Thursday, May 5, 2011

etipping point: the secret story of how the sentimentalists became an ebook best seller

maritime noon is discussing ereaders in atlantic canada on cbc radio today - check out my article on the same topic in the latest edition of atlantic books today.

By Jon Tattrie

When Johanna Skibsrud shocked Canada by winning the Giller Prize for The Sentimentalists last fall, the story quickly soured as it turned to her Nova Scotia publisher’s frantic efforts to keep up with demand. As Gaspeareau Press cranked out copies, countless readers simply downloaded it onto their ereader.

Fittingly for a book called The Sentimentalists, it balanced between the old world of print books and the new world of ebooks. Michael Tamblyn, vice-president of sales and marketing for the ereader Kobo, thinks it was part of a tipping point for the entire industry. The Sentimentalists was available as an ebook because as soon as Kobo saw it was shortlisted for the Giller, it reached out to Gaspeareau and helped them convert it.

“We have been more aggressive than any other ebook retailer in reaching out to publishers in the Canadian market and in some cases helping them to get digital versions made of important books,” Tamblyn says. “We treat this much more as a challenge of book selling than as a technology challenge.”

Kobo is largely staffed by people who previously worked in the print world and they were delighted to help Skibsrud reach as wide an audience as possible. For the record, Skibsrud herself doesn’t have an ereader, but she tells ABT she’s got her eye on the Kindle for portability and environmental reasons.

“I think what we saw this Christmas was ereading and ereaders reaching the mass market and the general consumer for the first time. Ereading transitioned from that early adopter phase to the beginning of mass adoption,” Tamblyn says.

Most of the new ereaders are not young techies playing with gadgets, but the same people who buy print books: 40-plus, largely Baby Boomers. They buy the same books, too, with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy topping the charts along with Skibsrud.

“These are not technology-focused people who are being drawn to books; these are book readers who are finding technology to enable their reading,” Tamblyn says.

Atlantic Canadian content is scarce. Publishers such as Newfoundland’s Breakwater Books and Flanker Press, New Brunswick’s Goose Lane Editions and Nova Scotia’s Formac Publishing are leading the move into ebooks, selling the titles either on their own websites or via ereaders such as Kobo.

Tamblyn admits the numbers can be tougher for publishers. Consumers expect digital books to be cheaper than print books, but removing the paper cuts only about 15 per cent of the cost of producing a book and converting adds to the expense.  According to the Association of Canadian Publishers, if a publisher has a digital version of the book (e.g. a pdf) and converts through a retailer with a large conversion house, it can cost $50. If the publisher only has a hard copy of the book, scanning and converting it can cost $550 or more. 

Tamblyn says economics may force regional publishers to look at expanding into the global market to stay competitive.

“That really is the challenge that publishers have: can they price the book at a level that’s attractive while at the same time continuing to make enough money to grow their businesses?” he asks.

Anna Kate Newman, publishing operations manager at Newfoundland’s Breakwater Books, is hoping the answer is yes. Breakwater recently tweeted that two of its bestsellers, Chad Pelley’s Away From Everywhere and Trudy Morgan-Cole’s By the Rivers of Brooklyn, have been converted into ebooks.

Newman says Breakwater now has about 60 of its 250 titles available as ebooks. It is focusing on books it believes have a national and international appeal. Regional books are at the back of the queue for now, as it has yet to see a big market for them.

“It’s really about pleasing the authors and making sure they know we’re up to date and doing all we can to represent their work in all markets,” she says.

Marketing ebooks specifically is tricky, as ereading people still tend to learn about print books the old-fashioned way – advertising, reviews, awards – and then seek an ebook version. For now, Breakwater has solved the financial problem by charging the same for print books and ebooks. Kobo, Sony and Barnes and Noble have discounted the ebooks, but Breakwater still gets the full price. Sales have been slow, but are picking up. Authors get a “healthier” return on ebooks, Newman says, and never have to face the horror of remainders or books going out of print.  

The hope is that in the near future, Breakwater will release ebooks and print books simultaneously and sell both on its website. “Then you have a larger piece of the pie to share with your authors,” Newman explains.  

Ebooks have become an increasingly important part of libraries, too. Debbie LeBel, collection development manager at the Halifax Public Libraries, says they saw the Christmas boom in the form of 
borrowers arriving in January with new ereaders and lots of questions.

LeBel says the most popular ebooks mirror print books, dominated again by Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Sentimentalists and the Twilight series.

“There are a lot of seniors using them, people who have difficulty with regular printed works,” she says, as well as teenagers. Seniors and boomers are especially enthusiastic because they can increase the font size to a comfortable reading level without requiring a thick, large-print book and snow birds can download new titles from the comfort of their Florida apartment.

The library has 5,268 etitles so far, which sounds like a lot, but pales next to its total print book collection of approximately 849,000. For the library to lend copies, publishers must first convert them and then make them available via Overdrive, the ebook provider the library uses. That means there is a shortage of Atlantic Canadian titles, LeBel says. Many Atlantic Canadian publishers are making forays into the field, but it’s still pre-tipping point.

“We were able to purchase The Sentimentalists, but typically we can’t get a lot of what we would call local content,” she says. “We would love to buy more.”

“Because we’ve had so much demand for it, we’re starting some introductory classes about using ebooks,” 
she adds. “It’s focused on our own collection, but also lets folks know about other sources they can get ebooks from.”

Help is available for publishers who want to enter the brave new world of epublishing via the Association of Canadian Publishers. It launched Canadian Publishers Digital Services in 2009 to assist publishers in converting books. Carolyn McNeillie, digital services coordinator for CPDS, says curious publishers can start by contacting them to learn how it’s done. CPDS also liaises deals between publishers and ebook companies.

“We help smooth the process for publishers getting their epubs into the world,” McNeillie says. The small margins most publishers operate on make adding the new costs of epublishing daunting, but readers are increasingly moving to a mix of print and ebooks, she says.

“Things are changing. There are a lot of romantic feelings about print books and there are a lot of reasons why print books work really well,” she concludes. “But at the same time there is a demand for digital books and at the end of the day, the best part of a book, no matter how beautifully it is designed, is the content. Digital books are just another way of getting that into the reader’s hands.”


Ereaders range from light standalone devices such as the Kobo, Kindle and Sony Reader Pocket Edition (all under $180) to heavier multi-media tablets such as the IPad and Samsung’s Galaxy (both starting around $600). Some people prefer standalones because of price and because they are specifically designed as an ereader, while others go for tablets as they can also surf the internet and play games. Standalones read like a book while tablets read like a computer screen. The battery life of standalones is weeks, whereas tablets last for less than a day.

Gerry Fostaty, author of Goose Lane’s nonfiction title As You Were, tried ereading on his IPod Touch before buying a Kindle. “At first I was skeptical. I thought, ‘Nah, you like to hold a book in your hand,’” he says. “But the Kindle … really is marvelous.”

The reading experience is great, the device is light and it is easy to bring with him on his frequent travels. As a writer, he loves that people can buy his books as soon as the impulse strikes. He can also read his manuscripts on his ereader to help editing in the early stages.

Fostaty says it isn’t the end of print books, though – if he loves an ebook, he buys a hard copy for subsequent re-readings.
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