever-rising tide of the Internet has turned publishing’s erstwhile paper hillsides into shorelines. Now the question is, what are you doing about it?

Common publisher responses are, first, denial and, second, panic. The denialist lines can be summarised like this: “Paper books are so wonderful, nothing will replace them.” Panic usually looks like this: “Ebook prices are too low, and piracy will kill us all!” Both are statements of opinion formed largely from anecdotal evidence and a human tendency to worry too much. Those of us who spend our lives thinking about ebooks soon move beyond denial and panic.

If you’re running a big company, making and selling ebooks can be really complicated. You have to manage numbers of books, authors, editions, records, contracts and staff so large that every decision about file formats, software, rights and distribution partners becomes something like trying to put a jumper on an elephant.

If you’re a small publisher, you have a massive advantage here, because you can make decisions in a heartbeat and experiment without having to justify your boldness, and generally your authors trust you more because they deal with you as a person, not as a big, faceless company. If you think like a businessperson: you can turn that advantage into market share while the big publishers turn their tankers around. If you think like an artist: you can turn that advantage into beautiful, functional content that will turn your readers into loyal fans of your work in all its forms, whether that’s crafted, niche fiction they can read anywhere or a mobile reference guide to walks in Cape Town.

Most importantly, you can free a small part of your business from the clunky paraphernalia of physical book distribution and retail.

I always like to stress the following rather obvious point. The paper book is a marvelous combination of two quite distinct products: a story (or body of information), and a crafted, physical object. Once you can separate these two things in your mind, it becomes much easier to see how stories can be shared and sold distinct from their traditional, physical bodies. And, comfortingly, it’s easier to see how printed books will always be highly valued for their physical beauty. In consequence, the digital world both enables a rapid increase in story-telling, free from the costs of physical production, and increases the value of well-crafted physical books. Any successful publisher will find a way to make the most of this.

So, here are seven tips for small publishers adding something digital to their list.

1. Don’t think ebooks are only for technical folk: An ebook is nothing special, it’s just a document shared digitally. So, in that sense, anyone who’s ever created a Word document has created an ebook. Developing and designing a simple ebook is just the same as developing and designing a print book: write, edit, design, distribute, promote. The tools you use to create an ebook depend on the file format you’re going to distribute in, but you can mostly use the same tools for ebook and for print (Word, InDesign, Acrobat, etc.).

2. Don’t worry about security on your files. This is usually called digital rights management (DRM). One way or another, DRM costs more than you will lose to people sharing your books. (Not to mention the fact that, in the long run, word of mouth is your best friend: you want some copying, just like you want book clubs to buy and share your printed books.) You will usually pay for DRM by giving up a cut of your sales revenue, often as much as 30% of the retail price. So, only use DRM if (a) you honestly believe that 30% of your earnings is less than you’d lose to copying, and (b) you can live with the frustration DRM causes your readers when they can’t move books among their devices and computers, and you don’t think sharing books grows an author’s popularity enough to be worth allowing.

3. Find free online services for converting your books to good ebook formats. The best ebook formats are PDF and, even better for immersive reading, epub. Services like Scribd, Issuu and Exact Editions are great for sharing or selling PDF. Services like Smashwords or free software like Calibre are great for turning Word documents into the epub format. If free services don’t work, try outsourcing conversion to a conversion company, most of which are in India. You’ll pay about R500 ($68 USD; $45 GBP) for an average novel, and could save yourself hours of fiddling with unfamiliar software.

4. Find free services online for distributing and selling your ebooks. These services are all non-exclusive, so you can use them all at the same time, making it easier for a customer to find and buy your books. (Most people looking for your book will start with a major retailer, or search for the title or author on Google. You must be in one of those two places.) Often, each of these services will have different strengths and weaknesses, and this is where your ability as a small publisher to experiment is especially valuable. Scribd, Exact Editions, Smashwords and Bookglutton are good options, and will give you most of the retail price as earnings. (To sell on Scribd from South Africa, you can work through Little White Bakkie.) You’ll reach many more retailers if you open a free account with a distributor like Lightning Source (usually known for print-on-demand, but they do ebooks through their sister company Ingram Digital), though you’ll give up more of your earnings to pay for their mandatory DRM. During 2010, Google Editions may become available, turning the Google Books service into an ebook store you can sell from.

5. It’s not all about ebooks. Once you’ve gone to the effort of creating a stable process for creating and storing your books digitally, be on the lookout for ways to reuse those digital files creatively. Ebooks are only one, small example of how publishers can get more from their content. Many other opportunities arise when you start working with digital files rather than print books only. For example, in the education sector we should see publishers experimenting with textbooks being remixed by teachers (e.g see Symtext or Bookriff); schoolchildren getting homework help by SMS; libraries previewing books before purchasing them; books reaching schools more quickly digitally (e.g. see Paperight, which my company is developing); authors working collaboratively with editors and each other; or even with the public (e.g. forward-thinking media company O’Reilly uses collaborative writing tools). There’s a lot of experimentation happening with mobile phones (e.g. Random House Struik’s new K53 pass-your-learners cellphone application, an interactive version of their well-known print book; or see Cellbook); and universities are way ahead of publishers in providing digital systems for sharing content within and among their staff and students, who often use shared computer labs and internet cafes.

6. Think of your print books as a value-added version of your ebooks. There are any number of reasons a person might want a print version of a book they have or could get as an ebook, and often you can charge a premium for a printed book. Make sure it’s easy to find and buy your print books online immediately: link to a page for ordering your print books wherever you can, especially where you’re selling the ebook. And all of that vice versa. The more options you give a potential customer, the more likely it is you’ll offer one that suits their needs at the very moment they’re interested in your content. Amazon says that people who own Kindle ereaders buy more ebooks and print books than before they had a Kindle. In the latest figures (quoted in the NY Times) they say 3.1 times as many books. This happens because Amazon makes it very, very easy to buy, and often promotes print and Kindle editions side by side.

7. Read about digital publishing. Just like good typography or editorial best-practice, digital-publishing knowledge is a tool that you need in order to do your job properly. You have to buy it with a little of your time. The easiest way to do this is to find three or four experts who blog about digital publishing, and spend an hour over each week reading them. If you want a ready-made list of recommended reading, go to @electricbook and see who I follow there. Take ten minutes right now to click on a few people, and see if what they’re saying looks interesting. If it is, you’re on your way.

This article was originally published at and has been reprinted with Mr. Attwell’s permission.

Arthur Attwell is the co-founder and CEO of Electric Book Works, a digital publishing and R&D company. Based in Cape Town, South Africa, EBW finds and tests ways to apply digital-publishing best practice in developing countries. He is also a consultant for the Digital Minds Network.

7 thoughts on “The Digital Advantages for Small Publishers

  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » links for 2010-04-05

  2. Ishani Appaya

    Enjoyed reading your post. Thought I’d add my two bits 🙂 Maybe a bit off base, but any hoo..

    Point 4: Find free services online for distributing and selling your ebooks:
    Using widgets, and social networking tools is also a great way to market/sell/distribute your books – be it e or otherwise. It wont just be you selling, but your customers selling for you as well.

    Point 6: Think of your print books as a value-added version of your ebooks.
    I would prefer to think of it the other way around? Tell me what you think?
    Think of a text book, or for that instance even fiction/ thriller – your ebook enables you to add tests, look at 3D images, search within the book as well as play games.

    Another important thing about ebooks is that it has the power to turn publishers from a B2B company to a B2C one.
    Now publishers share a more direct relationship with readers and through reporting tools can actually gauge what it is that readers want. This helps then create even better content.

    ebooks also allow you to give your readers pricing options – buy just what you need sort of a thing.

    Small or big — publishers have so much to gain through this digital (alternative/option?)

  3. Charles Bohannan

    Ishani has an excellent point: new publishing models give more social latitude with customers. This is huge, and not much is going to change in the industry until some companies (big or small) starting running with it.

    In reference to the beauty of physical books over ebooks: I have to somewhat disagree. Ebooks can be made beautiful, if not even more enhanced, then their paper counterparts. They should be. Otherwise they’re not going to attract mass market readers.

    Thanks for an insightful article, Arthur.

  4. Leonard Fernandes

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. It put a lot of perspective to the e-book debate, especially the fact that this is not a zero-sum game and that both e-books and printed books can co-exist.

    We are a print-on-demand publisher based in India and being in India allows us the best of both worlds. There are readers who will invest in the Kindle and the iphone, and are therefore ready to experiment with e-books. For many more, especially those that cannot afford such gadgets, printed books are still the way to go, But given last mile delivery issues, delivering books digitally might actually help making good books accessible to hungry readers and one hopes the cost of this delivery mechanism actually decreases.


    Leonard Fernandes

    CinnamonTeal Print and Publishing

  5. Pingback: Digital Publishing | Hakiki Publishing Blog

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