E-book revolution favors the agile

As conventional book sales sink, small presses lead the way in mass digitization.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Ugly duckling presse: Founder Matvei Yankelevich (r.) acknowledges that many readers still have an emotional attachment to the printed word.
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    Small and agile: Brooklyn’s Akashic Books sees digitization as inevitable.
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The mood is one of gloom and not a little confusion. For months, the publishing industry has been rocked by successive setbacks – shrinking sales, widespread layoffs, and a grim fiscal forecast for the new year.

Still, as the critic Lev Grossman wrote this month in Time magazine, publishing isn't dead yet. It is "evolving," he argued, "and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it's done." According to a recent study published by the National Endowment for the Arts, "literary reading" has risen 3.5 percent since 2002 – the first spike in decades. And an increasing number of readers are consuming content on their computers or on digital readers such as Amazon's Kindle.

In an otherwise bleak Jan. 23 report on November sales – a 14.4 percent decline over the same period in 2007 – the Association of American Publishers noted that e-book business had more than doubled for the month, to $5.1 million. Over the course of the year, e-book sales were up 63.8 percent. It is in these figures that many industry analysts see hope for the publishing industry at large, which is turning slowly – and not without some grumbling – toward mass digitization.

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But it's not the bigger houses, such as Macmillan or HarperCollins, that are moving the fastest. Instead, some of the most extensive restructuring efforts are being undertaken in the independent publishing world, traditionally a hotbed for innovation and experimentation.

Last month, in a much-trumpeted example, New York's Soft Skull Press announced it would begin to move its entire catalog online. Richard Nash, Soft Skull's publisher, tells the Monitor, "The aim is to have every one of our front- and back-list books available [digitally] by the end of the year." (Heavily illustrated books, which are very expensive and unwieldy to convert, will likely be the exception.) If successful, it would be a feat unmatched by any corporate publisher.

Meanwhile, Johnny Temple, the publisher of Akashic Books in Brooklyn, says he is in talks with Amazon and Sony, which produces its own digital reader, and hopes to begin making a swath of e-book content available as early as February.

"Right now, we're at the turning point," Mr. Temple says. "There are lots of reasons to get excited: economic reasons and environmental reasons. People are realizing digitization is inevitable."

Temple, a longtime bass player in the indie rock band Girls Against Boys, notes that the music industry has weathered a similar transformation. For years, the major labels balked at Web dissemination, while futilely attempting to crack down on pirating. It was the indie labels that moved the fastest to push their catalogs online, effectively setting the pace for the industry at large.

"In general, I'd say the big publishers tend to be really dinosaurs, intrigued by e-books but afraid of them," says Paul Biba, the coeditor of Teleread, a leading e-book blog. "[Younger readers] have grown up with a whole different way of looking at the world, and I don't think many publishers understand this. They think people are just sitting down in leather chairs and reading hardcopy books."

In some important ways, the infrastructure of a typical independent press is better suited to a digital transition than its corporate counterparts. Smaller staffs mean decisions can be made quickly, without much internal friction. And editors and writers are often more open-minded when it comes to distribution and marketing. As the publishing world undergoes its most radical changes in centuries, the fast and light ethos could be an asset.

Furthermore, says Mr. Nash, of Soft Skull, "Independent publishers have the most to gain from electronic publishing. Every tech innovation has in theory benefited us, by lowering the barriers of entry and making it easier to achieve economies of scale, or by making economies of scale less important. The critical thing right now," he continues, "is that the reproduction costs for digital books is zero. The major advantage of corporate publishers is that they have the capital to print large runs of books. One doesn't need capital to generate large quantities of digital downloads."

And yet an array of obstacles remain. As Mr. Biba points out, small presses lack the funding clout of major publishers, which directly affects distribution. "Just putting an e-book up on the Web isn't enough," he says, "because nobody knows it's up on the Web."

Nash says it's a question of resources. "We fight for time," he says. "Every day is another crisis to manage, and figuring out how to send out books [electronically] is always 13 on our [Top 10] list. We're overwhelmed."

Matvei Yankelevich, a founding editor of the nonprofit Ugly Duckling Presse, says, additionally, that many followers of independent publishers have an emotional attachment to the printed word. "I don't think," Mr. Yankelevich says, "that people who are reading poetry, for example, would buy that poetry in e-book form. They might read a sample of the poem online, though, and that might put books in the hands of the audiences. It's more a question of opportunity."

Still, Ugly Duckling has issued a handful of online projects, including "Fleeting Memories," a multimedia slide show-cum-memoir by Michael Ruby. "Fleeting Memories," Yankelvich says, was a popular addition to the press's roster.

"It's critical these days to give the consumer choices," Nash says. "That's where we're all going to have to go."

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