E-book revolution favors the agile
As conventional book sales sink, small presses lead the way in mass digitization.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."