2014 – a good year for illustrated ebooks

After Frankfurt 2013 I boldly made the prediction that 2014 would be a year of opportunity for illustrated books, like never before.  This year, they will finally get their chance to shine, and find a way to market.

EPub 3 can make a lovely illustrated book with multi-media, interactivity etc etc, but finding a place to sell the resulting glossy beautiful ebook is much harder.  Apple iBookstore can sell them, and people can get the full experience on their iPads, but beyond that, the market is sketchy, and the formats are incompatible.  

That means that to sell the same book on say, a Kindle Fire, you have to re-do the whole thing, because the format that works for Apple doesn’t work for Kindle, and neither of them work for other kinds of tablet.  There is one standard in theory, but it’s customised by each retailer for their own device.  To sell the book for many devices means producing the ebook in many formats.  The problem is, that’s too expensive and complicated to produce – and for most books, the sales don’t justify that level of investment.  

Currently, publishers of illustrated books are left with two choices – steer clear, or dumb down to the lowest common denominator – an uninspiring flat, fixed format that may or may not fit on the reader’s screen – Not Good.

The Association of American Publishers decided to do something about this.  They spent 2013 getting device manufacturers, retailers and publishers to talk to each other, and agree on a set of features from ePub3 that they could commit to support.

The promise is that new devices and software coming out will all display the same set of features.  This means that if a publisher produces a book which makes use of those features, they can be sure that the same ePub3 ebook file will work on all the tablets from all the retailers.  They only need to do one file, and it will be suitable for many markets.  This is revolutionary!  Thank you AAP for getting it together.

You can see the ePub3 standards in the Implementation Paper published by the AAP just after Frankfurt: http://publishers.org/press/117/

 

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Which is the Best Publisher for my Ebook?

How can an author evaluate a publisher’s offer for ebook rights? Sometimes an author finds themselves in the lucky position of having three choices.

1 a mainstream publisher makes an offer to put on of their backlist titles into ebook. They offer a standard royalty, but no advance.

2 an ebook-only publisher, perhaps in America, offers a higher royalty, which is nice, but it only kicks in after a certain amount of money has been earned back, to cover their costs.

3 if the author is being asked to subsidise the cost of production themselves, perhaps they should go the whole hog and publish the ebook themselves too? Then they would get to keep all the money received from sales.

How should the author or her agent resolve this dilemma?

This is a question which takes us back to the fundamentals of what we can expect from a publisher, and which one will do the best job. My answer to this question is that the author should choose the route that will give the book the most publicity, because that is what will ultimately lead to the most sales in the long term.

Option number 1 – the mainstream publisher – will start making the author money straight away, in the next royalty statement, with no deductions. The book will be published alongside several others, which will hopefully give it enough ‘critical mass’ to be noticed.

Option number 2 will make more money in the long run, but only after the contribution has earned out – and how many sales will it take to cover that?? Is the level of contribution the author is expected to make realistic for the stature of the book? The ebook-only publisher is likely to have fewer titles, so this one might get more personal attention, but are they big enough to make a splash with it?

Option number 3 is a risky business – after all, publishing is all about risk. Obviously there are the upfront costs of production, which includes proofreading the conversion, a new cover design, and then there is the whole business of selling the ebook around the world. But if the author already has a ‘platform’ with a large number of followers or fans, it could be the best option.

Publishing is all about publicising the authors work and making it available so the best choice of publisher will be the one who can do that most effectively. That may be the mainstream publisher who has well-oiled channels to the market; it may be the ebook-only publisher who understands their niche and has the energy and focus to drive each book to success; or it may be the author herself who is in touch with enough readers to persuade them to part with their hard earned cash in return for a good read.

Publishing is not about producing an ebook, putting it on sale in a couple of places and forgetting about it. That is almost as bad as printing a load of paperbacks and leaving them all in the warehouse. The real work of publishing is telling people about it and enthusing them, and the publisher who will do that is the best one for an author’s book.

Evolving Ebook Clauses

Ebooks have always been difficult to define.

Publishers used to claim that the ebook was just another delivery method for the author’s work, so naturally belonged implicitly under volume rights.  That didn’t last.  In 2001 Random House Inc lost a court case against Rosetta Books for trying to define them as part of volume rights.

Once it was established that ebook rights needed to be explicitly defined in the contract, definitions emerged which confined the ebook to being an electronic replica of a printed book.  They used words like ‘verbatim’, ‘in whole’, ‘unaltered’ etc in a form ‘primarily designed for reading’.

But it is very difficult to make a water-tight definition that can’t be mistaken for anything else.  On the Ebook Strategy course I teach at Book House, we always try, but ebooks are very difficult to pin down.  But although we can’t define it, we feel we instinctively know what an ebook is when we see one.

Now it looks as if ebooks are becoming even harder to pin down.  The ebook clause is evolving again.  This time the definitions aim to allow for enhanced editions, giving the publisher scope to make full use of the the features of ePub3 described in my last post.   Recent examples include the use of words such as ‘additional materials’ of various kinds to ‘enrich’ and enhance’ the reading experience.  Does the intuitive “knowing it when we see it” still apply?  If it has the full text of the book at its heart, with extra material added at the beginning or end, yes, we are happy to say it’s still basically an ebook.  But if the text itself is broken up, re-interpreted with images and audio, and perhaps even accessed non-sequentially, is it still an ebook?  Or has it become something else?  If so, what?

This is very exciting for readers, but the worry is that if the ebook is defined too broadly, it will encroach onto other rights, such as film, or app rights.   The challenge now is to hammer out new definitions that accurately describe the ebook in all its glory, without being so loose that anything goes.

Or will the divide disappear altogether, and this become another front line of convergence of media.

Ebooks have been around for just over 10 years, and in the mass market only for about 3 years.  It’s very early days for this new technology.  We are still making ebooks that look like books.  The first cars looked just like carriages.  Just as the very first car manufacturers could not imagine our sleek, fast cars of today, so we cannot imagine the ebooks of 2111.  I wish we could fast-forward, and take a look.

 

Sherlock Holmes with sound effects

I’ve just started reading Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Speckled Band which is the UK’s first  ebook with its own sound track, published by Booktrack a couple of weeks ago.  This Telegraph article promises driving rain, thunderclaps and blood-curdling screams, so I’m not sure how I’m going to read it on the train, or in bed, which is where I do most of my reading!  Better get my head phones out.

Here’s a little clip of the ebook in action: