Format's theorem

We are publishers of stories and ideas. The format that “encases” them is merely the vehicle by which we take these stories and ideas to readers. What matter if it’s digital or physical, royal or B-format? What matters most is that the book is in a format readers want, at a price they are happy to pay, and that they can purchase it easily.

There is much social media chat from readers who want to buy the format of their choice, rather than waiting several months, or even a year, for the paperback; and the ongoing confusion around two-phased pricing of e-books is understandable. If I’m honest, I don’t fully understand why the traditional publishing model of “hardback followed by paperback edition much later” survived as long as it did. Perhaps we should have shaken it up more radically, much sooner? If there is a genuine belief that there are two distinct markets, could they not both be reached simultaneously? Building buzz and momentum behind a book requires time, energy, care and investment. Once the holy grail of “momentum” has been attained, surely we should nurture and grow it, not let it dwindle and then wait six to 12 months to start all over again?

All these questions, and more, mean that experimenting with format and timing is something we have long been in favour of at Canongate. The imminent publication of Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being is our first multi-format, simultaneous publication. Consumers will have the choice of a beautiful hardback, a mass market paperback (featuring the first ever Blippar-animated book jacket), e-book or audio download—or a combinations of formats. The pre-publication reaction from readers has been exciting to watch and rewarding to learn from. Comments include: “Love @canongatebooks’ plans for the new Ozeki. Particularly buy the hardback, get an e-book copy with it. The future’s arrived,” and “Multiformat and interactive book jacket. Loving it. bit.ly/XKOHsL.” You can read more feedback here.

Retail reaction has also been an important learning curve. Our experience, so far at least, has been positive, with most retailers supporting the concept and then promoting a single edition that is most suited to their market. We are pleased to be able to make Ruth’s novel available in this way and are appreciative of the support it has received. However, the consumer choice we are keen to offer is restricted by the limitations of the current merchandising options. The only space in which we have so far been able to merchandise all formats together is on our own website www.canongate.tv.

There are still limitations, even on Canongate TV, as we are currently unable to deliver to Kindle devices as a result of DRM. Of course, some will ask: “Why not go DRM-free?” The answer is that we thought long and hard about removing DRM on this title but with other English-language publishers around the world to consider, the DRM question becomes more complicated; and couldn’t be happily resolved in this instance.

The truth is multi-format publishing can be complex because the infrastructure of our industry—from promotional mechanics, to territorial rights to bestseller lists—is still geared to the traditional model. However, if consumer choice is the future, then in an ideal world we would see all formats being accessible simultaneously through all retailers. As challenging as the practicalities of that may be, publishers and retailers need to work together to resolve them. The engagement and creativity we have experienced from across the trade is a hugely encouraging sign for the future and the goodwill building around Ruth Ozeki’s novel makes me confident this is something we will do again.

Jenny Todd is sales and marketing director at Canongate