– Going Digital with Angela James. Launching a digital imprint from within a traditional publishing company

If: book Australia are leading a lot of conversations about digital in Australia and I really love what they do. They are a think-tank connected to the Qld Writers Centre led by Simon Groth. If you want to stay across digital then I would highly recommend that you check out their site and follow some of their people on Twitter. Notably @kate-eltham, CEO of the Qld Writers Centre and @ifbookAus.

Today’s event was presented by Angela James, Executive Editor of Carina PressHarlequin’s digital-first imprint and she gave us some inside information on what to consider when setting up a digital imprint. Perhaps not too many of us ARE setting up a digital imprint – yet – but her advice is just as relevant when setting up ebook programs as well and is very relevant for where Australian publishing is at right now. I’m going to interpret some of what Angela said with that in mind.

Considerations when setting up a Digital Division

Your team: In their case Carina Press was a whole separate imprint, however a publisher would need to consider who they would involve in a digital program, what services will support them, and if you will give them that digital only, or on top of their existing responsibilities. The feedback from several publishers at the Yale Publishing Course was to ensure that the division reports into top management and that the company is informed, constantly, why you are taking on this new endeavour. If you DO expect people to do this on top of their existing roles be aware you are putting them under additional stress and make sure you are not setting them up for failure.

Budget and Business Plan: Sounds obvious but make sure you are clear on the objectives of a digital division. Be aware that for a period of time this will be a financial drain and ensure you are budgeted until you do return some of the initial investments. Carina Press have a genre that is well documented as being very successful in digital, so consider what will be more successful than taking on some more challenging genres.

Contracts and Royalties: I hope this is a obvious statement, but do ensure you have addressed digital in your contracts. The traditional royalties with authors are being reconsidered by a number of publishers and in this digital age there is no longer one rule, but rather the opportunity to negotiate. No author should be locked into any contract for too long, the whole space is shifting so fast. Carina Press currently pay 30% of title price when sold through their website, or 15% when sold through affiliates. They are about to change this to a blanket 30%Edit 17/07/11: Angela corrected me on this to say they are reviewing their royalties up but have not confirmed exact percentage. Clearly didn’t hear that bit correctly!  Bear in mind though that they don’t pay advances so the author makes all their money on sales.

Internal Systems: Do you need to look at your accounting, scheduling, databases to ensure they can handle different processes and considerations? Whether you do digital-first rather than adding on ebook program, many of these processes and systems need to be rethought and tested to ensure they can manage ‘non-physical’ products and schedules.

What are some of the Challenges in Setting up a Digital Division?

Yes, the list of challenges and roadblocks that Angela talked us through was quite long! But bear in mind that there wasn’t a roadmap to follow! First to do anything has to learn, often the hard way, what works and what doesn’t. Anyone later to market gets the advantage so pay particular attention to this bit!

Getting buy-in from your company: This is a big one as many people in publishing originally just weren’t interested in digital products and wanted to focus on books, you know, those paper products. I would expect that these days we’ve all heard about the conversion to digital sales and the decline in print sales so perhaps it may be understood a little more. However, until you see the MAJORITY of income from digital it will still be challenging at times to get areas of the company to focus on supporting your work. What came through at the Yale Publishing course is that what will really help in this is if management are clearly behind digital and there is a lot of communication about why investing and learning about digital is important. And more communication. And recognising achievements.  And reporting on how you are progressing. And did I mention that the top management MUST be behind and support digital?!

Thinking outside the box: Angela said her role has often to be the voice that says something like “yes, that’s the way you have always done it, but times are different now”. You need someone who reminds the company and the authors that just because it’s the way it’s always been, that it’s not the way it should be going forward. Richard Foster, Senior Faculty Fellows at Yale School of Management and Managing Partner of the Millbrook Management Group also warned participants at the Yale Publishing Course that  you may also come up against ‘Confirmation Bias’ – rejecting information that doesn’t confirm prior or favoured methods of doing things. You need a tough skin at times, but it’s imperative to challenge the status quo if you are going to evolve.

Pricing: Angela James advises her authors not to place value in the format, but in the intellectual property. She strongly feels – and I agree – that if you sell at $0.99 you are devaluing your content. Add to that you’re also helping set a very low expectation amongst consumers about what an ebook is worth. Let’s not even start on the problem that many people  have about how little ebooks should cost to buy since they cost so little to produce. Wrong. There are a lot of costs associated with producing a high quality ebook, many costs that actually can more or less replace the print and warehousing costs!

Formats and Quality:  It should all work smoothly, right? No, checking the quality of each of your formats is important and expect that you are likely to have problems raise their head. How you deal with it once they are ‘out in the world’ is a matter for each publisher to decide. One of the Big Six at the Yale Publishing Course said that although feedback on issues always starts a ‘change request’, they are not actually addressed at this stage. This is challenging as the consumer perception will be that since it is ‘just digital’ it is easier to update files, but it will always be a matter of volume.

Areas of Focus

Marketing: Angela James mentioned how crucial digital marketing is for digital product. Like many US Publishers said at Yale, the might of Amazon has made them realise how important it is to knowing and understanding their own customer and have that relationship.

Metadata: I think everyone in publishing should have a tattoo on their arm ‘metadata is crucial’. Ok, maybe a temporary tattoo, but something that will continue to remind them that what information is entered about a title is how it will be discovered. Of course you need to work with your retailers to make sure they have the same standards.

Supporting the Author

Angela James made the point that it’s pretty natural for an author to expect to get a copy of the ebook. They address this by supplying the author with a PDF that they can send to reviewers. More importantly they also supply the author with other collateral to help sell the book. They receive a file containing the cover, the blurb, metadata andISBN. Since authors are expected to do a lot to market their own titles these days it is ensuring they have the tools to do so.

Angela’s Advise

Here are the words of wisdom from someone who has been down this path!

  • Be in it for the long haul
  • Stay to course
  • Admit if it’s not working
  • Adapt and be agile
  • Never lose sight of the future!

By the way, if you want a tweet-by-tweet version of the event I suggest you check out #goingdigital on Twitter and check out what my digi-pal @ebookish had to say.

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